Trashy Television

February 21st, 2007

By Elliott Feedore

How the Boob Tube Still is still Making you dumb

For 50 years now, television has been a central fixture in American life. In that time it has demolished the radio shows that preceded it, threatened to do the same to the movies, and is now in the perilous situation of competing with video games and the internet; however, with thousands of channels, shows, and advertisers, and, billions of viewers, TV remains pervasive. Because of its all-encompassing nature, the medium has a great destructive capability, but temperance and introspection may have the power to offset some of TV’s more frightening capacities, and maybe even justify the viewing of so-called “trash.”

The late, great film critic Pauline Kael, skeptical of certain notions of the nature of “art,” is famous for saying that “movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Television is even rarer termed art than film, but the definitions for art – especially “edifying” art – and trash are still damningly vague. Instead of conferring those terms with any naïvely sweeping definitions, I’ll defer to a Supreme Court Justice’s celebrated – and quite accurate – description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Many, I’m sure, would agree with me that popular escapist fantasies such as Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, Nip/Tuck, and most reality shows indeed reek of being deliciously icky bottom-of-the-barrel “trash.” Yet, if these shows’ viewers would agree that what they tune to weekly is trash, then they surely mustn’t be accepting these programs as “good” or “art” or “real?”

In his piece “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” Steven Johnson defends current television as intelligent and challenging, and thus intellectually stimulating. He claims that his argument is true not only for critically-acclaimed dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, 24, and The West Wing, but also for the “better” batch of reality shows that includes Survivor and The Apprentice. Audiences today, he argues, have a mental workout trying to piece together puzzles and dense plot threads, moral gray areas and vast arrays of recurrent characters. Unfortunately, he gives little proof that his argument is sound. In his paltry defense, concrete proof for his argument is pretty hard to produce and does not take into account that current viewers may be watching today’s “better” TV for the same reason their antecedents were watching yesterday’s inferior crop: pure and simple escapism. TV audiences may now be working harder to be lazy, but I doubt that they are any more conscious of the medium’s grossly seductive nature than their grannies were. By pulling its viewers psychologically closer to a continuum of televised “reality,” aren’t today’s engrossing television shows more capable of deluding their audiences’ perceptions of reality?

This leads me back to the trash can. I recently watched an episode of the FX series Nip/Tuck with one of the show’s most devoted viewers. Although I was overwhelmed with elements of the episode that were, to me, flagrantly trashy, I was told that this was the tamest episode that this viewer had ever seen. The show revolves around upscale plastic surgeons in Miami; this particular “tame” installment, entitled “Conor McNamara,” included a terminally-ill socialite who wanted her favorite surgeon to give her a posthumous makeover so that she’d look impressive at her funeral. (Before her death, she tells her doctor that she almost paired up with Burt Bacharach when she was younger, and low-and-behold, Bacharach himself makes a cameo accompanying her on piano in a fantasy sequence cross-cut with her surgery.) Furthermore, when another plastic surgeon wants to mend his infant son’s fused fingers his wife delivers the soggy old cliché: “Are you doing it for him, or are you doing it for yourself?” (The doctor flashes back to when he spent his college fund on the removal of an embarrassing hare-lip when he was a youngster.) Finally, at the episode’s end, the wife narrowly avoids getting into a passionate affair with a male nurse who happens to be a midget. This mode of “drama” about the ostentatiously rich and famous does not lend itself to being critiqued as verité, but rather as a fusion of the more realistic E.R. and daytime soap bubbles.

I surveyed two regular viewers of Nip/Tuck to determine their own opinion of the show and their viewing habits thereof. They themselves described the show as “trashy,” “outrageous,” “hysterical,” and a “guilty pleasure.” Granted, the scope of my sample is pretty limited – two fairly well-educated, 19-year-old girls – but it is clear that they have no notions of being cultured or enlightened by Nip/Tuck, and that they believe that the show presents only a rose-tinted facsimile of life on planet earth. To them, Nip/Tuck is just a juicy toy to be played with once a week. Unfortunately, this may not be the case for many contemporary TV watchers.

Audiences today now have the novelty of having entire seasons of their favorite television programs available to them on DVD and in internet downloads – both legal and not. While the ABC hit Lost was on its summer hiatus, its fans had at their disposal a Web site sanctioned by the network with clues to help them solve the show’s core mystery, this alongside thousands of show-related blogs and message boards. That TV shows now involve extracurricular activities does prove that to appreciate them an increased involvement is required, but this may not mean that the show’s demographic is therefore “smarter.” If more of the audience’s time is devoted to the show, less of it can be allocated to human interaction and the real world – and not the one presented by MTV, mind you. Johnson’s argument that shows such as E.R. and The West Wing better inform their viewerships of medical science and politics, respectively, in a way that is refreshingly un-condescending and may have made even Edward R. Murrow grin, seems genuinely valid. However, this view lacks a sociological dimension necessary to adequately probe the issues surrounding TV consumption and envelopment.

Researchers Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offer evidence that human beings go through physiological changes when they turn on their television sets; test subjects became pacified, tranquilized, and less mentally active. Further, subjects deprived of TV suffered signs of withdrawal similar to those of drug addicts. The programming of today that some would identify as superior – shows that are more craftily, and intricately plotted – are likely more addictive than their predecessors. Not only are viewers hooked by way of physiological processes, but they are also mentally wired to anticipate how the melodramas will conclude, and by being so invested over a full season of time, the TV show has a more prevalent place on their day-to-day consciousness. In essence, they are becoming TV junkies.

Furthermore, another scholar, George Gerbner, reports that the more people watch television, the more they believe what they’re seeing is true. Though the realism and “nutritional value” of today’s “good” shows helps somewhat to counteract this problem, every program has its artistic license and a need to satisfy not only its viewing audience, but also their corporate sponsors; realistic situations and solutions may be sacrificed for more sensational, and decidedly fictional, outcomes. The topical troubles facing Jack Bauer (the counter-terror agent on 24) seem somehow more believable – and, on one level, more absorbing – than the farcical antics of Lucy and Ethel. However, the world is far from as booby-trapped or terror-saturated as the popular Fox show would lead one to believe.

“Bad” TV, in small doses, may actually be better for us. The more outrageous, fun and garishly preposterous the show, the less an audience is inclined to believe in the veracity of its fictional universe. Broadcast swill that keeps its audience at a distance by its own overt kitsch value, and makes them aware that they’re escaping into a world that’s giddily pleasurable – but certainly not their own – does not suck sociability out of its audience members and alienate them from their realities; it gives them but a quick, noncommittal break from them.

In fairness, it has not been my intention to bash television programs that Pauline Kael may have even considered “art.” Today’s lauded programming is, arguably, better written than its counterparts of a decade ago, and the craftsmanship of shows like The West Wing and The Sopranos indicate that teleplay writers have more respect for the intelligence of their audience. However, it is an important distinction that the intelligence is there a priori, and not the product of televised education, as Johnson might infer. The tube is a vehicle for mass-produced entertainment, and the refuge it provides from the real world should be a temporary one. It is hazardous for Joe Viewer to be drawn too far into a passive addiction to the world of television-verisimilitude. His own reality may be at stake in the process.

Elliott Feedore is a sophomore cinema and photography major who gets his mental workout not wih TV, but with Jenga. Email him at efeedor1 at ithaca.edu

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