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Harlan Ellison was TV’s rejected son—and its harshest, most hopeful critic

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Spend a few minutes looking through the IMDB credits for Harlan Ellison—the legendary science fiction writer and master of the cranky poisoned pen who died last week—and it doesn’t take long for hints of his frequently fractious relationship with film and television to leak through. Outside of his long and fruitful work as a consultant on the cult sci-fi series Babylon 5, the list of Ellison’s credits are full of single-episode stints, spiteful pseudonyms, and series that have rapidly faded from the general memory. (It’s not for nothing that, of his 30 credited writing gigs, six are in the name of his personal nom de “fuck you,” Cordwainer Bird.) Even Ellison’s most respected media achievements, including the award-winning Star Trek episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever and his story acknowledgment on The Terminator, always carry a hint of extra nasty baggage; he had to sue James Cameron for the latter, claiming he’d ripped off one of his Outer Limits episodes for the idea, and never forgave Gene Roddenberry for commissioning re-writes on the former before it went to air.

And yet, for all of the kicks in the shin that TV (or “tv,” as he would have dismissively styled it) repeatedly dealt him over the years, Ellison’s most frequent posture toward the tube wasn’t rage, but that old parental standby: “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” (Although it’s pretty clear that yes, also, he was often very mad.) Ellison expressed that wistfully pissed-off ethos most notably in his three-year stint as a TV columnist for The Los Angeles Free Press, a collection of essays that ultimately saw publication as The Glass Teat (1973) and The Other Glass Teat (1975). As conceived by Ellison, The Glass Teat was a way to comment on every aspect of American culture—especially those that annoyed him, which was most of them—courtesy of our most common shared addiction: TV.


As such a wide remit might suggest, Ellison’s approach to his critiques was frequently scattershot: One week, he might devote an entire column to freaking out about a news magazine show’s story on the topic of biological weapons; the next, he’d be ripping apart Hollywood’s spate of lackluster supporting men (“Like a second nose. They can sniff, but they don’t really blow”), or holding up an innocuous teeny-bopper music host as “the deification of banality.” Overwhelmingly, the tone was a not-inexplicable plea: “Jesus Christ people, can’t we be doing better with one of the most powerful communication technologies ever conceived?” And with it, always, the undercurrent: “We could, if you’d only just listen to me.”


Ellison’s own woes with TV production were a frequent subject of his writing, an invitation into the world of a highly paid, if rarely successful, television writer. That “hey, here’s the real scoop” intimacy was one of the key appeals of the column, as Ellison gave readers the inside track, laying out processes like treatment writing and the bitter work of pitching story ideas to far more conservative minds. At one point, ever the counter-culturalist, he talks through his attempts to get a script about ethical porn production past the nose of right-wing TV star Robert Stack. Calling it “SMUT” probably didn’t help. Reading through the books in quick succession, the effect is like having your smartest, meanest friend standing a bit too close to you at a crowded party, yelling every TV-adjacent thought that crosses his mind directly into your ear. Which is to say, it’s overwhelming, and not always fun—especially since Ellison’s deeply opinionated nature applied just as strongly to telling black creators and women what they should be doing to further “the cause” as it did to the white male execs he frequently ripped apart. But it is still undeniably compelling stuff.


That same occasionally blinding intimacy marks, and sometimes mars, The Glass Teat’s strengths as a historical document, painting a history of the era as filtered entirely through the eyes of a militant, leftist, science-loving weirdo living firmly ensconced in the warm embrace of the West Coast. Thus, things like the moon landing are eyed with half-cynical distrust, while multiple columns are devoted to the trials and travails of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. And while it would be an understatement to call Ellison “unafraid” to get political in his writing—there’s at least one column devoted almost entirely to his anger at the Nixon tax code, with just a few small notes about TV shoved in at the end—the issues he tackled are frequently presented in such a personal manner that it can be hard to extrapolate their wider impact from outside his overpowering lens. The effect is a bit like reading through Hunter S. Thompson’s political columns from the same era, when he was wandering the country, dropping stream-of-consciousness diatribes about his heartbreak over George McGovern and starting rumors that major Democratic candidates were addicted to mysterious South American tranquilizers. But, like Thompson, Ellison communicated his anger (and occasional delights) with such zeal that it’s hard not to be swept along, nevertheless.

Much of the column’s critical appeal lay in that unflinching, if occasionally histrionic, honesty, and in Ellison’s palpable glee in the crackling of a burning bridge. The man never met a feeding hand that he wouldn’t happily turn around and bite if it would make for an interesting paragraph. But it’s impossible to deny that The Glass Teat was also just another way for him to have a public, lurid love affair with the English language, right there in the pages of the Free Press. At 35, when he started writing The Glass Teat, most of Ellison’s most famous literary work—landmark sci-fi stories like “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin,’ Said The Ticktockman”—were already a few years behind him. With the column, though, he could exercise his verbal id weekly, and in a public forum, waxing eloquent, sarcastic, and catty as hell about whichever topic wandered into his crosshairs on any given week. To wit: “It has been said, with kindness, of Blondie, that rather than put it on CBS, we should have dropped it on Haiphong.” Of the aforementioned teeny-bopper music host, Kam Nelson: “Describing her is like cataloging mist.” Or shaming a pair of ABC executives, after they passed on the first draft of All In The Family: “Come with me now as I hew out a mountain of Jell-O, a structure of cowardice.”


Ellison’s TV and film criticism—itself collected in a separate volume, Harlan Ellison’s Watching, which contains, among many other things, his vitriolic takedown of Star Wars, the escapist “don’t think” sensation of its day—was never necessarily trenchant or on-point. (His columns are full of digressions dictated almost solely by his own amusement, and his political rants occasionally read as the most deluded brand of “Why can’t we all just think, people?” idealism.) But it was never anything less than undeniably his, shot through with a warmth and welcoming nature that few but the best writers can manage without it coming off as cloying. Most importantly, he grasped early on that television was one of the most marvelously powerful tools of his generation, and one whose rampant misuse earned nothing but his most devastating invective.

Harlan Ellison was a complicated asshole, the kind whose wit and memetic qualities make him easy to lionize, often without properly taking stock of the human hurts he regularly, gleefully dished out. His treatment of people was often bad, bordering on criminal; even ignoring all of the lawsuits and verbal attacks, there’s the infamous incident from a few years back in which he publicly groped science fiction legend Connie Willis during the presentation of a lifetime achievement award, responding to criticism of his actions with depressingly familiar cries of “political correctness gone mad.”


His relationship with film and TV was far clearer, if no less fraught. An insider with an outsider’s soul, Ellison looked at the mass media and saw the most powerful informational weapon in the world being used primarily for the dissemination of mediocrity and meanness, and he pushed back against it with all his considerable talent, wit, and ire. He was pretty on-point about the Smothers Brothers, too.