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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our cultural heritage--cable television

Vapidity aside...is it just me or has cable become the dumping ground of all that is cheap, shallow, worthless, produced in a nanosecond on a shoestring with a gnats intelligence? Certainly the pay channels are the only refuge now. I was just reading David Foster Wallaces's essay on television written in 1990 and not much has changed. Or has it?

Wallace did not see the advent of reality television. When he wrote his essay there was just a few nascent starts of Married with Children or Cops. A sort of precursor warm up to Survivor and American Idol or Dog the Bounty Hunter. Reality television tells us about ourselves as it reflects back everyday life. No thought. No work for the viewer. The couch potato has become the comatose patient in the mental ward staring blindly at nothing. One thing about reality television is there is no plot and certainly no meaning so we recall it the way you might talk about an accident--did you see that dude forget his song on American Idol?

Forget about the cries of cultural demise--there is no culture here and whats more in cable land no one cares. The real shows have been relegated to pay or the networks that still care about trying to get some ratings through drama--but cable simply shrugs and puts out more American gladiator type of fare or more cooking shows or more fallen stars followed around with camera crews. Ratings are ratings and the good news is that Americans will watch just about anything with sensational lore.

Nothing new under the sun. We have never held high art in high regard. America was formed as a reaction against a wealthy ruling class in Britain. We surfs were being exploited and so we demanded the right to bear arms and to rebel and overthrow the government if need be. A highly educated sliver of an entitled class may appreciate fine art or high literature, but there is nothing in the Declaration of Independence that says we must have culture. We embrace a populist culture that held up the frontiersman and the cowboy and now the bounty hunter and the cop and the fireman and the all American family falling apart on national television. What is more commonplace or populist than watching ourselves?

Bring on YouTube. We did. We do watch ourselves and we enjoy it immensely. If democracy's final evolution is bringing about celebradom for the masses then we are certainly on our way. A movie star or a singing sensation is hatched overnight thanks to the American Idol motif of talent shows with big payoffs. Do we now have ballads sung by young females that sound like every other young female? You betcha. The point is you don't need originality, you merely now have to morph into what was popular and worked before. If everyone could be a Beatle then everyone would--some things are just trickier to pull off.

So when we flip through the diorama of American cable television and find low budget infomercials and televangelist and wrestlers and bounty hunters and talent shows and fallen rock stars playing dad at home then we really have no one to blame but ourselves. We have deemed art to be accessible and reflective only to the point it reflects us back at us while we sit in front of the tube--or there's me! Or that could be me! In that way television has fulfilled it's promise that everyone can be famous if only for a little while. In a little way.
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