Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In Defense of Television


Mother, teacher...secret lover?

A few years back, in their always-entertaining best-of-the-year lists, the Citypages had a line I often like to steal that went something like "Saying you don't watch television because there's bad shows on it is like saying you don't read because Danielle Steele writes bad books." And while there's obviously a bit of difference between the two, I think it's a pretty apt metaphor for those people who like to think themselves better than the unwashed masses because of their lack of television viewing/ownership.

This is not to say there's not valid reasons to dislike the boob tube -- for instance, pretty much anything on MTv, VH1, or any other Viacom-owned station (save, of course, Comedy Central). But think of all the good things on television: the aforementioned Comedy Central with Stewart and Colbert, nightly broadcasting anti-establishment satire reaching a much wider audience than any other political parody you'd be able to name, or the new generation of fast-paced, highly literate sitcoms like 30 Rock or the dearly departed Arrested Development.

Historically, television has served to make the great moments of American collective consciousness that much more impacting and real. In fact, you could go so far as to argue the Civil Rights movement would have been seriously negatively impacted without television; even Dr. King famously argued that what made his brand of non-violent resistance so successful were the nightly television images of peaceful demonstrators beset by angry dogs and fire-hoses.

Or maybe it's just because of the personal impact television has had on my own life. As I'm teaching my first course this semester, I've been watching a great deal of old Simpsons episodes to use in class (it's a three-hour long night class, so you gotta break up the monotony somehow). Anyway, as I've started to re-visit the show that was so central to my childhood, I've realized pretty much all of my distrust of authority figures and general critical-thinking skills largely came from watching the Simpsons. In fact, I recently read a great interview with Matt Groening in which he said the reason he chose to go with television as medium (over the comic strips he was already creating at the time) was specifically so he could reach out to the kids like me -- kids is small towns who know something isn't right about the world, but don't exactly have a local radical bookstore they can go to.

But in the end, I keep coming back to the Citypages quote -- please don't judge my most beloved medium simply because some people have used it poorly...

3 comments:

keesa said...

I've already told you why I don't buy the metaphor...

and I don't have a problem with the medium in general, I just have a problem when it is used to perpetuated inequality, reinforce stereotypes, and encourage processes of 'othering'/anti-social actions. [eg: The Bachelor, any reality TV show, and many other sitcoms - though I accept your exceptional placement of 30 Rock and Arrested Development].

I also don't like it for myself because I think of it as a time-suck. That doesn't mean that the rest of the world can't watch it. But, if you want us non-watchers to respect your TV watching, you need to respect our desire to stay away. :)

Howard said...

As a man who may have seen an episode or two of the Simpsons in his day, I've also seen how much the Simpsons has shaped my own thought process and my own vocabulary. As we've talked about before, people who dismiss the Simpsons as trash certainly have never watched it with an open mind. It has (or at least used to have) intelligent discourse on things like politics, religion, the educational system, and even the effects of TV itself.

To condemn TV because of the crappy shows on it (and keep in mind, there is LOTS of crap on TV) is like people who condemn the internet because it has porn or because not everything posted on the internet is true. It's an amazingly short-sighted view. The medium is available to do what you want with it.

Me? Sometimes I like to watch the VH1 crap - specifically Flavor of Love spinoffs (ie Rock of Love, I Love Money, I Love Ray J, even though I have no idea who Ray J is). There's nothing redeeming about them, other than the fact that I enjoy them. That's enough. There are few redeeming qualities about a value meal from McDonalds either, but I like getting one from time to time.

Woz said...

Yes, it truly is best to think of VH1 as the McDonalds value-menu of television. They're both best consumed when under the influence, for example...