“When a country wants television more than they want clean water, they’ve lost their grip.”
— Lewis Black
“It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty – that is, the use of words. It is a plague afflicting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meaning, to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the sparks that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances.”
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
Tolstoy, aggravated by the ideas of another writer, said that their view about the nature of reality, was the result of looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
Considering what qualifies as a hit television show, we are reminded of the telescope pointed the wrong way. Having 40 million people watch your show every week is impressive in any number of ways, from proving that a sizeable number of people have nothing better to do (or something they think is better) to the power of television as a medium.
What’s left out of the equation is that when you say 40 million people are watching something, it also means 200 million people aren’t watching.
The first issue this raises is that one can understand the sense of bewilderment and then outrage among a vast segment of the country who don’t watch “hit television”, and say that the country is controlled by, and beholden to a coastal elite.
That those people also then take another step into brownshirts and burning crosses is no small thing but what (also) matters is there is a fraud being perpetrated. 40 million people is a lot of people. But it’s dwarfed by the number who are not watching, and within that far larger number it’s crucial to imagine that it contains a not insignificant number who make it a matter of pride that they are not watching. In other words it’s not that they happen to be busy doing something else, it’s that they hate the show, hate the pretense that it’s important, and have contempt for the entire apparatus that acts as if there’s something wrong with you if you’re not on the bandwagon.
Friends, like ER, The West Wing etc (feel free to make your own list) are part of a machine that represents the last moment before the television system fully metastasized into what Springsteen describes as: 57 channels and nothing is on.
Friends has, even 20 years later, a slapstick charm down to reasonably good acting (relative to what’s considered bad as defined by the parameters of the medium), just clever enough writing, and a finely tuned clockwork precision all of which allows for the shallow to appear interesting, the banal to appear sophisticated, and in-between all of it, for the writers and producers to lob what for a network in primetime, are risque one liners and plot twists.
Reality did eventually knock on the door in the form of a growing chorus of questions surrounding how anyone on no salary or minimum wage, could afford a fantasy apartment in Greenwich Village, and why New York was seemingly, only full of young, attractive White people, none of whom ever smoke weed or run into anyone who does. Nor are there really any of the people one associates with New York – no truly psychotic street people, or truly psychotic corporate fascists, no hucksters, dealers, gangsters, or immigrants; no dirty cops, no sociopathic landlords, no genuine depth or any dilemmas that couldn’t be dealt with in the space between commercials or ever left lifelong scars.
We learned eventually that the apartment was rent controlled and was being subleased from a grandparent, and Ross eventually has a Black girlfriend. But the center of the show, the Ross and Rachel will they won’t they “question” is a pantomime of an actual relationship. Devoid of any genuine reason for it to be an issue, the relationship is a simulacrum of the genuine article. That in turn is a reflection of the show itself as the show is then a reflection of the inherent falsity of television. Poignant moments are deflated and gutted by slapstick and the absurdity inherent in slapstick is deflected by declarations of emotional depth in a sham version of Romeo and Juliet. Will they or won’t they – but first a word from our pimp – the sponsor.
This in turn captures the viewer and turns their sense of emotional depth and morality into a series of imitations that offer the shadow and the suggestion of reality, but none of the responsibility. What goes missing are the silences – both devastating and profound – in which so much of life exists. What goes missing is the genuine experience of the terror of reality and its wonder. What remains is the pixelated smudge. But any and all critical responses are met with the blanket dismissal based on the claim that, it’s just a television show.
As a result the show had no connection to the real world though its “relevance” is predicated on the claim that it speaks to a greater truth. The honest greater truth (versus the fabricated truth sold as part of the package) is that the show is false in every way and that is its true appeal. The rebuttal to criticism of it as a shallow fantasy follows the same template that television workers always use. Bask in critical acclaim, do not deny or argue against praise that offers the mantle of social relevance, and when compared to recognized works of enduring artistic achievement, smile politely so that you can not be accused of either refusing the lucre or denying the applause because you have the sense to admit that you and your work do not deserve to be compared to anything else, except other television effluvium.
As someone said about another show that was praised well above its cultural weight class: the writers and producers wouldn’t actually say they are on par with Tolstoy and Dickens, but they can’t quite refuse the comparison.
When The Sopranos was something people talked about, a critic made note of how fans of the show were comparing it to Flaubert. When asked to explain how, in specific detail, the show matched up, the fans retreated into stammering boilerplate declaring that you can’t take the point seriously because, after all, it’s just television.
Since television shows of any level of success come with an army of fixers whose entire existence is predicated on a financial symbiosis with chat shows and media platforms, who are as dependent as the shows on the commercials that pay for all of them, there is never any serious critical pushback or analysis. All chat show segments are pre-screened and everyone is on the same financial crack.
This in turn allows the unexamined echochamber statements of cultural relevance to become at best received wisdom, and at worst Orwellian declarations of a reality that everyone with a functioning conscience, knows is a lie. One of the results of this is the permanent disenfranchisement of the majority of the country who respond to this pixelated tyranny with disdain, and growing resentment that races towards violence.
This is of course also true of intelligent television.
The 8th season of Shameless has one truly great (moral) defect – it says nothing about the apocalyptic levels of violence in Chicago, and given that the show is set primarily on the city’s South Side, where the violence is at its worst, the show feels unreal even as it offers up orchestrated talking points about current and real social issues – abortion, immigration, LGBTQ rights, etc.*
This is a sad betrayal of everything that was significant about the preceding seasons, and a perfect illustration of the inherent limitations and defects of the medium as a sphincter in capitalism.
As a result even when better than the majority of ground up road kill heroin injected into our eyeballs, there is something sinister about it, and as a result it all feels canned.
Certain other shows temporarily escape this dilemma because they inhabit a world that by definition is operating in a parallel reality. The x-files can be forgiven for having no direct (versus suggested) connection to the recognizable world we live in (beyond banal bureaucratic portraits of presidents on the walls of government offices or characters who are cut-outs for recognizable public figures) because the entire show is a reflection of the unseen but ever-present reality of America’s hall of mirrors. Almost always dimly lit, full of low-rent drones in the uniform of night watchmen or clerks seemingly pulled from generic Russian or Central European novels, the show is both a reflection of and commentary on the collective lie, and the collective tyranny of self-imposed lies. The result is a landscape that has more in common with a Kafka story than anything else – a matter-of-fact presentation of things that are, by definition, unreal. And yet there is no escaping the fact that the show is part of the Rupert Murdoch empire. To its credit and the credit of Chris Carter, the show has attempted to if not bite, then slap the hand that feeds it. But even then, there is no getting around the moral dilemma of participation and complicity. This is true for every other television show that touches on reality and relevance and traffics in honesty. They may enter through the front door of authenticity but as it is part of the same system, it has no choice but to exit through the backdoor of compromise and complicity. In other words, you may be doing a slapstick iteration of Beckett but your stage is next door to the whore house that pays for your catering service.
In contrast, Friends attempts to eat its cultural relevance cake and have it too. Demand fealty to reality and you’re told to lighten up, as it’s just entertainment. Take it seriously on those terms and you’re treated to an endless, breathless carnival of talking heads declaring it a cultural avatar.
This is the standard argument of television. Confronted about his social criticism, Jon Stewart always pivoted and said he was just a clown. Ask why a clown should be taken seriously and he would pivot and say, don’t take me seriously but listen to my commentary on everyone else’s hypocrisy.
That’s an effective tactic, if your opposition consists of haircuts masquerading as journalists.
At the other end of the spectrum are corporate manufactured counter-programming puddles of vomit like Tool Time and Rosanne which preach their legitimacy based on the idea that they are “authentic” working class shows – paying their stars millions of dollars – but are not Friends or “highbrow” HBO “event” television like The Sopranos and The utterly odious, The Wire.
All of them are of course corporate and by-committee ad-hoc inventions pulled from soulless focus groups; the pixelated versions of a pig’s anus ground into a delivery system that can never exceed the g-force of the truth, which is that they are all wholly owned subsidiaries of a system that is designed to colonize your imagination. Like an object approaching the speed of light, they become distorted as they approach the truth.
In the case of The Wire, with it’s utterly fatuous claims to being “like a Russian novel” the entire premise that it is offering a brutal, hard reality, is of course utterly false. Instead of the truth it offers recycled racist tropes about the sinister and mysterious foreigner (The Greek) and turns Black Americans into a fetish for White Hipsters, who treat the show the same way they treat a “dive bar” in a working class neighborhood right before colonization and the moment the rents are ratcheted up to cocaine addiction levels.
Thus, David Simon performs the same shabby rhetorical alchemy as the defenders of The Sopranos and Friends – refuse to confront him and he will allow that the show is not Tolstoy but leave him to his own devices and he won’t stop everyone else from making the comparison. Leave him alone to masturbate over his reputation and he will readily admit that the show is not about the whole city and that it’s a “mugs game” to say otherwise. But try to point out that Baltimore is an open air drug bazaar, and that the West and East sides of the city are not contextualized by the image of Marlow going down river in search of a Hip Hop Kurtz, but are fully integrated into the drug economy, and that the drug business is fully integrated into the real estate and banking industries, that the city’s institutions (the universities and philanthropies) are the inevitable outgrowth of the racist redlining system and you’ll be met with a fusillade of cult like screams that it’s the greatest show in the history of television. A fact that if true, amounts to claiming successfully, to be the tallest and smartest of the midgets in a kingdom of midgets and halfwits.
One often hears the refrain that there is a disconnect between the government and the public. This is certainly true as the majority of the people in government (by which we mean members of the whore houses on Capital Hill and whichever corporate shill is in the White House) have no sense at all of what is going on outside of fundraising events or committee meetings, or television studios where they go to trade canned talking points with faux journalists and assorted blow-up dolls.
That there are a handful who periodically say something that sounds honest, is a defect in the system that is often usually corrected as quickly as the blow-gun and sedatives can be administered.
Television shows (which are not intrinsically different from the “news” and is a point demonstrated by the accuracy of national class clowns like Jon Stewart) occasionally sneak passed the unblinking eye or stumble into reality. But even the best of them are aesthetically and morally compromised by the medium. And, we hasten to add, not in the sense that while true, the issue is not here that the medium is the message.
The medium remains a message of its own hermetically sealed meta reality. What we mean is that as the system has expanded its control of all forms of the sham debate, the faux critical discussions are all part of a bankrupt and toxic technology heroin. The resulting mobius loop is both predator and victim. It cannibalizes itself and excretes detritus it declares to have value, which is then hoovered back into the system and declared of interest through a process of endless recycling.
The individual (sic) is held hostage and subject to a industrial scale version of Stockholm Syndrome. All forms of dialogue become pre-selected templates. The duration and the substance are predetermined. Repetition begets alienation which begets either a greater attachment to the visual and audio addiction, or detachment which cuts off the individual from participation and relevance. Authenticity becomes a product and criticism of the system require use of the system and thus is reabsorbed back into the system and defanged. The corollary is a condition in which the junkie is both addicted and constantly in a state of withdrawal – both dulled by the drug and agitated by its endless demands for more.
At the end of the 19th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire began to develop a profound case of the jitters and shakes which was of course, true for the rest of Europe as well. Fault lines appeared and ranged from growing ethnic tensions to gigantic eruptions of artistic and intellectual revolt. But the system refused to yield. Etiquette, proforma details, regulations, and the observance of rituals took precedence over any and all attempts at reform and all efforts at reform that demanded some expression of honesty, were met with either bureaucratic sloth or the heavy hand of state terror and repression.
Women who could not walk despite having no physical ailments. Doctors racing through piles of Bolivian optimism. Insurance clerks waking to the nightmares of reality and feeling themselves transformed into bugs. Third rate artists imbued with the maniacal rhetorical skill of the devil selling first class tickets to the depths of hell. Philosophers retreating into a labyrinth of gnomic utterance that are either precise zen formulas revealing the truth or are the mutterings of a world having a nervous breakdown. Or, both at the same time.
Robert Musil, well on his way to poverty and literary immortality, observed all of it and imagined a self-sustaining hermetically closed system dedicated to its own increasingly irrelevant rituals, even as it raced towards the abyss.
Detached but fanatically bound to the system that was committing suicide, his mirror reflection of the world said, here is a man without qualities; a man who by virtue of being no one is everyone and in being everyone, has no center; no soul. A nation state stitched together like some sort of geo-political Frankenstein’s monster unable to live, and already dead but still shambling along until the final catastrophe. Both victim and predator.
While one can imagine Joey addicted to heroin, what would have been inevitable was the episode where he gets clean, and everyone learns a life–lesson.
Versus his breaking into the impossible apartment of his friends, to steal their stereo to pay for a hit. He tries, halfheartedly to rape Monica and confronted by Chandler, he hesitates, and then plunges a shank into his gut and runs.
We know that’s the truth.
But, everyone pretends otherwise.
*Which is not to say the North Side of Chicago isn’t violent, it’s just that the violence is conducted inside expensive homes, on computers. A point we hasten to add, deliberately avoided by hacks like David Simon who like to pat themselves on the back when they say you can follow the money downstream to the violence on the street.
Which is true but of course you can follow it upstream to the executives who put the shows on TV and are laundering the drug money of an economic gulag and thunder dome.
But no one is going to put that on HBO.