Well I Heard Mister Young Sing About Her
June 27, 2012
Occasionally people have complained that this blog is “too political.” I generally take that to mean that I have expressed political beliefs with which the complainer does not agree. I also think it misses the point, in the sense that everything is political, including television. Obviously The Defenders is political, but so is Gilligan’s Island, in less obvious ways. It’s not as if I’m hitting the pause button here to endorse a candidate or rant about current events. Any time I have expressed a political view, it’s been a genuine response to something I’ve seen in a television show. To elide or avoid expressing that response for fear of offending someone would be a kind of self-censorship that I have no interest in practicing.
And yet some readers are clearly uncomfortable about this, either in a “no politics at the dinner table” way or else because they’re uninterested in experiencing art that expresses (or even seems like it might express) a viewpoint different from their own.
I haven’t spent much time on the Home Theater Forum (whose founder I’m on record as having some issues with) in recent years, but my Herbert Leonard piece from last week was mentioned over there and that led me to spend a little time poking around in some recent threads. Here are a few comments from a Home Theater Forum thread that got me thinking:
GaryOS (referencing the long-abandoned Television Code):
Most shows seem to encourage the use of profanity; encourage the negative portrayal of family life; encourage irreverence for God and religion; encourage illicit sex, drunkenness and addiction; encourage presentation of cruelty, detailed techniques of crime, and the use of horror for its own sake; and encourage the negative portrayal of law enforcement officials, among others. And most assuredly performers are encouraged to dress and move outside the “bounds of decency”. And if these things are not out and out encouraged, they are at least certainly on display over and over.
And that is precisely why I prefer classic TV to current television. Most everything today seems to fall to the lowest common denominator and I find most current programming to be shallow and unimaginative. Not to mention just flat out vile and repulsive.
If it weren’t for DVDs I would no longer have necessity for a TV. 99% of what I watch on my TV today comes from DVDs of old TV shows and my intelligence is never insulted, my morals never made fun of, my sense of justice always reinforced, my view of good winning over evil reinforced, Good guys winning in the end reinforced, behaving decently toward one another, the Golden Rule, always being the best policy, reinforced, & honesty winning over lies.
Law and Order is for me, a classic case of a show that in terms of format is something I would ordinarily love, by letting us see the “process” form of drama play out with equal attention to cops and prosecutors. But I have to be hyper-selective in terms of which episodes I watch because this show too often and I mean *too* often has succumbed to the desire to go on soapbox messaging that purposefully caters to one narrow end of the spectrum only. By contrast, a *good* show with a winning format in an earlier era was something I could feel comfortable watching 99% of the episodes of, and that is one thing that has been lost in the last couple decades.
I sense closed-mindedness, even fear, in these remarks, as if any new idea or image (or, worse, a familiar but unappealing one) sends some spectators rushing to cover their eyes and start chanting to drown out the noise from the TV set. I don’t get that. Why would one’s personal values need align with the point of view expressed by a television show, a television character, or a television creator? My own values apply to my life, not to the content of art or entertainment.
For instance: I found 24 morally offensive in certain ways, and yet it never occurred to me not to watch it. 24 was a well-directed action show with a number of showy performances from important actors. I didn’t want to miss out on any of that. More importantly, engaging with its dismaying politics made for an interesting intellectual exercise. I thought about it, probably more than it deserved; argued about it; wrote about it; had fun with it. My only criteria for skipping a television series are if it’s dull or stupid. (“Stupid” as in insulting to the intelligence; e.g., reality shows that clumsily stage events and ask the audience to accept them as spontaneous.)
I bring this up not to tweak these specific folks from the Home Theater Forum (although, yes, I would like to give a couple of them a good shake), but because it’s relevant to my work in a specific way. I sense that a lot of early television enthusiasts are essentially nostalgists. They like old television because it’s old. It evokes ambered childhood memories (if you’re a baby boomer) or it constructs a world that existed before one’s own birth (if you’re my age). (These are two separate cravings, which I don’t have room to parse at the moment, but look at in terms of Rod Serling characters: you have your Martin Sloan, who longs to escape into his own past, and you have your Gart Williams, who yearns for an idealized nineteenth century.) Nostalgia even has its own convention now – not just science fiction or vinyl or movie posters or radio, but everything musty and old, I guess. They’ve actually built Willoughby. This year it’s in Hunt Valley, Maryland.
Well, have at it. A stop at Willoughby is a chill down my spine, because my mission here isn’t to wallow in the past. It’s to excavate interesting stuff from a variety of time periods, including the present day, and to write about it in a way that’s modern and relevant. I was tempted to call this post “Fuck Nostalgia,” but I think I’m saving that title for something more substantial.
To a certain extent – and correct me if I have this wrong – I suspect that a strong personal or cultural identification with the good old days may may overlap with a reactionary political stance. (“Reactionary” can have a neutral meaning – someone whose values are old-fashioned – and a pejorative one – a hatemongering lunatic. I’m not sure which applies here.) I think it’s obvious by now that I have no truck with that stance. But I’m not sure what to do with my conservative constituency (assuming I still have one), or even the apolitical nostalgists who get bent out of shape when I describe Donna Reed as an emasculating wraith. Should I mock or ignore or engage with them? Is it a fool’s errand to think that I can write what I want and somehow not alienate that segment of classic TV enthusiasts? I mentioned a couple of Twilight Zone episodes above and I’ll bet everyone who’s still reading this got the references, so there is a common language that we’re all speaking.
So: discuss. If you have a different way of looking at things, please elaborate on it. You can call me a dick if you feel like it (a freedom of speech not enjoyed by Mr. Epstein’s acolytes). Apparently some of those Home Theater Forum regulars think I’m a snob, but I’m genuinely interested in the ways that people choose what they watch, and how they use those shows in their actual lives.