The Best of Television, 2012: Part 4: - The Trouble With Television (A Counterpoint)

There are people who love a good “comments” section (sick, depraved people, the way I see it). I’m not one of them. Not on any terms. Not in a well-run discussion forum. Not the “abandon all hope, those who read below” bit underneath YouTube videos. Not even the “fun to read for the insanity of it” of a Reddit thread gone awry.

It’s not even the people loudly shouting their opinions in all caps. It’s the people who work terrifically hard to create a quasi-intellectual response to the article or subject.* These are people who consider themselves significantly superior to the people typing in all caps, but when you read the comments, you realize they see things in terms just as black-and-white. Their comments are no more open-minded than those banging angrily away at their keyboards (people writing in all caps may be typing normally, but reading it always sounds like they’re just slamming their fists up and down on their laptop).

*It’s the same level of self-absorption as getting a blog (which will be referred to from this point forward as the correct level of self-absorption), but then deciding “it’s not enough for my opinions to be available. I must take my brilliance to the people.”

Take television. The vast majority of people who talk about this subject online see it as a massive divide: there is brilliant, smart television (“Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, “Arrested Development”) and there is dumb television made for idiots (“Two and a Half Men”, “Big Bang Theory,” “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”). And the tragedy of our age is that everyone wants to watch the latter, and no one wants to watch the former, and so our society swirls down the drain.

That’s nonsense. Television exists on a very narrow spectrum. As much as television has improved as an art form in the past thirty years (and the divide between “Mad Men” and “My Mother The Car” is quite remarkable), it’s still the same thing. It’s still generic stories, run through executives and past corporate sponsors, filmed in a rush, then delivered to you in weekly doses interrupted by advertisements. Television, as a medium, has changed drastically only by the measure in which television can change without no longer being itself.

I know this is starting to sound a little bit sophomore-in-college Intro To Media Studies paper (“Sheep! You are all sheep! Things would be so much better if I was in charge!”) But when we talk about television, it usually sounds like we think the gap between “Two and a Half Men” and “30 Rock” is the gap between the Piss-Christ and the Mona Lisa, when deep down we know it’s really the gap between McDonald’s and Chick-Fil-A.*

*I should be clear that I am speaking only in terms of “quality of chicken products,” not “ideological sentiments.”

Television is fast food, and it’s bad for us, and we know this. But we make the point that “Mad Men” is ‘perhaps the greatest television drama ever created. So it becomes “appointment television,” because you have to make a commitment to quality art. “Community” is ‘the funniest show no one’s watching.” “Scandal” is ‘trashy television done brilliantly.’ Even “The Bachelor” is ‘a reflection of our society’s appetites and obsessions.”  Our entertainment becomes more than a flickering black box that fills up our evening hours, it becomes cultural literacy, because addiction is always justifiable if you squint at it long enough.

Alex Pappademas did a mesmerizing piece last week on fired “Community” creator Dan Harmon, who is referred to as a “genius” in almost every article written about him (unless they refer to him as a “tortured genius”), including that one. And Harmon goes on a tirade at some point about this very subject. “That there's a difference between any of this s--- is the greatest joke that television ever told,” he says. “I mean, as the creator of ‘Community’, I'm telling you: It's all garbage.”

He’s not wrong. The difference between the best television and the worst television we’re ever going to see is a small divide, created only by our inability to look elsewhere for comparison.

Of course, I’m still going to watch all of it. I may be past the point of pretention about all of it, but I’ll still watch TV shows because I like TV shows, and I always have. I could spend my time learning the history of fresco painting, or how to create my own subsistence farm, or military naval maneuvers, but I don’t want to, and I don’t see the need to pretend that I ever would.

Television grows in importance in our society, but it’ll never reach the point where it’s actually important, and I don’t really care. I don’t need to gild something to make myself feel better about it. Being reminded that somewhere out there, chefs are preparing lobster bisque doesn’t make me love fried chicken sandwiches any less.