Sunday, March 24, 2013

The state of television, the state of me

It is a great irony of the Internet that a medium that is widely acknowledged as fostering anonymity among its users actually makes me feel more self-conscious.

To be clear, I'm not one to go trolling on a YouTube video and post comments like "carly rae jepsen is an old hag! God doesn't exist!!!!11!!!!" or even go trolling on the most niche of niche posts--things like this--and spew about how "the season finale of Homeland was a pile of dog poo and anyone who thinks otherwise is a first-class idiot!!!!"

No, if anything I'm extremely delicate with whatever I post on the Internet, in a public forum, mainly for fear of sounding like a first-class idiot, or maybe an old hag, or maybe just someone who's grammar illiterate (always proofread everything).

As it is, I am afraid of ruffling feathers (and in the wide expanse of Internet, I seem to stand squarely in the minority on this). I never want to say something offensive or ignorant, so I find myself using lots of "I think"s and "I feel"s and "Maybe it was just me"s. Some could call this timid; I call it cautious (spin!). There's really nothing worse than an obnoxious troll who for some reason derives pleasure from ticking people off. It's like going to someone's birthday party and stealing all the presents; it's a bitch move.

But I am also a very defensive person. I don't want to ruffle any feathers, but if a few fly off, I'll be prepared to defend their dislodging. It is certainly not my favorite quality about myself, but I'd be dishonest not to admit it. I've always been sensitive. Now it's manifesting itself in my love for certain television shows.

. . . .

It is hard to deny that, at least looking at the more narrow realm of cable (both basic and premium), and thus excluding the sorry Big Four networks, we are living in a golden age of television. Never before have we had such a glut of shows to enjoy.

Do you like your drama moody (or mod-y) and office politicky and with smoke in your eyes from the slow burn of stakes creeping higher? There's a show for that. Or maybe you're fascinated by a man who, in the span of a year, is ripped from our hero-loving hands and presented to us as a truly despicable, merciless villain, preferably with Southwestern backdrops and some meth alongside? What are you waiting for? Maybe still you're an Anglophile who's got a thing for post-WWI settings and lap-it-up soap? Here you go. Or maybe you find yourself diagramming on a massive cork board what it would be like if a manic depressive female CIA agent fell in crazy stupid love with a POW who also happened to be an Al-Qaeda sleeper agent? Look no further. (And that's just on Sundays!)

There's really something for everyone, whether you like your television to be thrilling, gripping, and twisty or slow, artful, and character-driven. Or maybe you like a mixture. (Maybe you like zombies!) Cable television is in the midst of a great golden age. More and more television shows begin to look like movies in their cinematography. Production values are getting higher. The writing is getting smarter and cleverer as audiences are becoming more devoted and invested in the medium. The acting pool is a wealth of talent (take your pick from any of the following: Bryan Cranston, Maggie Smith, Mandy Patinkin, Kevin Spacey, Laura Linney, and the list goes on for days. Every year pilots with A-list movie stars are being produced. This go-round you can add Robin Williams to the list). Even first-class feature directors are getting in on the action: Ang Lee, David Fincher, and Jonathan Demme have been at the helm (or will be) of many top shows.

So it's no surprise that as the quality of shows themselves become greater, so too does the involvement of fans themselves. I've long thought that television is the most personal and intimate of all entertainment mediums. More so than film, which we view in a theater as a single confined experience, for only about two hours of our lives. More so than books, which for all their ability to craft a vivid universe can never be rendered fully the way that something on a screen can. (When you read, do you picture things in color? I feel I'm always imagining in black and white.) More so than music, which is grand in its ability to inspire emotion (hate, love, joy, sadness, disgust), but still remains fleeting. It is for our ears only.

Television hovers over them all. Television is ritualistic, it is habitual. When you love a TV show, you know exactly what you are doing every Sunday at 9 pm. You are sitting down on the couch and watching Mad Men. When a show is really good, it becomes "appointment viewing." As in, "I own a DVR and could totally watch this in two hours or tomorrow or the next day but I have to watch it rightthisverysecond." We make an appointment (with ourselves, with our TVs, with perhaps millions of other people around the country doing the same thing) to sit down--maybe on the edge of our seats--and watch a program for an hour. It's like meeting a friend for coffee every week at the same time (or, if you're like me, it's like having a job interview every week at the same time for the sheer amount of anxiety and anticipation that precedes the actual appointment).

And we let TV into our homes, into our living rooms, into our most personal and intimate spaces. When I think about some of the most successful or long-running TV shows, I think about the characters on these shows and how close I still feel to them to this day. Monica and Chandler and Phoebe and Ross and Joey and Rachel felt like my friends after ten years. (It's no coincidence that the final shot of that series was of the famous frame on Monica's apartment door, a clever wink to the audience, for we, too, had had such an intimate and up-close look at the lives of these six people for a full decade.) On Gilmore Girls, the quirky Stars Hollow townies were so endearing--despite their sometimes over-the-top annoyingness--that I still feel strangely protective of them (I love you, Kirk! But Taylor Doose can go fall in a hole).

Television infiltrates our lives in aspects that other mediums simply cannot. For many people, it's what brings them together at night after long days of school or work. It bonds them still the next morning with their peers and coworkers. Are people talking about Silver Linings Playbook or the new Taylor Swift album around the watercooler? No, they're mostly talking about "Zou Bisou Bisou" or who got killed off Downton Abbey or the gutting interrogation between Carrie and Brody.

Television brings us together. But it also tears us apart.

By its very nature, because it is so personal, television can hit at something deeper. Or at least that's what I'm finding. Maybe I'm just getting older and more cynical and hardened and jaded (I'm all of 21, by the way). Maybe it's that I've begun reading more entertainment and culture blogs (like Vulture, AV Club, and Salon) and am more exposed to differing opinions on shows that I previously only viewed in a vacuum (how the hell else can I explain watching Grey's Anatomy into its eighth season?). Maybe it's just because of my obsessive, addictive tendencies that lead me to latch onto certain TV shows and defend them at all costs (hey, the first step is admitting you've got a problem, right?).

Whatever the reason, TV shows are becoming a lot more serious for me. I frequently have to remind myself that 1) It's only a television show and 2) It's okay if my tastes and preferences don't jibe with other people's.

Recently, the FX drama The Americans debuted to widespread critical acclaim. The show takes place in 1981, shortly after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office as President, and follows a husband-and-wife team of "deep cover" KGB spies, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. I was excited to watch the pilot, which was hailed as the best since Homeland's in 2011. Of course, the magic word for me is "Homeland" so I tuned in, waiting for that magic to strike.

And I kept waiting. Three episodes in, and I'm still waiting to feel compelled by this show, to understand what all the critics are so swoon-y over, to finally "get it." True to form, I found myself both on the offensive ("These characters aren't compelling. This guy's annoying. How is this great TV?") and on the defensive ("Maybe it's just me but..." and "I think the reason why I don't like this show is...").

And on the surface, I think my reasons for feeling apathetic toward this show (and also toward ones like Mad Men, which I feel is overrated and whose creator/auteur I find abhorrent) are perfectly rational, if also incredibly subjective. But I think my irrational problems with The Americans hit at something more, hit at the pervading bully culture that thrives on the anonymity of Internet culture.

In a world and a culture increasingly governed by extremes, it's hard to have your opinion heard when it's not easily crafted to garner a reaction. And our society's insistence on overexposure, the proliferation of media outlets devoted solely to telling you who just dyed her hair (er... is this groundbreaking?) or who is the best- or worst-dressed (but don't objectify women! that's bad!), naturally leads to pedestals and to people to push others off of them. The higher up they prop you, the farther you have to fall. Thus the backlash is born.

The entire notion of a backlash suggests something deeper in our culture. Why do we feel so inclined, entitled even, to become bullies to people's work, to people's living? As consumers (of media, of products, of everything) we are of course entitled to our own opinions. When people make anything designed for consumption, whether it's the super corporation making a gadget, or a local producer of handmade marmalades, or Steven Spielberg, or Mike White, they open themselves up to the public discourse. They become susceptible to extremes: unreserved love or unreserved vitriol. Very few people garner unreserved apathy, and curiously that might be the cruelest fate of all.

When I think about the term "backlash" and the competing sides of the "unreserved love and unreserved vitriol" coin, I think first and foremost of Lena Dunham, the multi-hyphenate behinds HBO's Girls. I feel like the term "backlash" was invented for her, but the truth is that she is the not the first and surely won't be the last to come under public fire for literally anything and everything.

Most critics love her show. We normal folk? It's a mixed bag. Why? Take your pick of reasons: she's too fat, too naked, a bad actress, a horrible writer, not funny, the product of nepotism, #firstworldproblems. Think of something horrible and it has probably been spewed at this woman, who's five years older than me and, for her work on Girls, has received two Golden Globes, a Writers Guild of America award, a Directors Guild of America award, and four Emmy nominations. So is it jealousy? Why do people feel so personally repulsed by Dunham and her TV show (repeat: It's just a television show)? What's more, why do they feel the need to comment on it every chance they get? (It's ironic that a show about the hipster culture in Brooklyn brings out a greater legion of "too cool for it" haters than I've ever seen. Then again, hipsters do love irony.)

. . . .

The culture surrounding television these days is also a mixed bag. There is a lot to hate: the obsession with meaningless violence; the reliance (in network TV especially) on old and tired formulas (two people move in together! throw in a baby! and a grumpy neighbor! and a salacious old lady!); the double standard of likability for men and women (a topic that endlessly fascinates me); and pretty much everything on CBS. But there is also a lot to love. Television is an incredibly rich medium these days, and the longform narrative is tough for film to compete with. The storytelling is richer. Especially for women, in which, once past the age of 40, the good roles continually diminish (unless you're, say, Meryl Streep) until you're just playing the mother to an actress probably 12 years younger, television offers dynamic, bold roles for women of all ages. Glenn Close was 65 when Damages finished the run that earned her two Emmys. Kathy Bates was 62 and Emmy-nominated on Harry's Law. Connie Britton is 46 and playing a kickass-and-taking-names-type country star on Nashville. Jessica Lange, 63, scares the bejesus out of me in her Emmy-winning role (and general existence) on American Horror Story.

Even relatively younger actresses like Christina Hendricks, 37, or Claire Danes, 33, have found comparatively greater success on television than in film. In an interview last year, Danes accurately summed up the general film/TV quandary: "I remember, [the Homeland role] came up on the same weekend that I had read for the secretary role on that J Edgar movie and I was like, 'Do I want to play the secretary to some really compelling person, or do I just wanna play the f-cking compelling person?'" (Amen, sister.)

And more so than film, television culture is one built on minutiae. It's no surprise that the recap atmosphere has made us hyper-critical, often overwhelmingly so. Would we ever judge a 12-chapter book by the state of things after chapter 10? I doubt it, but that's basically what happens at 12 am Monday morning when reviews of Sunday night shows go up. Part of it is, of course, the water cooler environment that TV fosters. Some shows, too, reward attention to detail; it's just how you watch them (think Mad Men). There is certainly value to be found in engaging in meaningful discussion about this increasingly richer medium. But you need only engage in the conversation for a few moments to realize that someone has already crashed the party. And what about this person? He's not looking for meaningful discussion. He watches the show and then berates every aspect. He picks it apart. He is a bully. What about these people?

. . . .

And so when the Homeland backlash began, which started in early December 2012 and lasted a few weeks, I felt correspondingly annoyed, defensive, and outraged. Homeland had swept many of the major categories at the Emmys in September, the target was squarely on its back, everyone was waiting with bated breath for a single misfire. It'd be futile to attempt to defend certain plot points (I'm looking at you, Carrie chasing Nazir with a metal pipe!), but the truth is that some people will hate anything no matter what. They'll hate it because they'll be the first ones and feel a sense of superiority. It's the hipster mentality: I loved this before it was cool or I hated this before it was uncool. These people are the most infuriating to encounter, because they're not looking for lively and intelligent discussion, only to spew hate about a show (apparently they're the only ones who notice how hideous of an actress Claire Danes is; who'd have thunk it?). There is no hope for these haters. They jump the shark on jumping the shark!

And yet... they are the ones I always feel most compelled to respond to. Because when someone insults a show, a show that I watch every week and enjoy watching and really love, they're insulting more than just the show. They're insulting my taste. They're insulting me! You can imagine the rabbit hole this quickly leads down. But it's only a television show. And that's what I continue to tell myself. 

Still, it wasn't hard for me to recognize that in many ways my irrational distaste for The Americans feeds from my irrational love for Homeland, the first show in which watching made me feel a part of the zeitgest. The first show in which watching made me feel a part of the conversation. The first show in which watching made me feel smart and adult. (Never underestimate the power of wanting to feel part of the "in crowd.")
It's not off-base to attribute my dislike for The Americans to my proclivity to defend Homeland. The minute I began to view it in that prism, it never stood a chance. It's a hard thing to watch a show and accept that you will never really love it, or that it will take some time until you do. When there's so much matter swarming around for your attention, why bother with the things you only like? More and more I'm finding that something that is good just doesn't cut it. "Like" is not good enough (hey, maybe that's why I've grown weary of Facebook). Something either needs to be terrifically awful (and so it was that hate-watching was born) or just plain terrific (Homeland, Girls, Mad Men, for me at least). At the same time, you want to be a part of the conversation. To not watch is to be left out of the conversation.

. . . .

And so I can't help but wonder: am I a product of this culture, or is this culture a product of people like me? I am certainly no saint. I really can't be bothered to block parts out of my week to watch a television show that I don't love, and I especially can't see the appeal in then actively participating in a conversation about it. But I caught the last half of Grey's Anatomy a few days ago (for the first time in months) and tweeted about just how awful it was (it really was, though, I promise). Nikki Finke, the founder of industry website Deadline, does some deliciously hateful live blogs for awards shows that I love to follow. The website Television Without Pity has built its entire reputation on being snarky; the best, if harshest, dialogues about television also happen to take place here (in my opinion, at least).

Still, I find myself eager to change my trajectory, to avoid becoming one of those hardened, bitter, cynical viewers. I don't want to derive some kind of masochistic pleasure from watching something I hate. I certainly don't want to become a spoil sport.

All of this, too, may seem silly. (Remember, it's just a television show.) It may seem like I'm overthinking things. Making a mountain out of a mole hill, and all that. Maybe I am. But television, and the ways in which we consume it, reflects on other aspects of our lives and personalities, too. What you watch, how you watch, when you watch, and most importantly why you watch seem to hint at something beneath the surface, something elementary.

For example, I recently started watching Scandal. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what attracts you to a certain television show. This one is addictive and crazy and kind of escapist. There is a procedural aspect to it that's comforting in its repetitiveness and reliability. I also cannot underestimate the power of feeling a part of the conversation. Scandal has seen a big surge in popularity these past few months, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Watching this show was a reflection on the innate desire to belong; it was also a reminder of the power of the delicate balance between being pushed but not being pushed too much. We like our habits and our routines. In the words of Lorelai Gilmore, "As long as everything is exactly the way I want it, I’m totally flexible." Bend, but don't break.

And what do I have to say about this show? Well, it's guilty pleasure TV, first and foremost. I make sure to preface all of my opinions about this show with this disclaimer, lest someone think less of my taste. I make no qualms about my problems with this show, but I also give credit where it's due. It's fun, a thrilling ride, entertainment above all. But I'm still taking it (too?) seriously: there are issues with character development and narrative structure and yada yada yada. I tell myself that its creators would want their art to be taken seriously and judged. But do they? No artform is perfect, and often imperfection is still beautiful.

But is it possible to love something and just let it be? Is it possible to hate something and just let it be?

. . . .

But the question remains: what's the best way to self-correct? Again: am I a product of this culture, or is this culture a product of people like me? (Which came first: the chicken or the egg?)

The question begins to morph when I look at it as a wheel instead of a defined sequence of events. It's not A, then B. Rather, A is B. And who knows when this cycle started. Could we trace back one from the other, spinning around counter-clockwise until we arrive at the singular start point? Perhaps there was some sort of immaculate conception and it just began to be?

But this vicious cycle--of simultaneously feeding into the culture and feeding from it--seems like a waste of energy to me. A waste of mental resources, of time, of breath. Our hours could be much better served doing something else, something progressive, something good.

And yet... and yet. I'm still drawn back. I still look at the grade for each episode of The Americans and feel something (is it pleasure? I-told-you-so catharsis? I can't be sure) when it's B-level. I'll still follow Nikki Finke's live-blog of the Emmys in September because it's hilarious and I enjoy her insight. I will watch Mad Men this spring and enjoy it when it's good because I enjoy good television; the scary part is that I might enjoy it more when it's not so good because I think the show could be taken down a few notches.

I am a product of this culture, and this culture is a product of me. I am this culture. To change one is to change the other.

It is hard to change a culture. I think it might be even harder to change myself.


  1. well whoa. very thought-provoking for 6am on a Monday. You make some very good points, especially about why TV is such a great medium for story-telling ...and for women of all ages (on the acting end); the double standard around male/female like ability is fascinating. well-done!

  2. agree, a lot to think about after only a couple cups of coffee! tv has evolved SO much over the decades. today's haters are louder due to social media outlets. back in the day they were restricted by column space and copy editors.