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Feed Me TV

Four Arguments for the Avid Consumption of Television

By Zack Stentz


THE LATE, GREAT science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was once asked if it was true that 90 percent of written science fiction was crap.

"Of course," Sturgeon famously replied, "but 90 percent of everything is crap."

Sturgeon's Law, as it's come to be known, comes in handy for any number of occasions, but never more than when listening to some low-rent Marshall McLuhanite fulminating against the evils of that demon box, television.

The drumbeat against television has been with us nearly as long as the medium itself, but what's most puzzling is how the attacks against television have reached a fever pitch just as the medium has reached an unparalleled level of quality.

No amount of carping about the mediocrity of Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place, the knuckleheaded misogyny of The Man Show or the proliferation of wrestling programs can take away the fact that we're living in television's new golden age, with an amazing amount of great programming available catering to every taste imaginable. To wit:

Since embracing the serialized format pioneered by Hill Street Blues in the early '80s, hour-long dramas like NYPD Blue, the recently cancelled Homicide or the justly praised The Sopranos have become rich tapestries of plot and character that often unfold over entire seasons. TV comedies are funnier and smarter than ever, ranging from the character-driven hilarity of Friends to The Simpsons' sharp social satire and the Noel Coward-like sophistication of Frasier. Wax nostalgic about the 1950s all you want, but when did Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball ever squeeze humor out of references to Lord of the Rings or the Gershwin brothers?

And Buffy the Vampire Slayer serves up a brilliant mix of comedy, action, horror and heart-rending drama which can only make the rest of us wish it had been around back when we were trying to make sense out of high school.

Even children's programming has improved immensely from the dark days of the 1980s, when all the shows seemed to be half-hour commercials for dolls and action figures like My Little Pony, the Care Bears, He-Man, and GI Goe. Prodded by the FCC, the networks have smartened up kids' shows considerably, while specialty channels like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel have given children quality original programming like The Adventures of Pete and Pete, So Weird and Cousin Skeeter (bonus points to Disney for hiring overlooked auteur Charles Burnett to direct his brilliant, deeply felt look at slavery and literacy, Nightjohn).

And then there's the miniseries field, once the purview of lowbrow bodice-rippers, which has grown to give us tony literary adaptations like Gulliver's Travels, Moby Dick and Horatio Hornblower, along with intelligent entries such as From the Earth to the Moon and Prime Suspect. And all without a Richard Chamberlain in sight.

    What do you get from a glut of TV?
    A pain in the neck and an I.Q. of 3.
    Why don't you try simply reading a book?
    Or can you simply not bear to look?
    You'll get no commercials.

    --The Oompa-Loompas, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

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TV and Me: Why the television is not your friend.

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SO MUCH FOR the old saw that there's never anything good on TV. But behind these facile complaints lies another set of deeper objections to television, put forward by a chorus of critics who argue that even if individual TV shows are good, the very nature of television itself makes it pernicious to decent, thoughtful human beings. Put another way, no amount of Charlie Rose can detract from TV's corrupting influence.

The dean of the television-as-inherhent-evil school of criticism is Jerry Mander, a former Bay Area advertising executive turned cultural watchdog. Mander laid out the case against TV in his seminal 1977 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and he and acolytes such as Bill McKibben and Kirkpatrick Sale have been employing variations on those themes ever since, ultimately reduced to bumper stickers like "Kill Your Television." Stripped of rhetorical excesses, Mander's four deadly sins can be summed up as follows:

1: Television mediates our experience. That is, the hours we while away in front of the screen are spent absorbing a reality that's been masticated, digested and excreted by others, filtered through editing, camera angles, trick lighting and special effects until it bears very little resemblance to the physical world outside our doors.

To which I would reply: yeah, so? Of course reality on television is mediated. TV is for the most part a medium for broadcasting narrative storytelling, and the mediation of reality through choosing which images to show or not show has been fundamental to narrative since the Epic of Gilgamesh. And there's no evidence that large doses of mediated reality leaves one unable to appreciate the real thing, either. I've seen the Travel Channel, and I've been to Europe, and believe me, I know the difference.

2: Television determines what we value and it brings about a centralization of control. This is the notion that the half-dozen or so corporations who control most television programming are using television to embed an ideology of mindless consumerism in the public at large, through advertising and the shows themselves. So seeing your favorite TV character driving a Jeep Cherokee makes you want a sport-ute, goes the argument, when you may have otherwise been just as happy in a Hyundai.

It doesn't seem to occur to Mander and his ilk that just as television programmers and advertisers become more subtle with the sell, so too have viewers become more sophisticated and resistant to their come-ons. I take great pleasure, for example, from the ongoing Little Caesar's ad campaign. And many of the Got Milk? spots are masterpieces of short-form comic filmmaking. Yet I've never bought a Little Caesar's pizza and already get plenty of calcium from other sources, thank you very much.

Everyone else I know also seems perfectly able to separate television's entertainment from its selling functions. So who are all these gullible rubes for whom Mander and his ilk display so much concern? Everyone besides them, it seems. Underlying the whole argument is the stale whiff of elitism, the notion that while you, gentle reader, may be able to watch Friends without suffering the uncontrollable urge to rush out and buy IKEA furniture and feminine hygeine products, the poor unwashed masses must be protected from this horrid fate.

3: Television affects people physically. Despite a notable lack of research to back it up, it's still common to hear highbrow variants of mom's old warning not to sit close to the TV. But any law student can tell you that the inherently unnatural act of reading is actually a much bigger contributor to vision loss, and I'm certainly sitting a lot closer to the computer screen on which I'm composing this article than I ever do to a television set.

4: Television is biased. In Mander's own words, "The overriding bias of television ... the bias which contains all the other biases, is that it offers re-selected material, which excludes whatever is not selected."

Additionally, Mander and others believe television's biases all cut one way: toward lulling the viewer into a sense of quiescent passivity, the better to stay out of trouble and buy products.

Yes, television is a "cool medium," to use the McLuhan phrase, or as NBC programming head Scott Sassa puts it: "I believe there are 'lean forward' and 'lean back' experiences. And television is definitely a 'lean back' experience."

But given the stresses of modern life, is that such a bad thing? There are worse things in the world after a long day at work than curling up with a favorite program, and it doesn't seem too much to ask that we be allowed to do so without a bunch of cultural Oompa-Loompas making us feel guilty.

    The answers to life's problems aren't in the bottom of a glass. They're on television.

    --Homer J. Simpson

PARAPHRASING Marx, let us now be done with bourgeois objections to television. In fact, it's not enough to say television isn't as bad as everyone says. As crass as that black-and-yellow ABC campaign may be, it's got one thing right: TV Is Good. So in place of Mander's list, I'd humbly like to propose my own Four Arguments for the Appreciation of Television. Namely:

1: Television makes an unparalleled range of quality entertainment affordable and accessible to the masses. Critics sneer at the early predictions of 1940s futurists that TV would eliminate ignorance, pointing to the Jerry Springers and E! True Hollywood stories as evidence of the medium's debasement. But imagine: a hundred years ago, men and women had to travel to New York, London or another cultural capital and pay exorbitant amounts of money to see the world's best performers--a privilege now available on demand to the majority of human beings on the planet.

But given the choice, naysayers respond, won't more people opt to watch monster trucks on the Nashville Network than Seiji Ozawa conducting a symphony on PBS? Well, of course. But such has always been the case when it comes to popular entertainment. Even the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ford existed in an environment that also counted bearbaiting and public executions as popular diversions.

And television isn't cutting into reading time, either. Book sales in America are higher than ever. What's more, the argument assumes a mythical, pre-television era when Americans happily spent their free time engrossed in Dickens and Baudelaire. Whittling on the porch and thumbing through penny dreadfuls is more like it.

2: Television gives an otherwise fragmented populace a common frame of experience and references. Where were you when: JFK died? The space shuttle Challenger exploded? The Gulf War began? O.J. was acquitted? Each generation has its own set of guideposts like these, and they all share one thing--they were transmitted to people simultaneously via television. Much has been made of the drift of the TV audience in recent years away from common programs and toward the plethora of niche programmers. But when it comes to truly monumental events, television still delivers, allowing the nation and the world to experience history as one.

What's more, TV also creates bonds that provide us with openings to communicate with strangers, even across ethnic, gender or class divides. Those staples of the water-cooler chat--the last episode of Seinfeld, the Hail Mary pass on Monday Night Football--aren't just conversational icebreakers. Added together, these moments are what creates a truly shared American culture, such as it is. It's not Copland, Faulkner and Pollock, but it will have to do.

3: Television is an immensely powerful medium for promoting positive social change. It's a double-edged sword, having 90 percent of current television written by the same thousand or so liberal white guys who all live in the 310 area code. On the one hand, you get the kind of groupthink that leads to this season's shameful lack of minority actors in prominent roles (the streets of Brentwood or the Fox lot will never be mistaken for a Rainbow Coalition gathering).

But by the same token, bold writers like Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night), Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) and Stephen Bochco (NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues) also use the medium as a bully pulpit for promoting tolerance, open-mindedness and other positive values. For example, much of the increased acceptance of homosexuality, especially by young people, can be traced to television and its mainstreaming of the gay and lesbian populace. At least as much as any pride march, shows like MTV's The Real World went a long way toward showing Middle America that, far from being participants in a bizarre, aberrant lifestyle, gays and lesbians suffered through the same relationship woes and heartbreaks as their hetero counterparts.

It's no coincidence that right-wing culture warriors like William Bennett and Jerry Falwell direct so much of their fire at TV: they recognize what a powerful weapon television can be in the culture wars, even if the Luddite left sometimes refuses to acknowledge it.

4: Television helps motivate us to infuse our own lives with drama and meaning. It's counterintuitive, I know. Conventional wisdom holds that we all live vicariously through our favorite television characters, and end up disappointed when our own compromised lives don't measure up to the larger-than-life heroics and defined character arcs of TV's protagonists. "Where's my arc?" wonders mafioso/wannabe screenwriter Christopher on The Sopranos as he ponders his messy existence.

But for every couch potato scarfing Doritos in front of Aussie-accented guys wrestling crocodiles and every teen admiring Buffy's bravery and compassion while declining to stick up for the fat kid at school, I'd argue there's someone else who's motivated to positive action by emulating their cathode-ray idols. And not just in a direct, "I went to medical school so I could be just like Dr. Ross" way, either.

Last year, I interviewed two young filmmakers, Mark Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett, who had just completed their first independent feature. When I asked them what motivated the pair to drop their other careers to pursue their dreams, Burnett's surprising answer was "Captain Kirk. I always wanted to be Captain Kirk when I grew up. But to me that didn't mean wearing a Star Trek costume and being a geek, it meant living your life with a sense of adventure, daring and bravado."

And so he did, not by roaming the stars and bedding green chicks with tall hair, but by diving into the risk-filled world of indie cinema in pursuit of creative fulfillment. It may not rank with Alexander the Great emulating Homer's Achilles, but there are many men and women out there who have made interesting life choices motivated by something as silly as the desire to emulate a beloved character. And isn't that worth putting up with a few Silk Stalkings and World's Scariest Police Chases?

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From the October 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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