Saturday, April 30, 2011

Confort Food - Television Shows

Many folks claim that TeeVee shows are entertainment.  But in reality, they are a form of comfort food - virtual friends that you visit every week.

Creating a hit TeeVee show isn't too hard to do - once you get through those rough first couple of seasons.  Once a show is established, however, and has a steady viewership, you can just phone it in - and even fire the original writers and even the original actors - and people will still watch.

What am I talking about?  Well consider the show M*A*S*H - one of the longest-running, if not the longest running shows on TeeVee.  The show actually ran longer than the Korean War itself.  Every week, you could tune in and see the antics of Hawkeye, Hotlips, Radar, and all the gang, and it was as familiar and comfortable as an old blanket.

At one point, in the 1980's when the original show still aired, one of the local stations was playing re-runs in syndication - running two shows "back to back".  Another station on Cable was doing the same thing, so on a Thursday night, you could see a whopping five episodes of M*A*S*H in one night.

I used to joke that you could set up an entire cable channel to play nothing but M*A*S*H.  251 original episodes, 30 of the spinoff, the "Walter" pilot, plus the original theatrical movie, for nearly six days in a row without repeating.

But of course, the show tended to repeat itself - it became derivative - over and over again.  The plots were recycled, the lines became cliches (like most good TeeVee shows, the characters quickly adopted signature taglines, like Jimmy Walker's "Dyn-O-Mite!").  A typical plot would involve Hawkeye trying to get a new autoclave, which in turn would require that he find Klinger new pantyhose, which in turn would require that they find Radar a new jeep for the motor pool.

Hilarity ensues.  Not really.  Comfort ensues.  The only people laughing are on the laugh track.

Speaking of which, think about the laugh track on that show - or any other.  Close your eyes and think of how it sounded.  You can hear the same people (or machines) laughing, can't you?  It has that odd sound, not really laughter.  And of course, the things that they laugh at, well, they aren't funny.

"Sweetening" they call it in the business - adding canned laughter to make an unfunny show seem funny.  And it is really annoying, and once you stop watching TeeVee, you can't really stand it.  Or if you are stoned, it sounds harsh - like great sheets of plate glass being dropped from a tall building.  Bummer.

So why did we all watch this drivel?  Because we became comfortable with it.  It fits like an old shoe and smells like an old blanket.  It is warm and fuzzy and reassuring, and people need and want that.

And once the show makes it past those wobbly first few seasons (M*A*S*H was on the verge of being cancelled, the first year) it takes on a life of its own.  You can cheapen the show (getting rid of expensive outdoor and helicopter shots in favor of indoor sets and an old bus) and even get rid of actors (hiring similar actors in their place).  The audience won't mind, actually.

The ensemble cast is the producer's best friend and the actor's worst enemy, as Suzanne Somers realized to her dismay.  With a group cast, you can take out one or more characters and still have the show - and no one actor can hold out for more money.

And all TeeVee shows follow this same "comfort food" pattern.  So-called Variety shows were really more about repetition than actual variety.  If you watched Carol Burnett, you were sure to see the same skit setups over and over again.

And the shows all use the same or similar formats.  Late night talk-shows all follow the same format - slavishly - and the "comfort" is in seeing the same face, over and over again.  Johnny Carson was no late-night genius (I tend to agree with Wayne Newton that he came across as an acerbic, homophobic jerk, beneath his veneer of niceness) but we got used to him - and the tightly constructed format of his show. When competitors and successors popped up, they all copied the same format - house band, opening monologue, guest couch, film clips, guest performer, etc. - to the letter.

Imitation is the sincerest form of television, as Fred Allen once said.

Even the evening news is comfort food - and all alarmingly the same.  We watched "Uncle Walter" Cronkite, because he was a comforting Father figure.  And the format of the news hasn't changed since his day.  A dynamic anchorman opens with a "lead" (or "lede") and then quickly cuts to a "foreign correspondent" who stands in front of the Eiffel Tower (or some notable foreign landmark that seems appropriate to the story) and reads the same lead.  If you remove the repetition and typed up what they actually said, the 22-minute evening news could be reduced to the size of one index card - and read in less than a minute-and-a-half.

And yet, "more people get their news from ABC news than any other source" - and yet, people wonder how I can remain "informed" without watching "the nightly nooze".

Television is just dreck, and none of it is redeeming.  Even award-winning series like the "Sopranos" are just more comfort food.  In this instance, the format is the soap opera - serial television as opposed to idiotic episodic.  You tune in to see the same characters and take comfort in the sameness of it all.  There is no actual plot, of course - like a soap opera, it is just a bunch of shit that happens - whatever the writers felt like writing, and what needed to be written to get rid of characters that didn't pan out - or actors who asked for more money.

Even PBS is the same way.  You tune into "Poirot" to see the same comfortable characters in a largely recycled "whodunnit" plot.  It is very predictable.

It is funny, too, because at the dawn of television, no one had a clue what people would watch.  So they put on everything - ballet, opera, documentaries, whatever.  But what they realized was not that people wanted a variety of things, but a lot of the same. Game Shows, sit-coms, variety shows, soap operas, and the like.  People wanted to watch the same thing, over and over again, with minor variations - not different things every week.  And the early pioneers - Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, figured this out quickly.  Establish dynamic, lovable characters, with repetitious plot lines and tag lines -  "To the Moon, Alice!"  and "Lucy, I'm Hoooome!" 

So is this a bad thing?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  The problem with this sort of television is that it panders to the compulsive-addictive nature in all of us.  And compulsive-addictive behavior can be exploited and used against you.  Smoking, drinking, drug use, video games, even driving a car - are all examples of repetitive behaviors that we become addicted to and spend countless hours doing - and squandering countless hours in the process, not to mention countless dollars.

The average American watches 4.6 hours a day of television.  That statistic alone is scary enough.  What is scarier is that a growing number of people, such as myself, watch none - and a lot of people watch very little.  Which means that a huge number are watching 5, 6, or even 8 hours or more a day of TeeVee - everything from morning shows, to Oprah, to soap operas, to game shows, syndicated programming, the evening news, the sit-coms and reality shows, to late night, late-late night, and beyond.  Not to mention the 500 channels of cable to choose from.

And people who watch television are depressed - all of them.  There is no such thing as a happy, well-adjusted TeeVee viewer.  TeeVee sells comfort food, because the people who watch it are depressed and want comfort.  They are lonely and want friends, and I know a bar where "everyone knows your name" - every Thursday night at 8:30, at least.  And the enormous amount of time wasted watching it - plus the passivity it induces - causes more depression.

Pretty soon, you are finding it hard to even wash the dishes and throw away the pizza boxes.

For many people, giving up television seems like the hardest thing to do, when in fact, it is the easiest. And once you start acting rather than reacting, your life gets a lot better in short order.