CULTURE: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
How television can stupefy or stimulate our minds
, October 12, 2013
The last column I wrote gave an overview of certain things relating to television. It argued that TV is just a tool, but one dominated by the sensibilities of the creative class, and that this class is currently fixated on the sordid.
Reference was made to quality fare shown on the small screen, and it was suggested that the success of the dark dramas is due to their resemblance to classical tragedy, but their ultimate failure results from their lack of resolution.
Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), right,
with Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon),
in Get Smart.
What was not discussed was everything else. Sure, there’s an increase in complex yarns, but they’re depressing. I’d prefer not to dwell on the superabundance of “reality TV”. It exists because it’s one of the cheapest things to make. It can be manipulated to have DRAMA, and it sells well.
Its corrupting influence depends on its premise — e.g., Big Brother is an atrocity, whereas Master Chef is about the important business of cooking — although the Roman historian Livy did regard the glorification of chefs as a sign of a culture in decline….
News and current affairs depend upon a mush of corporate interests and individual prejudices. Documentary means propaganda. Children’s programming is heading towards the programming of children. And there’s so much advertising and, and…. blast! Maybe John Senior (1923-99), that hero of the Catholic liberal arts, was right. Maybe the solution is to walk across the living-room and repeatedly batter the idiot-box with a blunt instrument.
The problem with television is that it encourages passive engagement. Instead of stimulating the use of the viewer’s imagination, the medium itself can do all the work, allowing the audience to vegetate on the couch, switching off their brains and “relaxing”.
At the same time, however, the brain is still whirring away as it processes the sights and sounds coming from the screen and sparks the appropriate physical and mental reactions to the stimuli. Like certain drugs, it simulates a bodily response, but without the work that makes such a response worthwhile, thus stupefying the audience.
This is not an inevitable result. The stories can be as sophisticated as those of a Victor Hugo. Its images can be as stunning as those of any painter and its soundscape can be as emotionally rich as opera. The problem is cost.
One hour of scripted drama costs roughly $1 million to produce. That just about covers most of those working on a show being paid a just wage. Then consider that there are 8,760 hours in a year and a TV station tends to broadcast all of that time. It’s little wonder that advertising, repeats, game shows, sport, etc., are the staple.
We should not ignore the impact TV has on the culture at large. Last year, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden claimed that the sit-com Will and Grace “did more to educate the American public [on gay issues] than almost anything anybody has done so far” (Meet the Press, May 6, 2012).
Shows like Will and Grace and Modern Family probably do change attitudes, but that is not their main motive for being. Same-sex couples are depicted on TV because they exist in reality. That depiction is likely to be sympathetic, because more comedy and more drama are likely to be broadcast if an audience actually likes the characters.
The thing to do is what’s been recommended since ancient times — to seek out quality and critically reflect on what we find. We need to consider the TV as a means of recreation, not relaxation. I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid, but my parents monitored it, and I in turn had no interest in watching for the sake of watching.
I watched educational shows — Sesame Street and Play School were and are awesome — and dramas and documentaries. I was looking for things that stimulated my imagination. And then I’d spend time playing dress-ups — there aren’t many pictures of me not in a costume — and having adventures, usually ripped off something else.
There’s a wealth of shows that are suitable for family viewing and are intelligent. I’m thinking especially of The Avengers, Get Smart, The Twilight Zone, Looney Tunes, The Muppet Show, Doctor Who and David Attenborough’s nature documentaries. Attenborough may be an extreme greenie in his politics, but something like The Private Life of Plants was amazing.
And then there are the great movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn, or Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954).
The trick is to avoid complacency or pessimism or anxiety. I think everyone who reads News Weekly knows this, so I’m not saying anything new. That’s the point of these columns, to remember that, despite everything, we’re all still human and our hearts beat the same as they always did.
Let us regain our leisure time as a means of re-creating ourselves as human beings. TV can help, or it can hinder. It’s our choice.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).