Soundbite TV

Posted: September 17, 2007 in Artistry, Culture, Tacky, Taste, Television
Tags: ,

I haven’t blogged on the utter wasteland that is television, in large part because it seems too obvious to even the most uncritical mind to be worth the bother. Sure, one can learn things or even be entertained (such as TV claims to do); I don’t deny that. But a couple questionably salutary effects, which can be accomplished better through other means, don’t make up for the immensely destructive character of the medium and its content. When I say to people that “TV rots your brain,” I’m not being funny or ironic, although that’s how most people take it. It’s sort of like pointing out to a smoker that cigarettes kill: they know, but the comment is somehow transmuted into a joke.

As a kid, just like most kids, I watched TV all the time, and as a result, I have a veritable storehouse of useless information in my head. I’d call it ephemera except that it never really goes away. These days, I watch so little TV that it’s tantamount to watching none. For instance, I’ve never seen a single episode of such critically lauded shows as 24, The Sopranos, Arrested Development, Grey’s Anatomy, The Family Guy, 30 Rock, or Sex in the City, just to name a few that have gotten a lot of press and won some awards. I don’t know anything about most of the celebrities recently made famous by TV, either. I’ve seen just one episode of a number of other shows — enough to know that I’d never watch them again. I rather regret seeing the entire first season of Lost on DVD. So it’s with this fundamental lack of familiarity with the medium (from the last ten years of so) that I offer an assessment of two new styles of narrative that have recently come into their own.

The first type is the cynical, bitter, ultrasatire of shows such as The Simpsons and South Park. Many critics remark that The Simpsons is among the all-time best-written and -conceived shows, and South Park may be simply a more profane, blunt-instrument version for cable audiences. It’s notable that they’re both animated, as their relative simplicity and crudity of visual style — at least compared to the sumptuousness of the typical Pixar animated film — guarantee that the harshness of the humor doesn’t fully register on viewers. Indeed, it’s how both shows serve up and skewer middle-American life that make them unwatchable for me. Situations are concocted from real life (torn from the headlines, as it were) and stretched to their logical limits and beyond but played off as humor. They’re in actuality cruel mirrors of some of our most abject behaviors and cultural assumptions. Both shows have established large followings across several demographics and have successfully lodged considerable lingo in the vernacular.

What puzzles me is the guilelessness with which viewers seem to enjoy the shows, apparently not realizing that it’s them being made fun of. Character humor usually succeeds by being displaced in the third person, but it’s merely a convention in these shows. They’re really second-person narrative, taking pinpoint aim at viewers. I can appreciate black humor, but this kind of satire just makes me sick at heart.

The second type, even more confounding, is basically a hollowed-out form of morality play familiar to watchers of Saturday-morning cartoons or adult superhero movies. They’re essentially plotless, disorganized, and banal. Animation is again the preferred presentation, which passes over quick-cut violence (surprisingly extreme violence at that) and utterly meaningless juxtapositions of familiar soundbites so rapidly the audience scrambles to keep up. Two shows that demonstrate this style are Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Although I’ve seen hardly any episodes (so this may not be an accurate assessment), it dawned on me that the shows are almost wholly made up of brief citations of other shows, movies, ads, product placement, fast foods, music, video games, etc. — essentially pop culture cannibalizing itself. Enthusiasts get it because they recognize the rapid-fire references, and I don’t get it because those references fall largely into the ten-year period since I stopped watching TV. “Getting it” means having absorbed endless, meaningless hours of entertainment and other crap just to be hip and informed. It’s strange to see my otherwise intelligent friends and acquaintances devolve into stream-of-consciousness riffs, digressing from show to show, episode to episode, never communicating or developing a thought but simply registering recognition of where some bit or piece originates. It’s a game of one-upmanship played out in real life, reflecting the same style seen on TV.

The blasé violence and dadaesque collage communicate a very odd sensibility, though not one that could be called artistic. It’s all too arbitrary and random to require any true craft. The creators of these shows and those fully in touch with the style lack the ironic commentary one might expect an artist to make regarding his or her own subjects and style. A YouTube video called Stick Figures on Crack (kinda long at 8:48), is a good example of the genre. To call it stupid grants way too much credit, but it appeals undeniably to an exceptionally base, tacky, tasteless aesthetic.

  1. Vilon says:

    Dead on.

    I do think these shows, initially created for entertainment purposes, morph into more than that by bored individuals in quest of a real life. The same can be said about music, where artists and authors of great songs become circus actors in the public place. Who can forget how authors used to have their lives dragged into the public arena in the 17th century when TV or radio was not around.

    In the meantime, who can bash a defenseless flying soda can?

  2. I think you know, but you might easily have forgotten, Brutus, that we don’t have TV. We do, however, rent DVDs, but I often don’t feel like devoting part of my weekend to whatever we chose from Netflix. By not watching TV or even many movies over the past five years, I’ve grown oversensitive to the loudness, the bad music, implausible dialogue, and flimsy plotting. Simultaneously, I’m stupid about the clues and fail to recognize characters presented an hour earlier, be it only for a minute or two. Other, more practiced, viewers do recognize the character upon a one line reappearance at the end. I misread intention, which in the years I’ve stayed away, are now conveyed by a catch-phrase, physical posturing, and/or facial expression that are unfamiliar to me. In short, I’m ignorant to a good deal of mainstream culture that informs the rest of the community-at-large. Those are the drawbacks.

    The upside? Those, to anyone who shares your attitude, really are too obvious to say.

  3. Brutus says:

    Funny you should pick up my the idea in my first line as your closing line, Kathleen. I would suspect hipsters might lob rebukes at you and me, saying in effect “You just don’t get it.” We could respond the same way, of course. Bottom line, the mental pollution they’re taking so much enjoyment from blots out and blocks any sort of finer sensibility. They may not realize that they remain children, which from the perspective of purveyors of childish media is all to the good.

  4. Brutus, you really need to read my husband’s novel. He’s just rewritten, which (don’t tell him) almost certainly won’t help it get published, perhaps because as good as it was before, it’s now so much better. TV isn’t the only villain.

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