In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote an essay entitled “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that in order to solve the famine in Ireland, poor families should sell their children to rich families to be eaten. The “proposal” is meant to be seen as insane, but the tone throughout is serious and definitive. The irony Swift employs is sustained and biting. And the result is the ultimate goal of all good satire: it exposes and criticizes the foolishness and corruption of a society by ridiculing an institutionalized way of thinking. Swift considered the societal treatment of the poor in Ireland to be a threat to civilization, and so he used irony to point out the vice of society for the betterment of humanity. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky saw a similar threat in television, and forty years later, his criticisms seem more valid and vital than ever.

When Network was released in 1976, it was seen as an outrageous and unbelievable satire of modern American television. Anchorman Howard Beale, on the edge of being fired due to lousy ratings and fed up with “the bullshit” of everyday life, calmly announces that he will blow his brains out on the news the following Tuesday. The network is panicked, but all young programming director Diana Christensen [Faye Dunaway] sees is a ratings bonanza. Beale is given his own “news” show that has him “articulating the rage” of America in dramatic monologues that end with him fainting in religious ecstasy, while the other features of his show include a psychic and an anonymous polling machine for audience opinion. It’s all filmed in front of a live studio audience, more like a game show or televangelist special than a news program, and when the ratings go down once again for Beale after he starts preaching the new gospel of his network’s billionaire executive, the network is left with no choice but to have him assassinated live, on air, to get a good ratings boost.

Ridiculous, right? After all, that’s what makes the film such great satire.  

Cut to today and we have a reality television star running for president while major news networks feature twenty-four hours of angry rants by “anchormen” who shill out the political stances of its stockholders and affiliates. The nightly news features the latest ghastly footage of car crashes and violent shootings, and 57% of all Americans get their news primarily from advertising-funded television that features more replays and ten-second sound bites than detailed investigative journalism. Re-watching Network today, the satire isn’t so funny; as a matter of fact, re-watching it made me mad as hell.  

When the film premiered in 1976, many television networks were outraged at the ridiculous falsehoods that writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet proposed in the film. You can see these very networks, including CBS and NBC, in the very beginning of the film when Lumet cuts footage of the outside of their network headquarters, shot upward from a low perspective to give the same sense of power Orson Welles had used in filming himself in Citizen Kane, with a similar shot of the “network” of the film, UBS; this is done to show the audience that this fictional network is to be directly compared to real-life networks. NBC would go on to ban Sidney Lumet from a screening of one of their films in anger over Network; but why should they get so bent out of shape over a comedic satire?

Chayefsky researched television meticulously for his screenplay and claimed that “every bit of it is true.” It is the truth at the heart of good satire that bites hardest. In reality, there is a truth here far more disturbing than what even Howard Beale can stomach. Beale wants people to get “mad as hell” so that they can understand their own value as a human being, a value that television demeans and dissolves through desensitization to broadcast violence. In today’s golden age of media, television seems designed to sell anger through emotive talking heads and insult-driven political campaigns in order to make getting “mad as hell” a profit-driven market. Anger and fear gets ratings, after all. Looking at television now, it’s almost as though networks watched Network and saw not a satire, but a new business model.  

While Beale is seen as a “mad prophet” that articulates the rage of the modern American consumer of television, it’s Diana, the young programming director,  that is the real prophet: her idea for the network to feature more “angry shows,” including an idea for a reality show that features real acts of political terrorism, is now a radical extension of the mind-numbing norm of what today’s television has become. It’s Diana’s disconnection with reality that allows her to provide this new business model for UBS; as news executive Max Schumacher explains, Diana’s real feelings have been replaced by the false reality of television: “She’s television generation. She’s learned life from Bugs Bunny.”

True satire is built to last, and the satire of Network not only seems timeless, but is required viewing today more than ever; there is no longer an escape from the influence of television’s desensitized sensationalism. Beale suggests turning the television off during one of his famous monologues, but television is never off now. With twenty-four hour media coverage of presidential elections and police brutality on television, computer screens, and even your telephone, the news is always on, and it’s always trying to win over your brain’s limited span of attention.

During his monologue on the illusion of television, Beale explains that the only truth people know is what comes out of their television set; even in 1976 there existed “an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube.” Just forty years later, in 2016, there will exist generations that only know truth as it is filtered through the power of television. Diana is an example of this new generation: even her romance with Max is a satire of the new norm, with every romantic moment of their affair being replaced with her talk of work and ratings, every dramatic moment of their life seen through the disconnected lens of someone who thinks real life is more a televised "Movie of the Week" than an actual human interaction.  

In Network, reality has been filtered through the television tube, and there seems no escape. Even the mad prophet himself succumbs to an evolution of his own message: it begins with a promise of suicide, evolves into a rant on bullshit, becomes a spiritual message of truth, a call to arms to be “mad as hell,” a declaration on the falsehood of television, an expose on the secret dealings of television networks, and then, after a conversation with the “Wrath of God” himself, a message of nihilistic dehumanism.  

When Ned Beatty’s executive character brings Beale into “Valhalla” only to explain that Beale has upset the natural order of “corporate cosmology” in stopping a network deal, that humanism is dead, that morality and values are gone, that all nations have been replaced by corporations, and that democracy has been replaced with the natural order of the almighty dollar, Beale listens because there is meaning behind the words, even if the ultimate meaning is, ironically, nihilism. The ultimate answer to the existential crisis is one of dehumanization—humans replaced by humanoid creatures that listen to their television sets like brainless sheep while companies profit off their drooling husks and run the world into perfect oblivion. Unfortunately, nihilism is bad for ratings—Beale is assassinated to stop him from dragging the network’s ratings down the tube with him.

Writer Paddy Chayefsky wrote his satire based on the idea that television results in the decay and death of both truth and humanism. Now, it almost seems as though we are living in the dystopian future a sequel to his film might have been set in. I often found myself, while watching the film again, wondering what Chayefsky would have thought of today’s media saturation: twenty-four hour sensationalism disguised as news, social media, television snake-oil businessmen running for president, internet addictions and the hostility that its users are allowed to wallow in behind a humanoid mask of avatars and anonymity, how it allows people to ignore the shallow boredom and meaninglessness of common existence and replace it with unceasing, constant amusement.  

When an entire studio audience is chanting out the “mad as hell” catchphrase, it’s hard not to connect that to the bile you see exhaled at Trump rallies. But then, maybe that is the deeper point of the satire: being “mad as hell” is an existential yelp that is in itself not the answer. I myself felt that anger while watching this movie that the satire has become the reality, but that misses the point of the film entirely because the satire has a deeper underlying theme: being mad as hell is not enough.  

Rage is purposeless, especially when it’s just a catchphrase that keeps you from actually learning the truth behind the bullshit and rage. After all, that is Beale’s real message: look in yourself for truth because you’re sure as hell not going to get it from television. And you’re sure as hell not going to find it on your cell phone or computer screen either.  

Being mad as hell is not the answer because being mad is simply reactive behavior; being human requires being more proactive. It certainly doesn’t involve passively watching television and assigning your rage a name as designated by whoever screams the loudest on Fox News. Rage for rage’s sake is meaningless. You can scream out your window all you want, but if you’re only doing it because a television told you to do it, or because a politician told you to do it, or even because a screenwriter told you to do it, you’re really articulating nothing at all. Raging against the meaninglessness doesn’t create meaning—it perpetuates its destruction.  

The heart of Network’s satire is not anger; the heart is found in the “resolution” of its true hero, Max. In leaving Diana, Max tries to maintain some hope that love can somehow keep him human; this is important because he is the only one left undestroyed by television’s extensive grasp. Will he reconcile with his wife after having an affair with Diana? Maybe. Would that reconciliation be an unsatisfactory “fraud” as Beale had put it earlier in describing his own marriage? Possibly. But it’s having that hope that sets Max apart; maintaining love and basic human decency keeps the decaying influence of television at bay.  

As long as Max stills feels the passion of a winter romance, the fear of death, and love itself, the dehumanizing effect of television can’t destroy him. Or, at least not until after the next commercial break...