May 1, 2019

Taking TV seriously

Pop culture can fill you with empty calories; that’s just what it wants. Once you pop, you can’t stop.”

That quote comes from "Searching for Life in the Time of Easter Eggs," Sean Fennessey's article at The Ringer, that asked whether or it was possible to watch today's movies and television shows on their own terms, instead of looking for hidden meanings from their creators. It reminded me of a piece I did about three weeks ago, a fairly deep dive on Hogan’s Heroes where I asked questions about the morality of  actions taken during the show—questions that might not really be considered until you’d seen each episode multiple times.

The difference is that, unlike the shows mentioned in The Ringer article (Game of Thrones, etc.), the issues in Hogan's Heroes were ones that weren't planted by the creators—in fact, they might not even have known about them. When I wrote The Electronic Mirror, I argued in favor of viewing television in this manner, of exploring programs not only for their subtleties, but for meanings that the creators themselves might never have intended. Biblical scholars will tell you that certain personages from the time—Caiaphais, for one*—often speak the truth inadvertently, without realizing what it is they’re saying, or what its significance is. It’s fair to say, therefore, that just because a particular subtext was missing from the scriptwriter’s intent, that doesn’t mean we aren’t free to consider the questions it raises.

*John 11:50.

What it really boils down to, I suppose, is whether or not one can address such serious questions—questions of life and death, of ethics and morality and the costs associated with doing the right thing—within the context of any television show, not just a sitcom meant mostly as a form of clever but diverting entertainment.* In the case of Hogan, the questions clearly are valid ones, and could be addressed at some length and detail.

*Most of you probably know about the controversy surrounding Hogan’s Heroes and the question of whether or not a Prisoner of War camp is an appropriate location for a situation comedy so this series in particular seems ripe for deeper discussions. 

The next question is this: was this an outlier, a case of a devoted fan digging deeper into the meaning of a show than most people would be inclined to do? Was Hogan’s Heroes itself ever intended to be analyzed in such a manner? Or should we look at all television this way, as a form of entertainment that comes embedded with its own Easter eggs that point, for the curious viewer, in the direction of a gateway to a more significant form of discussion and debate?

To the surprise of nobody, I’m sure, I subscribe to a fair number of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages dealing with classic television. And again, not surprisingly, most of them deal with questions about things like “Who’s Your Favorite TV Spy?” or “Does Anyone Remember [fill-in name of show between 1970-2010]?” I like these kinds of discussions; they’re fun and frivolous, and they often bring back warm and happy memories. They are, in short, entertaining.

And so let’s go back to the quote at the beginning of this essay.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from decades of old TV Guides, it’s this: there has always been a concern that television should be more than just “mere entertainment.” I don’t think the phrase “empty calories” was in use back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but, as I pointed out in The Electronic Mirror, the food metaphor was always close at hand; I frequently quote Erwin D. Canham as pointing out that people can’t live on dessert alone; therefore, television has an obligation to provide viewers with a balanced diet of programming.

I think some people might be afraid of this kind of scholarship, for that’s what it is. They think they’ll be accused of being nerds, of turning into obsessives who dress up at conventions and create foreign languages and live their lives in a semi-permanent state of detachment from the real world—Trekkies, in other words. They may simply fear that going beyond the text of the show threatens their ability to enjoy it for what it is: a relaxing form of entertainment that they can share alone or with friends. Or, it may be something that they never even consider.

I want to challenge the notion that classic TV consists of empty calories, to go beyond it, as I think many of you do as well. I want to prove that pop culture can be the balanced diet that provides both the nourishment of dinner and the fun of dessert. It can never leave the realm of entertainment; Easter eggs do no good if nobody’s there to see it. But it doesn’t have to be a plateful of empty calories either, and in fact we should try and avoid that whenever possible.

That’s what I set out to do in The Electronic Mirror, and it’s what I look to do here on a regular basis. It can be done, and I think I’ve tried to do this, without becoming threatening, without discouraging the reader who wants nothing to do with a dry, academic text. Hopefully you find it as much fun as I do, and as satisfying. (If you don’t, I hope you’ll at least come for the old TV Guides, and stay for the cartoons.)

Whatever the case—and I’m trying to speak beyond the choir here—I hope you’ll consider that classic television can be stimulating as well as entertaining, that it can cause you to ask big questions and ponder the meanings of what you see on the screen, that it will engage you in a form of active participation that will enrich your viewing pleasure in so many different ways. Yes, it’s fun and games, but to paraphrase Peggy Lee, that’s not all there is. TV  


  1. "TV should be for something more", the problem is WHO decides: George Washington or Joseph Goebbels. Now were a lot closer to Goebbels.

  2. Hogan's Heroes was never meant to be taken seriously. The show itself was a mashup of "Combat!", "Sgt. Bilko", "McHale's Navy", and the myriad "spy craze" shows of the mid-1960s. Hogan was a more affable and less oleaginous version of Bilko.

    1. It wasn't meant to be taken seriously - correct. And that's why the fact that we're still able to draw a serious message out of it, something that is worthy of consideration even in a piece of entertainment, shows why we should take television, even humorous television, as an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!