something last week about architecture, and I keep coming back to it because it seems to me that there’s an essential truth embedded in what he wrote, and one way to tell whether or not it’s both essential and true is to try it out in another area, another field of endeavor, and see if it still holds up.
He’s writing about the architectural style called Brutalism, and I’d contend that television today, for all its achievements in storytelling and sophistication, is displaying something of its own Brutalist movement. Architecture and television are both creative, even artistic, forms, and they both can be used to tell a story, so it seems to make some sense to think there could be similarities. And ironically, the era of architectural Brutalism to which Lileks refers – the mid-60s – is precisely the era in which television displayed perhaps its least Brutalist characteristics. Or perhaps it isn’t so ironic after all.
I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s not an original thought of mine, that this has created a universe that bears little resemblance to that with which most people are familiar, one to which very few would aspire. As Lileks puts it with regard to architecture, “Their answer to ‘the urban problem’ was to raze history and replace it with something unmoored from human experience.” I think the same goes with television. One of Brutalism’s proponents described the experiment, “We had a very modern, sixties attitude towards what an urban university should be. We thought it should provide skills and philosophies that would help resolve the urban problem. Of course it didn’t. But the buildings reflected that effort.”
The favorite example is a program like Leave it to Beaver, which may have presented an idealistic view of family life in the ‘50s, but which remained recognizable to most people, and which had many aspects that were attainable to the average American family. In the same way that pre-Brutalist architecture gave us buildings that guided the eye upward, presenting their beauty in an aspirational sense, television of the ‘50s and ‘60s lifted viewers up, rather than pressing them down. In addition to their messages, which I’ll get to in the next paragraph or so, there was the sheer beauty of late-‘60s programming, the vividness of the palate in the wake of the transfer to all-color programming. The lighting may have been unrealistically bright, the colors themselves might have lacked decorating sense, but there was something celebratory about them, something that doesn’t come through in the more naturalistic cinematography that’s used today. And, as we know, “naturalism,” along with “functionality,” is a word and a philosophy closely associated with Brutalism. But television of the ‘50s and ‘60s didn’t necessarily have to be functional in an intellectual or philosophical sense, just in the way in which it served its dual purposes of attracting viewers and selling products.
So far the analogy has worked primarily in an aesthetic sense, because both television and architecture are visual media. Pre-Brutalist architecture celebrated that aesthetic pleasure, in the same way that pre-Brutalist television tended not to emphasize the ugly side of life. In fact, though, Brutalism is not just a visual style of architecture, but a philosophical as well; buildings that, according to Lileks, “were technocratic machines for making technocrats and social scientists.” He’s talking about college campuses, where Brutalism was a big hit, but he could be talking about business as well. He continues: “It is possible to be rational and beautiful, but there’s always a certain type of pinched soul drained of wit who distrusts beauty: it cozens and seduces you from the true goal, which is usually some sociopolitical objective.” Again, he’s talking about architecture, but he could just as well be talking about modern television.
The aspirational ideal of pre-Brutalist television exists, not just aesthetically, but as a link to the past. The Honeymooners sent the message that success was possible for the lower middle-class. The moral of the story in Dragnet was that crime didn’t pay. Perry Mason presented a man dedicated to preserving the integrity of the legal system and the defense of the innocent. Countless comedies and dramas gave us a nuclear family that could at least give one hope that the thorniest problems could be solved if a family was determined to solve them. Even a show like The Beverly Hillbillies, derisively dismissed though it may have been, could reassure viewers that wealth didn’t have to corrupt the average man. These were all themes that were part of the American psyche, that - to use a cliche - had been passed down from generation to generation in their familiarity.
Dramas carry their own agenda, predictably a liberal one. You might recall that a few weeks ago I wrote about the problems ‘70s television had in portraying the drug crisis, and how much of that challenge revolved around ideology.* So it is with television today, especially in its ability to create programing that “flyover” territory can identify with. Considering how over 90% of people in the industry profess a liberal political agenda, it’s only natural. It does, however, transform television from a medium of entertainment (and commerce) to one that favors and advocates a distinct ideological way of thinking and behaving.
*One reason why I’ve tended to limit the pre-Brutalist era of television to the ‘50s and ‘60s; this is not to say, however, that the Brutalist aesthetic had infiltrated programming of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the extent that it has today. It didn’t. However, it would be foolish to suggest that Brutalism simply sprung up out of nowhere, and I think the ‘70s is a good place to look
Everything from police procedurals to legal dramas are filled with this weary cynicism, which again is implicit in the Brutalist style. As Lileks writes, “[Y]ou might think its example was enough to put everyone off the idea for the rest of human civilization.” Just as the Brutalist landscape leaves you thinking that it "looks like a place for a robed, mutated council to pronounce sentence on a man from the irradiated outlands," Brutalist television can leave one with that crushing feeling. Lileks, in another column, has it just right: "The very thing that makes modern TV so different from old rote TV with its one-off eps and no continuity is the same thing that makes it feel like a duty some times." And this makes sense: after all, being forced to sit in school and learn what's good for you often feels like a duty, and as we've seen, Brutalism tried to impart that same kind of aesthetic medicine. The Brutalist message is thus: "If we have curved, meandering paths and different styles of buildings, the students we produce will have minds so accustomed to disorder they will hesitate to shoot the proletariat when - I mean, they will be unable to properly grasp the need for theories that shape the masses for the betterment of all!" In other words, let's make it easy for the viewers to understand the proper feelings, emotions, opinions.
This is an imperfect analogy, of course; all analogies are, and any one of you can probably come up with examples of current television shows that fail to fit neatly into this comparison, or contradict it completely*, as well as dozens of shows from the '50s and '60s that don't even rise to the level of crap. It's also an imperfect example of - well, I won't call it scholarship, because it fails the academic standards of research that would be required to classify it as such. It's an opinion piece, albeit a well-reasoned one, if I do say so myself. But then, I never claimed this site to be a scholarly one. If I took the time to research everything I wrote, there might be fewer mistakes and more sophisticated theories - but there'd also be about half the number of pieces, and I don't really think you'd like that, do you? By the time this makes it to the book, combined with other essays comparing past and present television, I suspect I'll have had the opportunity to flesh it out a little more.
*And let's face it, everyone enjoys a little Brutality once in a while,he says as he watches the end of "For a Few Dollars More." But then, Clint hardly seems to exhibit the world-weariness that so many of today's television stars show.
At any rate, I think it makes for a compelling argument. And you remember how, at the beginning, I said that perhaps it wasn't so ironic after all that the Brutalist era of architecture coincided with the least Brutalist era of television? Recall that as Lileks writes, those Brutalist-designed campuses were intended to be "technocratic machines," and recall also that those students who were products of that education are probably the showrunners and scriptwriters of today. Coincidence?