07 January 2009

Reality Is Not Episodic

It's recently become clear to me why television is boring.

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death has gotten me thinking about television and in what ways it's affecting culture. He traces the shift in public discourse over the years in which the printed word was the sole medium available, through the rise in the telegraph, to the present day in which the medium of TV has gained ascendancy (the book was written in the mid-80s so I would imagine he'd have something to say about the internet … especially bloggers). His motivation in writing is simply this: television has become an uncritically accepted reality in our world. Why is that, and how did it happen?

I'll leave a treatment of that question to a later post, but I'm going to go ahead and tell you why television bores me.

Most television shows operate on a formula that has been proven to attract viewers, fit within given limits imposed by the medium, and provide opportunities for the insertion of lucrative advertising. This formula runs something like this:

1 Situation
2 Conflict / unknown is introduced
3 Situation is thereby altered
4 Process of repair / reconstruction / discovery
5 Situation is restored.

1 and 5 are the entry and exit points for the show. They must be identical in order to allow the next episode to pick up at essentially the same situation. 2-4 are the "raw material" in which characters are revealed and developed. Because of the nature of the medium, no conflict or unknown can be introduced that cannot be resolved in 22 or 46 minutes (the actual viewing time of a half-hour or one hour show after commercials are removed). The exception to this is the season finale, in which one is allowed to leave the audience hanging for the season premiere to follow some months later. Any tension, ambiguity, or confusion must not persist beyond when the credits begin to roll. If more consequential or complex material is included (say, a developing romance between main characters), it is unfolded in manageable chunks, and sufficient innuendos are placed so as to draw the regular viewer into the mounting tension that in all likelihood will be satisfactorily resolved.

Characters, to the degree that they have any interior life at all, do not reflect on a given conflict / unknown beyond the time constraints of an episode (think Doogie Howser's diary). This reflection is rarely carried out in a sustained fashion, and is tolerated only to the degree that it advances the process of repair / reconstruction / discovery. Characters do not advance in age or wisdom unless they have the misfortune of being children, in which case writers come up with appropriately altered conflicts / unknowns commensurate with the unavoidable physical development in their actors.

Depending on the nature and genre of the show, the details change, but the basic format stays the same. It's discernible in some way, shape, or form in every other entertainment show out there, whether past or present. The fact that certain shows currently deviate slightly from this formula (Battlestar Galactica, Lost, etc.) and have received great acclaim is the exception that proves the rule.

What bores me about this is not just the repetitive structure, but the incredibly narrow slice of dramatic material available for treatment in this 22/46 minute window. Someone gets fired, someone gets restless, someone finds a dead body, someone wants to have sex with someone else, someone gets in trouble at school, someone buys a motorcycle, etc. etc. Nothing's inherently wrong with this way of packaging entertainment. I suppose on some level it's perfectly legitimate. But at what point do we lose contact with the bigger things? I happen to be blessed to live in a community that spends very little time (relatively speaking) watching TV; what about the rest of the world? Television is so fundamental a right that the government is subsidizing the transition from analog to digital signals by offering to purchase receivers for those who cannot afford to buy them. There is no one too poor not to have television!

It's not too far of a stretch to say that most of the world lives in the world of television, and takes it utterly for granted. Specifically, our entertainment has been so restricted to television and movies that it's hard to think of a popular form of entertainment that has not been affected by it in some way. Even pop fiction is written and published with the above format in mind (think of the reactions to The DaVinci Code, and how few of the chapters were more than a page or three long).

Some might say that all the above criticisms are precisely why television is so enjoyable: ready-made, easily digestible packets of entertainment and escape that are always ready for a quick excursion from the humdrum of daily life. Who says entertainment is supposed to be something that takes work? Why can't it be a good thing to sit back and rest the mind for an hour or two with some old, familiar faces?

The point isn't so much about "unwinding" or not, but the question of whether we are still capable of being stretched beyond facile and insipid approaches to human existence. "Sure," Mike Teavee chirps in between clicks of the remote. "I just don't want my TV doing it for me."

A man wiser than I interjects, "We all build our castles in the air, Mike. The problem is when we try to live in them."

Great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean.
Eudora Welty


Matthew said...

True, the form of these shows are not inherently objectionable. The detective, science fiction, and romance genres all have certain set plays, so to speak. It seems a more authentic entertainment does involve some amount of work, and that may scare people. But I wonder whether some activities like gazing at the big dipper or walking through the woods, instead of television programs, really requires so much effort that people are unwilling to experience the sense of wonder those activities could bring. I would also like to consider whether a similar critique may be made of some films.

flatlander said...

Undoubtedly, there is a real sense of loss when one sets aside accustomed forms of leisure and attempts to enjoy others. I know a couple guys who went through wilderness camps that basically involved big guys in suits showing up in their bedroom in LA at 4 a.m. to whisk them off to 10 weeks in the wilderness of Northern Minnesota where they had to build fires without matches and do everything in the most primitive fashion possible (not even knives were allowed them-- you never know what some of these kids could do). They spoke of a tremendous emptiness for the first few weeks, but an eventual process of discovery and rehabilitation took place that made the temporary difficulties to be worthwhile in retrospect. As our situation now stands, there is very little reason for anyone to go through a period of deprivation of conventional forms of leisure (whether they be visual, musical, or otherwise) for the sake of some further discovery. Anyone who does such things (cf. Into the Wild) is considered a heroic purist or an extremist (which that particular character certainly was), and the endeavor itself in whatever lesser degree it might be pursued is set aside as an impossible standard.
If nothing else, if we can ask the question "what do our forms of entertainment DO to us" in such a way as to not sound like a crank or a Luddite, an important step can be taken.

stroblight said...

So just to be clear: I can watch Battlestar Galactica, right?

Are you going to print this out and share it at DB night sometime?

BTW, I love watching shows like The Office for the same reasons I like Snickers...you know what to expect and you're satisfied for the moment. However, like Snickers, these shows leave you wanting more and it becomes pretty obvious if you indulge too much. Dang, now I feel bad about TV and sweets ;)