Preliminary Remarks: Kinds of Television
"Our culture -- Indian, Mexican, Anglo -- is getting real thin. [...] TV is the whole existence for a new class of silent people. Look all around you in the Southwest; most of the buildings you see are mobile homes. Inside most of these homes are filthy people who can't read, who don't talk to each other, who have few or no relatives or friends, who are one unpaid bill or one small tragedy away from being homeless: people who can't put food on the table or watch over their kids. The little money they have is used to install cable TV. [...]
When I think of the future of the United States, I think of a little girl I saw inside one mobile home, a girl who -- I can tell you from my own experience -- is not so untypical. She's about three years old. Her parents plop her down all day by the TV, turned to the channel for soap operas and game shows. There's dirt all over the house. There are tabloid magazines and TV schedules and beer cans. There's not much furniture, no books. It smells."
-- Cayce Boon, in: Robert D. Kaplan. An Empire Wilderness. 181
When talking about television I am indeed aware of the cultural discourse about this medium. In Kaplan's apocalyptic narrative about contemporary America, the Navajo Cayce Boon paints a picture for him that is far removed from being fiction and seems to prove Neil Postman right: we may indeed be Amusing Ourselves to Death; and television is the carrier medium. It is an apocalypse not some time far away in the future. It is happening right now. It has been happening for quite some years, and there is apparently no sign of betterment.
In talking about television, thus, there remains an uncomfortable aftertaste, for there are really several kinds of television; and there are several ways of watching it. Saying "television," though, makes as much sense as saying "printed words" when speaking about books, magazines, newspapers, print ads, etc. A medium that has but relatively recently arrived will be defined first by its form, only later by its diverse contents. Yet does what happens inside the box not appear indistinguishable? Unlike a book which most often is a distinct entity clearly demarcating whether it is fiction or non-fiction, collaboration or singly authored, art or a phone book; on television, everything appears to be flowing into everything else. Channels may differ, but most of the time, ads, news, fiction, documentaries, sports and games are interwoven. Not paying attention, one can get lost. According to Jerry Mander, that may just be the nature of the medium, no matter what content. Some, however, may even want to get lost deliberately. The "idiot box" is a background noise if there is nothing left to say or do.
Yet there is also rich and exciting content, and there can be ways to appreciate it as such. There are ways of seeing that can be enriched by exploring that content, and which might even contribute toward seeing more in television than just a medium, more than just something popular or visual: something worth talking about. This book is about a genre of fiction which plays out on TV. It is about a dense text full of wonder and magic, tragedy and hope, and, most of all, humanity; a mythology both old and new, and always evolving.
A few of these television shows appear to contradict some of Postman'"s warnings. In his main argument, he cautions against the danger that an ideology of entertainment poses to a civilized discourse in a polity, fearing that not Orwell but Huxley was right, and that in embracing entertainment as the all-powerful paradigm of culture, we will lose sight of traditional values of oral and especially of print culture, particularly that we will lose the capability to argue about complex matters in a complex way. His warnings still ring alarmingly true, especially when considering how television has transformed political discourse into advertisement campaigns, and how the most successful news media are those that can communicate the strongest narrative in an audio-visual way, highly entertaining of course.
Jerry Mander's even more devastating critique, putting forth Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, hovers between a rejection of capitalism, and some arguments that could almost be called Luddite, which do not address the content but the assumed nature of the medium itself, wherein he follows Benjamin's critique of the mechanical reproduction of art (Mander 285-9). Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion makes remarks partially in a similar direction when describing how mass media are working towards dulling the moral sense of society and creating an illusion of literacy.
The criticism that the nature of the medium does not allow for any real depth and valuable content, and that the entertainment paradigm wins out over any serious discussions, is the one I would like to see challenged by the ensuing analysis.
Even though there are also serious news shows (PBS comes to mind) and documentaries, which would address the main thrust of Postman's argument, my focus will be on fiction, on story-based entertainment. I will not be discussing whodunits or soap operas, but intend to highlight a more sophisticated genre of shows whose very complexity seems to contradict what Postman has suggested as true regarding television programming, namely his three commandments.
First, "Thou shalt have no prerequisites" (147). As will be seen, prerequisites can be found in all the shows discussed later on. There is simply no possibility to understand episodes in the later seasons of any of these shows, with the exception of a few stand-alone episodes of Star Trek and The X-Files, without having watched the respective show attentively for years. Perhaps it would thus be conducive to understanding to see television series like the ones under discussion more similar to a novel, just as movies are more similar to short stories. A movie usually can be understood without prerequisites. The action has to be very focused, the characters will oftentimes not be developing much, because there simply is no time. A long-running television series, however, does allow for extensive character development, for the most intricate of plots, and for many twists and turns. While some of these shows are difficult to watch without context, some are impossible. Every season of 24, for instance, tells the story of a single day in 24 episodes, in "real time." Miss an hour, and you may have missed crucial information.
Second, "Thou shalt induce no perplexity" (147). Lost is nothing but an exercise in frustration. Season 5 sees characters jump through time, and the audience has to keep track which character is where, or rather, when. Season 6 has some characters be both on the island and in Los Angeles, apparently in some kind of alternate reality. On Farscape, the main character John Crichton is doubled in season three, from whence on for a certain while one episode shows Crichton I, the next Crichton II. To call this perplexing is almost euphemistic. Such complications are common to the genre.
Third, "Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt" (148), wherein he defines exposition as "[a]rguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse" (148), yet also decries exposition in the form of "story-telling, conducted through dynamic images and supported by music," (148) saying, in fact, that "[n]othing will be taught on television that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context" (148). In fact, television indeed is about visualization and theatricality, but does that indeed preclude any kind of exposition? But maybe the way to answer this point is to draw attention to the fact that the very genre under discussion has had a long tradition of "spilling over" into expositionary print media as well. Especially Star Trek has produced a vast number of encyclopedias, technical manuals, and also internet discussion forums that are full with philosophical and scientific, and, granted, also trivial investigations of the television franchise itself, but also of matters ranging beyond that. This very book hopefully in itself testifies to the multiple ways television can indeed be food for thought.
You might say that nevertheless, television is trivial, and trivializes the issues it depicts, but can that indeed not also be said about literature? Behind much of Postman's critique could be seen a probably too enthusiastic estimation of printed media. I would like to maintain that it should not necessarily matter whether a philosophical discussion is opened up after watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or after reading a "good book." David Bianculli's Teleliteracy and Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You make similar points. They do not really provide answers to either Postman's or Mander's critique of the nature of the medium directly, but make a case for the content of television irrespective of the technology, pointing out oftentimes overlooked complexities and a richness of material that need not shy away from a comparison with the best of literature. This is a direction the book at hand will follow as well, however, with a bit of a caveat.
A "good" television show, in my opinion, is one that is well-made and has high aesthetic and narrative standards, engaging dialog and diverse philosophical themes; it may, nevertheless, be problematic in some respects regarding its content. For despite all the complexity television demonstrably allows for, it does remain a medium that on the surface appears to be able to communicate ideas and aesthetics more effortlessly than any other medium. It is indeed by most people understood as mere entertainment, which could mean that much of its content is accepted without question. Television, of course, is indeed part of show business, and it is interested in evoking emotions, in connecting beyond the rational level; just as it is an industry interested in making money, of course. None of this is denied herein. Yet the specific television series discussed in this volume nevertheless can be said to be different from the hype of "reality" television, of soap operas, of simple whodunits: They are fueled by ideas that are native to those kinds of philosophy and theology that discuss the value, nature, and prospects of humanity itself. They are also a reflection of society.
This, again, makes an analysis urgent: Even on "good television" there remain problematic issues that are displayed in a commonplace way. Torture, violence, the glorification of charismatic leaders, romantic narration, xenophobia, homophobia, machismo, and anti-democratic notions are a staple of the genre of fiction that will be analyzed in the following study. Looking away and ignoring all that would indeed prove the points of Postman, Mander and other critics. Art needs explaining; whether it happens on the printed page, on the stage, in the museum, in the concert hall, the music player, the cinema, the television or wherever else imaginable. It is not just entertainment, but it is a reflection of our societies, of our viewing practices, of the ways we imagine what being human means. And as television is one of the lead mediums of American society, a close reading of parts of its contents must be seen as necessary and legitimate.
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