Television is a product, not a medium, and everything you see and hear is produced by people terrified that they might be banished from the castle tomorrow and lose their limos and expense-account lunches and become peasants again, so there is mighty little courage or playfulness, as there is in poetry, which is entirely created by peasants, every word. Banishment is a way of life for poets, so what’s to be afraid of?Garrison Keillor
HT Daniel S.
The greatest works of art aim to please the teacher. Novel works, innovative works… these are works which aim for the audience, to wow them and make them say, “Well, we have never seen anything like this before.” Such stories are interesting for exactly as long as it takes someone else to come up with something “we have never seen before,” which, in the realm of science fiction, is often only a few weeks. The greatest crowd pleasing story of the 20th century, Star Wars, was not made to please crowds but to please Joseph Campbell. The Duffer Brothers have told a story to please their teachers, too, and because they have not sought novelty or wealth or fame, but the nodding approval of the master, they have become wise.
Americans treat “American” as an ideology, not a matter of blood or country. Historically, there were three things that made a person American: their church, their job, and their family. Americans were churchgoers. Americans were company-men. And Americans worshiped the nuclear family.
Though churches still carry a lot of heft for many Americans, they’ve declined in the northeast and the southwest — the two places most American TV shows come from. Without the church, American identity becomes defined by work and family. Thus, the central concerns of American TV shows are work and family. (And, increasingly, work as family.) Can you imagine an American TV show where a character rejects or is rejected by his family for a reason other than work? I can’t. What about an American TV show where a group of friends remains nothing more than a group of friends, never metastasizing into a familial substitute? Me neither.
Everybody knows that TV is mostly false and stupid, that almost no one pays that much attention to it—and yet it’s on for over seven hours a day in the average household, and it sells innumerable products. In other words, TV manages to do its job even as it only yammers in the background, despised by those who keep it going. TV begins by offering us a beautiful hallucination of diversity, but it is finally like a drug whose high is only the conviction that its user is too cool to be addicted.
~Mark Crispin Miller, excerpted in Harper’s in 1986
I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.
~E. B. White, 1938
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.
~Edward R. Murrow, 1958
What the American people don’t know can kill them.
~Dorothy Greene Friendly, 1958
While it is true that this medium has always been in a constant state of transformation, the changes currently in process are among the most significant in its history. The very term may become less and less useful as a description, a name, for a set of interrelated communication phenomena now replacing what we have known as “television.” […] Short of massive disaster, there is no way to look at this medium and say “this is what it was; this is what it is.” “Television” has been and is always becoming.
~Horace Newcomb, 1996
With the first season of Mad Men under my skinny, yet expensive leather belt, I thought I’d cast my crumbs of thought on the waters of the internet.
- Initially, the pace of the show frustrated me. I could never tell when an episode was about to end. Events just bled into one another. I still could not tell any of the first eight episodes apart. Part of it has to do with watching the show on Netflix, of course. But I remember distinct episodes from 30 Rock, Community, and Better Call Saul, all of which I watched on the computer.
- Either I locked into the show’s groove or the show locked into mine. It was at the end of Episode 9, “Shoot,” when I turned off the TV, rolled over in bed, and thought, “I liked that. That was good.” From that point till the end of Season 1, I enjoyed it.
- The show is a little too pleased with itself in terms of style and production design. Sure, it’s impressive. Even captivating at times. It’s fun to have the characters say “swell” like the Hardy boys. But the precision of all the details cuts both ways: it presents the past in gorgeous HD, as you’ve never seen it before, while underscoring how different it was from our present day. And the show can’t stop itself from commenting on those differences. Every man in the show is a womanizer. Every women struggles against the boundaries of her sex. Every character is consciously classist and casually racist. It’s like reading Huck Finn in an English class with a teacher who can’t get off the subject of slavery.
- On the whole, the show is about loneliness. Or, more accurately, about knowing and being known. Every character tries to build, earn, or steal for themselves a sense of worth, a place in the world and among people. Don Draper is the quintessential example. The people most willing to accept and embrace him, his family, don’t know anything about his past. They don’t even know his real name.
In Perelandra, the Unman is most of all a petty, spiteful child. Even when he acts eloquent or crafty, he’s spoiled, prone to throwing fits when things don’t go his way. Evil turns us all into nasty, immature beings. In that sense, Count Olaf is one of the best villains on TV in recent memory.
Ian Marcus Corbin writes in the Weekly Standard about the bizarre disjunction between how courteously his colleagues interact with those with different political or cultural views in real life and how nastily they attack them on social media. Some people are born with certain advantages, Corbin admits, and some people are unfairly treated based on how they look, dress or act. And yet…
It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.
Last semester, I taught a class on television and culture (and again this upcoming semester). The sentence I bolded at the end of that quote strikes me as particularly relevant to that topic. One consequence of living so much of your life in front of a TV screen is that you start to believe that TV is reality and that your life is a shoddy illusion. Its in TV’s best interests to keep you watching, and the way to do that is to beat into your skull the fact that television is where life’s meaning truly lies. In his essay on TV, “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace describes it like this:
The modes of presentation that work best for TV—stuff like “action,” with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the “hysteria” of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter—are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more… well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it. This might seem benign until we consider that what average Joe Briefcase does more than almost anything else in contemporary life is watch television, an activity which anyone with an average brain can see does not make for a very dense and lively life. Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).
If anything has changed since Wallace wrote that essay, we’ve become more involved in these “modes of presentation.” Now, we don’t join in only in our minds, but in our actual lives. We are all living “presented” lives. We’re all playing roles.
A offhand comment in some article by Matt Zoller Seitz piqued my curiosity about Samurai Jack, an animated TV show that aired on Cartoon Network in the early aughts. I cast into the Youtube pond, and the first episode I reeled in was the one Seitz mentioned. (I’m sure there’s some eldritch internet cause-and-effect at work there.)
In the episode, Jack is hunted by the Shinobi, warrior of the night, who uses the shadows to sneak up on his quarry. The first half of the episode is forgettable – Jack defends a defenseless village from giant robotic lobsters – but once the Shinobi catches up with him, the two square off in a tall building that is sort of like a mix between a lighthouse and a warehouse. As the sun sets outside and the shadows lengthen inside, it becomes apparent that this is a battle between light and darkness. The Shinobi keeps to the blackness, while Jack hides in the (rapidly diminishing) areas of sunlight. The sequence even switches to black-and-white at one point to emphasize the contrast.
As Seitz says, the amazing part of the fight scene is that it believably portrays what it’s like to fight someone whom you can’t see. The Shinobi becomes visible in the dark for a split-second when Jack’s sword strikes his. The sound of the blades making contact gives Jack (and the audience) a moment’s glimpse of the villain’s whereabouts.
I also love the way the sunset raises the stakes of the fight. Jack knows that the Shinobi will gain the advantage as night draws on, so he must finish off the ninja before the building goes completely dark. And all this is communicated through animation, mind you. There’s scarcely a line of dialogue in the whole episode. Ah, animation. You never fail to amaze me.
Watch the episode on the tube here.