Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Golden Age of Television

Shows like this were once considered part of the "Golden Age of Television." But looking back, they were pretty stupid and predictable, and "sweetened" with canned laughter. Only an idiot would watch this drivel. The same is true today.

Television. I have written on it extensively as it is an important influence on people's lives - a bad and evil influence. Let's face it, most people get their world-view from the mass media and for most people, this world-view is from television. Today, television is more shallow than ever. So-called "reality" shows, which are in fact, loosely scripted and heavily (heavily!) edited, comprise most of the "prime time" viewing. Put 10 strangers in a situation, tell them generally what to do, then videotape hours of footage, and edit it down to 22 minutes of juicy, gossipy-looking prime-time fare. Or how about quasi-game shows, like American Idol, which is little more that the Gong Show of the decade, albeit with better talent.

Everyone tunes in to see Simon, the Gay Stepin Fetchit of today, do his bitchy routine. Oh, Simon, you're such a bitch! we love you! what will he say next? Let me guess, something bitchy perhaps? How original! People love stereotypes, it seems, even today. And blackface has so fallen out of style. Ooooh! And who will win American Idol? Stay tuned, because while I'm just guessing, I'll bet the person with the real talent comes in second. Right? Because they want to keep you blogging, and Twittering and Text Messaging all about the "controversy" they've created over it.

And people fall for this manufactured bullshit? Yup. Hook, line and sinker! Television is dreck, and it always was. Perhaps this is because of its roots - as the ugly stepchild of the movies, always reliant on cheaper production standards to get by, in the early days. And since production had to go on, in the days before videotape, regardless, production values were not that great. And perhaps also, to reach a mass-audience, you had to 'dumb it down' a LOT.

Sophisticated people don't watch TeeVee. Dumb people do. But dumb people will tune out anything that is "above them". While the slightly smarter will endure inane programming. So dumb is in. I recently rented some of the "classic" television shows of my youth on Netflix. While some had good production values, most quickly lost them as the seasons progressed. Ironside, for example, had a witty and interesting first season, with sharply written scripts, and incidental music by Quincy Jones (who appeared as an extra in one episode). However, after the first few episodes, it quickly started falling into a pattern, repeating itself, and clearly being made in a cheaper and cheaper manner. No more sharp scripts. No more outdoor scenes. No more Quincy Jones!

Mannix started out as a sharply written drama, with the lead role, played by Mike Connors, working for IBM-like Intertec, which provided a wry commentary on the 1960's "corporate man" philosophy and attitudes. Joseph Campanella played his corporate boss, always trying to rein Mannix in. He even drove a cool customized George Barris Oldsomobile Tornado convertible (!!) early on. But in the second season, Lucille Ball, head of Desilu, thought that people didn't understand the whole Intertec thing and its commentary on Corporate America. So goodbye Joseph Campenella. And since Chrysler was providing cars, goodbye to George Barris customs! It became a conventional Private Eye show and focused on decreasing production costs and thus became repetitive and derivative.

Why do TeeVee shows do this? The answer is multifold. Television costs a staggering amount of money. To make one minute of on-air time often takes an hour or more of preparation, filming, and then editing and post-production. If you can reduce costs, a show can be more profitable. So you get rid of outdoor sets and try to do things on a sound stage. M*A*S*H got rid of its helicopters and relied on a bus, instead, and filmed almost exclusively on sound stages for the latter half of its existence. Star Trek used the transporter beam (or even a cutaway to a transporter room) to avoid expensive special effects shots. 

Why do people still watch the shows? Well, once you establish a rapport with the audience, people will come back, again and again, if they feel comfortable with the characters. You know exactly what I am talking about. The last five seasons of M*A*S*H basically sucked, but you kept watching because it was "comfort food". It was like the bar where "everyone knows your name". For lonely people (and most Americans are lonely, even in a crowd), a television "family" is comforting and reassuring. So you tune in to Idol because you know Simon will be bitchy. He's like the bitchy Gay friend you never had. And you look forward to hearing his scathing critiques.

You tune in to Seinfeld, because you know Kramer is going to burst through the door. Or maybe J.J. will say "Dyn-O-Mite!" one more time on Good Times. Television has always been this way - predictable and comfortable - since its inception. Whether it was Lucille Ball or Uncle Milty, you could expect predictable, comfortable fare every week when you tuned in. How Sweet it is! Speaking of which, let's talk about the so-called genius of television. Lucille Ball is hailed as some sort of God in some parts, and also as a first-class comedienne. I really don't get it. Her form of frustration humor never really appealed to me. Stuffing chocolates into your brassier? Funny? I don't get it. But maybe I am more of a Fred Mertz kinda guy. The point is, she was funny - for television - which is sort of like winning the Special Olympics. Yes, an achievement, but not ready to run with the big dogs just yet.

And in the 60-some-odd years since its inception, television hasn't improved, and in fact, devolved. Ad time now dominates and the ads blare at twice the volume of the programs - when in fact they are not embedded into them. Networks shamelessly prostitute their viewers to their advertisers, selling eyeballs two at a time. Even some of the "best shows on television" are wanting. The Sopranos? A boring soap opera with no point (after the first season, again the pattern). It was just bunch of characters you grew to love, and then a series of improbable episodes and plot twists that never made any sense or followed some grand story arc. It really jumped the shark when Tony ended up in a Twin Peaks- like dream sequence.

Jumped the Shark - a term popularized based on a TeeVee show that is an excellent example of the concept I am talking about. Happy Days was loosely based on the popular film American Graffiti, and a blatent attempt to cash in on the baby-boomers obsession with their own 1950's childhood. Again, a cast of lovable characters (including Ronnie Howard and Henry Winkler), and a couple of good "tag lines" were all that was needed to construct a series that ran longer than the actual 1950's did.

Cheap to produce, it required only a few indoor sets, even for the famous "Shark Jumping" scene. At that point, or so the folklore goes, the show went downhill. But in fact, it had been coasting on a set of stereotypes, thin character development (how deep was "Fonzie" anyway - beyond his signature bits?) and repeated plot lines.

And in fact, the plot lines on most television shows are pretty stupid to begin with. You end up asking yourself, at the end of the show, why you bothered to waste 22 minutes of your life on it. And that is the real deal - wasting time. I know as a kid I loved the television and viewed it as a regular part of my life. It was already in existence when I was born, so I accepted it without criticism or thought. Television was good. More of it was better.

I could not understand why my parents got nervous when I watched it for hours on end, particularly the very poorly animated Saturday morning cartoon fare. Breaking the habit was not easy. And many people today remain addicted. Think about it, 4.6 hours a day for the average American. What other activity, besides sleep and work, take up as much of your life? And how much of that time spend passively watching is time wasted - time that could be spend living YOUR life, instead of watching someone else's fake life?

And that is the bottom line. People claim they have not enough time in the day to get things done. They cannot attend to their own finances or even cook a meal for themselves, because they are too tired or too busy. But they find the time for 4.6 hours a day to sit motionless, passively absorbing the worst sort of social cues imaginable - while sending out for the take-out pizza, advertised heavily on television. Changing your life, taking charge of your life, living your life, all requires that you actually do things, rather than watch others do things.

Television does not add to your life in that regard, but rather robs from it - steals from you, with your eyes open. And it has always been such, even since the so-called "Golden Age" of TeeVee. No, I don't think Lucille Ball is a genius. I never did, frankly. She had some interesting gags, but for the most part, her stuff was, well, television. Golden age? I don't think so anymore. A waste of some of my most formative years? I think more so. You've seen one episode of Bewitched you've seen them all. So why bother seeing them all?