January 12, 2022

What television is all about

The turning point in Preston Sturges’ wonderful 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels comes as our hero, a director of light comedies who wants to make a searing, socially relevant drama about the human condition, heads out on the road, pretending to be a tramp in order to research first-hand the plight of the average man. Through a complicated misunderstanding best left alone for now, he winds up on a prison chain gang, mistaken for a murderer. One night, the inmates are treated to a showing of the Disney cartoon Playful Pluto, and as he observes these men reacting with childlike joy to the movie’s antics, he comes to understand that the simple pleasure derived from this cartoon comedy outweighs any so-called enlightenment they might have gotten from his social drama.* Thus enlightened, he comes to see his comedies, which he’d disparaged as superficial, are in fact just what audiences want—entertainment.

*Proposed title: O Brother, Where Art Thou? And yes, that's where the Coens got the title.

If you've been a longtime reader, you might remember the article you're about to read—I originally wrote it, I think, about five years ago—but I was drawn to revisit because of a couple of separate but related ideas I've been working on. It's not one continuous story, but when the pieces are all put together, I think it will tell us some interesting things about television and the times in which we live. We'll see what you think over the next couple of weeks. 

When I first wrote this, I did so a couple of weeks after having written about the renown Dr. Karl  Menninger and his theory on "comforting TV." As has been pointed out many times, television is a medium in which the entertainers are invited as guests into our living rooms (or at least that's how it seemed when it first started). One thing that guests don't generally do is harangue their hosts on how they should think, feel, or act. Well, some of them do, but they don't usually get invited back for a second chance. Just as we look forward to a pleasant, relaxing evening when we invite friends over for dinner, we should expect the same from the television we invite into our consciousness.

I think it's important, as we dig deeply into the meaning and consequences of television vis-à-vis the social welfare, that we not lose sight of this. Television is, first and foremost, entertainment, and while not every program provides us with the sheer joy that John Sullivan saw on the faces of his fellow inmates, we should at least aspire to have a good time. That doesn't mean every program you watch has to be mindless drivel, lulling you into a drooling coma; and television programs should provide something that is, if not uplifting and inspiring, at least not a near occasion of some sort of sin. But you get the point. Certainly, as Lileks put it a while back, watching a television series should never become a chore, a burden to be endured each week rather than a pleasure to be relished. Yes, I watch many classic television programs in hopes of learning something to further my writing here, but that's almost incidental to my main purpose, which is an hour or so of enjoyment and relaxation. You'd have a hard time convincing me to watch a series that I found boring, irritating, or mindless, just because there was something instructional about it.

If I were a fan of the NBA (which I'm not), I wouldn't be watching a game in order to get a political lecture from Gregg Popovich. I'd be watching it because I liked basketball and wanted to see who won. And that's all. It doesn't matter if he's bashing Trump or praising William F. Buckley, Jr.—I just want a little entertainment. It's the same with TV series that start mistaking proselytizing for plot development; at the end of the day, does this show scold you or keep you engaged? Are you exhausted but exhilarated, or weary from being harangued? Has your blood pressure stabilized, or is the cuff about to burst in two? And do you find yourself entertained, or does the show just make you as mad as hell and not going to take this anymore?

You remember that episode of The Twilight Zone that I wrote about a few years ago, the one which allowed me to expand on the existential nature of Christmas? That was secondary to the primary reason I watched it in the first place: because it was an episode of a show I liked. The vast majority of programs in my collection, the shows that we watch each week, are there because we like watching them. I'm not ashamed to admit that I like television; it's enriched my life, given me hundreds of hours of enjoyment. And so, no matter what we talk about here, no matter how deep it gets, never lose sight of the big picture: television must provide entertainment. And when that stops, that's when television stops as well. As for what some people find entertaining—well, that's a topic for next week, isn't it?  TV  

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!