In the Context of George Trow

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This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore watching television for KCRW and remembering George W. S. Trow, the media critic and essayist, who died recently at 63.

Best known for his book-length essay "Within the Context of No Context," Trow changed me with his insights about modern culture -- and his dismay at its steady decline, for which he blamed TV as a blinding equalizer.

"Television," he wrote, "does not vary. The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is lowered toward the trivial. No good has come of it."

Trow, described by The New York Times as "not so much a conservative as a wistful curmudgeon," was editor of the Harvard Lampoon and an early contributor to its offshoot, the National Lampoon. Then after graduation in 1966 he joined the New Yorker, where "Within the Context of No Context" appeared in 1980.

A year later, I discovered it published in book form -- a slender volume I return to every so often and, each time, find newly rewarding.

By now, my original yellow-marker highlighting has receded into the yellowing pages, but passages I flagged a quarter-century ago can still get me going.

For example: "The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts. To establish the context of no-context, and to chronicle it."

Further on, he identifies the important moment in TV history, "when a man named Richard Dawson, the host of a program called Family Feud, asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. To guess what they would've guessed."

With this silly game show, Trow exposed a raging epidemic of the TV age: society lodged within the context of no context.

Now I wish I could tell you that everything Trow wrote rings with similar pithiness. But even after all this time, he remains occasionally murky -- at least, to me.

Same when I interviewed him a few years ago. By then, he had quit the New Yorker in disgust during the reign of celebrity maven Tina Brown and, when I reached him, had retreated to Alaska. There, he was hatching new ideas, some of which he previewed for me. But to be honest, I couldn't always follow what he said. And maybe no surprise: I am, God help me, a child of television.

More recently, Trow, still in self-imposed exile, had been living in Italy, and that was where he died.

Last week, an admirer on the Gawker Web site called him "a brave, perceptive and honest man, who carried through life a playful but heavy heart, until it simply broke."

Obviously, I don't share Trow's contempt for television. But I can tell you that his observations have long nourished the perspective I bring to it. Particularly his notion of a cultural shift thanks to TV in the role of adults: Nowadays, he wrote, adulthood exists "as a position of control in the world of childhood. Ambitious Americans, sensing this, have preferred to remain adolescents, year after year."

I'm not sure I would blame TV alone for this sorry state, Trow accounts for what we experience on television, and elsewhere in our world today, with pointed brilliance. If it were only for that ray of light, I'm forever in his debt.

Watching television for KCRW, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.