I’m not one of those literary types with a “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker on my Volvo station wagon. I don’t own a Volvo, I’ve never quite identified as a literary type, and I happen to like TV.
There are juicy dramas like Mad Men whose writing is better than most current movie screenplays. There are some brilliant comedies. There’s Rachel Maddow for brains, charm and guts, Bill Maher for well-informed iconoclasm, and Jon Stewart for wit and cuteness. There are even a couple of decent classical music stations on cable.
Indeed, most of my favorites are on cable, something not everyone can afford. But there’s a lot to be said for the regular stations, too. In fact, mainstream TV has been an important vehicle of progress over the last generation, bringing us into an era in which we can talk about previously taboo topics. Some would argue we’re talking too much and thinking too little. Nonetheless, we can’t very well champion the idea of positive social change and then turn our noses down at it because it came from TV.
In just a couple of decades, things have gotten dramatically better for gay, bisexual and transgender people, battered spouses, incest survivors, mixed-race couples, sufferers from psychiatric conditions, physical disease and disabilities, people with learning differences, and alcoholics/addicts and their families. Thank you, Phil Donahue, for blazing the trail, and thank you, Oprah, for paving it.
The effects are apparent even in thoroughly awful shows. The very presence of out-of-the-mainstream characters in comedies and dramas, and the ubiquitous exploration of previously closeted issues, probably sends more of a message than overly earnest “tolerance” indoctrination in the schools. I’d even argue that a crummy drama involving a domestic abuse survivor or an openly bipolar person is as valuable in its way as a well-written, nuanced show from a less psychologically sophisticated era.
There are times, too, when TV is uniquely able to convey the impact of a major event. I remember the morning of 9/11, when a family friend—clearly disoriented—called and said she’d never liked the twin towers anyway.
I ignored the offense. “Turn on the TV.”
“I’m listening to KQED radio,” she protested. “I don’t get my news from—”
“Turn it on!” I repeated. There was no better way to grasp the situation. Stations were criticized for airing the footage over and over, but in a way, the looping helped it all sink in.
But it’s not worth it, you say. “News” shows give airtime to shrill insanity. “Reality” shows are…well, unreal. Pharmaceutical ads include baffling disclaimers narrated by some guy on uppers. It’s an assault, it’s crass, it’s insulting.
Hey, I’m not suggesting you attempt all this without the Mute button—or, more to the point, the on-off switch.
But if you can’t sleep and keep reading the same paragraph in The New Yorker over and over, there are always reruns of That 70’s Show. The only drawback is, you might wake up your entire household by laughing out loud.
Published in The Piedmont Post, March 17, 2010