More Meandering Thoughts on Television

Ronnie Ortiz-Magro of MTV's Jersey Shore

I started this blog on February 8 of this year, and so far there have been 57 entries. Considering that these shows range from the standard 22 minute sitcom to the 80+ minute Monday night episodes of The Bachelor, and considering all the television I watch and don’t write about, I would estimate my television watching from February 8 to today, March 22, to be at least 75 hours, or just over three consecutive days of eyeball-withering screen time.

Now when you watch this much television, and you force yourself to do something you’ve never done before while watching–that is to say, you force yourself to think critically about each show on which you plan to write–you learn a few things about television. You certainly don’t learn anything new about yourself (in fact, this concentrated effort at television will tend to reinforce a few things you already knew and subsequently tried to deny), but you will learn a helluva lot about television.

Most network television is incredibly tedious. It’s as if television is purposefully engineered for a specific kind of watching–the zoned-out, TV dinner watching that normal people do after their day jobs, not instead of their day jobs. And most television doesn’t stand up to any sort of in-depth analysis. After writing about three medical dramas (House, Grey’s Anatomy, and Off the Map) for three weeks, I felt as if I had exhausted everything notable or interesting about these programs that could be written about in an accessible manner. Sure, I could parse the tropes of colonialism in Off the Map or Dr. House’s compulsion to other himself and deny the emotional effects of trauma through his compulsive pill-popping, but that does a disservice to myself and my readers.

We can look for things in television that aren’t explicitly there, but this esoteric approach to understanding popular culture often attributes more to the shows than what they actually depict. The more I dig into mass media television on a pseudo-philosophical level, the more I put myself into these shows. I begin to write about my own scholarly interests and theoretical positions through the tangible object of the television program, but I cease to consider each show as the arbiter of its own presentation.

Is this necessarily a problem? When I write about Parks and Recreation, should I talk about big ideas, like the socioeconomic growth of small towns, or should I talk about a particular character’s personal politics, like Ron Swanson’s specific brand of Libertarianism? And on a far more mediocre program, such as Gossip Girl or Hellcats, do I talk about class issues among the über rich and the injustice of three strikes laws?

So I guess what I’m wondering is where to draw the line. I can write about the television programs themselves, or I can position them within an external context where I end up writing about the issues they suggest. The first strategy leaves me complaining about the tedium of most television programs, and the second strikes me as neglectful of the source material, not to mention highly pretentious.

I want television to be more. As I try to reconcile my opposing critical instincts, I’m consistently awed by how many shows are instantly forgettable. I watch them, I pay attention, but when I sit down to write, I feel as though there’s nothing remotely insightful to say. Even mediocre films can be memorable, but mediocre TV is a cursory entertainment whose fleeting pleasure can always be revisited through the rerun.

This is exactly the problem: a replayed film is a revival, but a replayed television program is a rerun. We don’t think about these similar creative forms in the same way. Sometimes we’ll get a 30 Rock or a Mad Men, but even the most critically acclaimed series are uneven, distributed among phenomenal episodes and the merely decent ones. Maybe I want every television show to be a self-contained entity that can still say something without the context of its season or series, but I realize that this isn’t the nature of the medium. Still, I think that a greater attention payed to the construction of the individual episode, rather than the entire show, can only benefit an increasingly staid form. And it will likely give me more to work with. Stay tuned.

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