March 15, 2017
Stranger in a Strange Land
*On the other hand, I saw an article today that says today's kids, weaned on Netflix and the like, don't know what commercials are. On balance, that's probably a good thing, although try explaining those DVD sets of classic commercials to them.
I was prompted to this thought by reading a discussion at Home Theater Forum, one that unfortunately got a bit testy toward the end, as such discussions tend to do. The topic had morphed into comparing classic television with current television, whether or not wholesomeness was an adequate substitute for gritty realism, how one defined “realism,” what the purpose of television was in the first place, and other existential questions. Experience has taught me not to get in the middle of these kinds of discussions – well, that, and the fact that I’ve got my own blog where I get to control the conversation myself.
This is a subtle point, which is why it’s not a good idea to dismiss it with such a simplified, off-hand solution. It is true that most portrayals of a given period in time are, to some extent, idealized. Even documentarians do this in order to substantiate a narrative they’re trying to present. We shouldn’t expect total realism from anything; even a photograph or a home movie can’t capture everything that went into creating a particular moment. Given that total realism is, therefore, impossible, the best you can do is present something that is recognizable to viewers – or maybe I should say plausible. It’s true that series like Leave it to Beaver probably fell on the “idealized” side of the line, but not to the extent that the people who watched it couldn’t understand what it represented.
The complaint many people have about contemporary television is that, as one HTF commentor put it, "the characters [on classic TV shows] seem to be relatable human beings. I stopped watching present-day 'entertainment' years ago, but when I see segments of it I feel as if I must live in a different Universe." The stranger in a strange land, indeed. Flip to any given series, and you'll find a world in which your next door neighbor might be a meth dealer, the couple down the street might be a threesome, or undercover Communist agents (or both), everyone’s a quirkbot and every single life seems to have been ripped from the pages of a soap opera script, religion is barely mentioned (and when it is, it's usually disparaged) and the default setting is not good humor and hopefulness, but cynicism and world-weariness. It's as if, when we decided to get rid of Frank Capra and his "Capra-corn," we replaced him with Albert Camus. There’s a certain sort of realism here as well, in that these things do happen, but I’m willing to bet that if you dropped most people into the middle of a neighborhood like this, they wouldn’t recognize it.
Contrast that with the average viewer's reaction to a series from the classic era. Whether or not your family was like the Cleavers, for example, they weren’t far off from what how many families lived. Their values were similar, their families seemed a lot like the ones you knew in the neighborhood. Except, maybe, for the couple who lived down the block, the one where he’s always getting drunk and shouting about something, and she goes running from the house, crying, only to come back in a day or two. They didn’t show people like them, at least not on sitcoms, but then that was the point, wasn’t it? They weren’t funny, and they weren’t entertaining, and that wasn’t what Leave it to Beaver was all about. My point is that nobody living in the same time period as the Cleavers would have looked at them as if they were out of place, people from another neighborhood, anything like that. They were like you and me, if perhaps a little more perfect than we were. And, lest you forget what you were watching, the commercials would remind you that this was a television show you were watching, not real life.
In a way this is so similar to how the elitists of Establishment America have, for so long, misunderstood the rest of the country, its values and its way of life. As the last presidential election demonstrated, there’s a wide gap out there between the world of the elitists and the world of everyone else, and considering how most people in the entertainment industry come from that world of elitists, I don’t suppose we should be surprised. After all, everyone writes about what they know about.
This segues us, ever so gently, into the eternal question of television’s version of the chicken and the egg. Does television determine cultural mores, or does it simply reflect them? My own opinion, for what it’s worth, has always been that television is a follower, not a leader – BUT it’s also a persuader, a facilitator, an enabler, a whisperer. Immerse yourself in the world of television, and then try to resist the temptations that these shows offer, the way they gradually – over a period of months or years – lure you into their way of thinking. Rod Dreher, whose book The Benedict Option prescribes "a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation", says people need to withdraw from popular and social media - including television and movies - in order to recapture and reinvest in their faith. Barbara Nicolosi, a Christian screenwriter, says that Christians must engage with popular media and the arts if they hope to change the culture. Either way, it speaks to the power of television to shape minds and attitudes.
I could go on, and someday will, because I'm as guilty of simplification as anyone. The point, however, remains the same. While there are some outstanding programs on television today, many of them relate to a recognizable world, one not so different from our own. There is something fundamentally different about classic television, about how it develops organically from the culture which it reflects. That's something I can't say about most of today's programs. They present a world that, for the most part, is far different from the one which I inhabit - darker, cruder, rougher, more nihilistic. It's not the world I want to live in. To paraphrase Dominick Dunne's wonderful book about the O.J. Simpson trial, it's another country, not my own. Perhaps that's the best analogy of them all.