Monday, December 5, 2011


The average American watches six hours of television a day. Of course, the average American fosters the illusion that he or she is somehow immune to its senseless churn, that he or she is somehow above it, too intelligent to fall for its gambits, well aware of its insidious ability to promote passivity and turn the viewer into a receptive ogler, an empty vessel for advertisers and the lowest common denominator. The viewers know better, and snicker to themselves as they surrender, and--according to David Foster Wallace, novelist, media observer, TV watcher, suicide--television has learned to absorb this ironic distance, to co-opt it, and present it to the viewer with a wink and a nudge. The couch potato is now a rebel, through some circuitous logic kindly provided by the medium to which we've surrendered, and "we get it." With this license, the viewer is free to partake in an embarrassing amount of TV while remaining satisfied in the conceit that he or she is in on the joke, while a hundred clones of David Letterman mock the viewer and the medium and anything earnest with a sly irony that somehow includes the couch potato. This is TV about TV, a "meta-television" whose solipsism is hermetically sealed, an airtight Moebius strip McLuhan understood instinctively many years ago that has moved beyond his classroom musings. This is an addictive drug that contains its own antidote, but just enough to keep you sufficiently healthy to take more of the drug.

The thing is, we know this. Of course we do. Television is dumb as a bag of chips, and just as enticing and "bad" for us, and you can't just eat one chip without struggling with the entire bag. We can only blame ourselves, and TV will wag it's finger at us about monitoring our intake and making good choices, all the while offering us another chip.

This is old news. What is new is how completely our reality has been distorted by television, how this piece of furniture affects our social world, our wind-down from work, our passive expectation to be entertained, our simplified view of people, ethics, politics, life itself. TV presents life as simple stories, with attractive people playing simple archetypes: the angry chef, the angry judge, the angry detective, and so on. It offers a clarity and simplicity real life is lacking, and while one feels "plugged in" to the culture at large, it prepares us for nothing--nothing, that is, but watching more TV. You know that. So does TV. Like any good narcotic, television runs the show while the addict believes he can quit any time he wants to. Don't get me wrong. I don 't recommend people quit TV any more than I recommend people quit eating potato chips. As the advertisers say, you have a choice.

I do recommend people supplement their "televisual reality" with real life, and challenge its hegemony with a walk outside, a good book, an actual conversation free from the hysterical emphasis of the sit-com rhythm w/laugh track. Wow--real people in real situations are unpredictable, illogical, needy, and not nearly as attractive as TV actors and news anchors--and if that doesn't have you running for the comfort of your remote, try adding real human problems, the kind that can't always be neatly solved by the last commercial break. Now you want your bottle and your blanket, now you want your TV world, that comfy place where you know exactly what is happening at all times, and you know good will prevail, and you know the killer will be caught, and you know the comedian will get a laugh, and you know the sometimes funny, sometimes scary real world will be kept at bay at least until the drug wears off.

What's the cure? Well, we left the comfy entertainment center and saw a play yesterday. An actual play. There were strangers to contend with. People rustling in their jackets, an old lady yawning, an uncomfortable chair. With the umbilical cord stretched this far, there is a mild unease, a tremulous feeling in the muscles that might preclude full-on panic, but one learns to adjust. The house lights dim. The actors begin their trickery, but the exit light is still lit, the chair is still...then something magical happens, an emotion, light as a mote of dust whirling in a beam of light is coaxed to the stage. The actor has studied hard, and he might forget his lines (an embarrassing moment that never occurs on television), and he may miss his cue. He holds a candle and it flickers, but what if the candle goes out? How will he continue his many, many memorized lines and relight the candle? The other actor is good, too, but he's not nearly as handsome as Pierce Brosnan...and the actress is pretty, certainly, but the actors do their job and one is willing to suspend disbelief and ignore the loud-breathing woman sitting directly behind ones chair, then this experience of drama in a dark, half-empty theater becomes absolutely magical as a shaman's spell and something that has gone on since the ancient Greeks at the very least comes alive in this small, dark room. The character is crying, ringing his hands, and the actor is crying, ringing his hands, so exposed to the gods and demons and embarrassments of a public experience, and we glimpse something the slick, polished, over-produced, dumbed down mini-dramas and comedies and dramedies of television can't even come close to presenting, but you would miss it if you didn't avail yourself to it. Of course, it's a great inconvenience. One can't control its elements as one can in the living room--changing the channel, raising the volume, controlling this tiny approximation of reality like an armchair god, even turning it off to go make a sandwich. There are strangers here. There is a risk. This hasn't been tested on some target demographic. This hasn't been concocted in a lab, filmed on some studio lot, approved by some advertiser selling his products. This is real, too real for most of us, and I recommend it highly.

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