Imagine the most inconsequential despair possible. Something more trivial than your perennial hometown contender losing in the playoffs and less life-altering than the HOV lane being closed. Such a moment happened to me on Hollywood Boulevard at 2:51 pm, one week ago. The offense? An FYC billboard had deigned to incorrectly use the word ‘masterpiece’.
It’s poor tact to attack a good show that dares to be better, so it will be nameless. It is a good show. And it didn’t ask to be called a masterpiece. But there it was, in a billboard suburbia. Brilliant. Genius. Incredible. Best. In this moment, I pulled off of Highland Ave – fuck that street – and parked for about five minutes. The frustration had as much to do with the (by LA standards) atrocity of traffic, but weren’t they part of what the billboards shouted? That’s why many of us are here, and these aren’t ads for Shakespeare at the Globe. Every Jack and Jill in his/her 7 series could conceivably be involved with one of these outrageously unimportant billboards that so enrage me.
I should note that, without exception, everything in my life is currently better than it has ever been. It should be a time to glide the jet stream, to create with fervor. But last week I had zero inclination to ever watch or make anything ever again. I am not in a creative rut. I’m writing a fun script and I know exactly where it’s going. Last week, I could have had it accidentally deleted – all of my writing, in fact – and not felt a thing. A while ago, I wrote about a similar experience in a Trader Joe’s, albeit that occurrence was about criticism, not praise. One would think the positive side of the coin (okay they don’t have positive sides but whatever) would be a lighter despair. Nope.
The relentless marketing war for eyeballs was such drudgery that it seemed the only cure was context. It had always been the cure; in college I became a devout believer in Foucault. So, half-hearted apologies for wildly inaccurate, unresearched, and specious speculation…
There are like four channels and the black-and-whiteness of the TV almost makes you feel larger than the people on it. More real, certainly. The only shows that make the air are the ones where everyone gets the appeal and everyone sees the parallels to their own lives. It’s your life, presented with ads for Lucky Strike. Movie stars are still a crushing titan in comparison. What did an ‘opinion’ about television mean? Nothing, really. Lucy’s frustration with Ricky’s inability to understand her role in domesticity mirrors your own? How astute!
Lest we mistake the groundbreaking TV for basic entertainment in a primitive era, there’s something beautiful about the social structure of television at this time. It exists as a utility. You exist as a utility. There’s the heating, the water, and in that Paleolithic hunk of alloys, we watch our lives play out with prettier people. To turn on the tap and get what you’re expecting seems mundane and low-effort in today’s landscape. It’s the exact thing that earns The Big Bang Theory millions of dollars and absolute critical derision. But what if we could be satisfied with turning on the tap? What if we didn’t have to low-key crucify ourselves for doing so? What if we didn’t have to ascribe ‘harmless’ to a phenomenally useful utility? I Love Lucy and its ilk existed in a magnificent time where the trajectory of television was not up one, over one. In a realm without envelope-pushing, it was possible to be genuine and sentimental without being ‘broad’ or ‘flat’.
Here we kept the utilitarian spirit of the 50s, just on a floor three levels higher of excitement and lunacy. Starsky and Hutch, for instance. It still wanted to relate to you; moreover, it still wanted to be your TV mainstay. It wanted to be in your house, even as it was in all the houses. (That was how the structure and pacing felt, at least.) As a consequence, divergent opinions can emerge without separating us as we are now. Still no need to be in a Sisyphean contest about who has the best/longest/most scathing opinion- like, it’s fucking Starsky and Hutch. Have some perspective, man. Television positioned us to have something inciting to say without sounding like we were shouting at each other. A Jewish dinner party versus a family of generational alcoholics. I cannot even fucking fathom what a social disaster Netflix would be in the 1960s. And what a great ointment television was at that time! Did you really need an opinion of Black-ish from the neighbor who stood on the wrong side of the Selma Bridge? We know who to like and hate at this time; for God’s sake, let us have television in peace.
But at the same time, it wasn’t as though you went around parroting, ‘I like all of it. I like all of it.’ In the more fantastical genres, just as many people were apt to tune out as television grew. You could begin to gain a minor perception from others, based on what you watched. That seems healthy and useful. Liking Mork and Mindy meant something about you, even if it’s wasn’t a make-or-break decision for a second date. (I can only assume such has happened thousands of times by 2016.) It was a time when watching Star Trek was less about dissecting the nerdiness of the show and more about it being a symptom of the nerd you already were. It was perhaps the perfect extent to which television was meant to influence our opinions of each other. You know, before we got all Hollywood Boulevardy about it. I guess what I’m saying is, we were still the thing that the shows responded to, not vice versa. It must have seemed ludicrously reflexive to respond to an opinion of an opinion of a show that opinionates on another show. Because it fucking is.
One quote that I will never, ever forget or stop quoting for as long as I live is, unsurprisingly, from a David Foster Wallace interview: ‘Irony is the song of a bird who has come to love its cage.’ If the TV could be anthropomorphized, this was when it grew a leg and no one really noticed. Demographics pre-date America, but here there is the sophisticated data to start wielding it. TV is not just designed for you to like it anymore; it’s designed for ‘these people’ to like it. The division of taste becomes like the Lacanian ‘I’ – that is, we look in the mirror and finally see our TV-watching selves as separate from the corporeal. Yes, you have your mother and father, the jocks and the nerds. But are they ‘with it’ as far as TV culture goes? One could even picture the unassailable high school quarterback losing status because he doesn’t watch MTV. As TV shows gain self-awareness, the messages are not just for the purposes of marketing any more. They’re not trying to craft new consumers; they’re trying to craft new people. Because what could be more effective for marketing than to reach out to consumers yet to be born?
Take Saved By The Bell for instance. Sure, the show might have a moral lesson about drugs or some shit, but it doesn’t really mind if you wind up thinking it would be cool to be Zach, a complete sociopath, or Screech, a grating hanger-on. Because truth be told, 18-35/white/male just doesn’t cut it as a demo any more. From a marketing standpoint, it’s no more helpful than going to a real high school and sorting the students by age. It relies on jock, nerd, goth, burnout, and egghead ecosystems like high school does, but to an exponential degree. If I’m an ad exec in the 80s/90s, there are not enough high-fives in the world that I can accept. I just brought these poor schmucks inside the box. They’re playing in the world I created now, and self-awareness was the secret invitation. This is a pretty dark period for opinions: until a quasi-enlightenment in the later-2000s, the full influence of television on the public sphere was probably not felt. One can imagine people in this era laughing at the commercials-disguised-as-shows in the 50s and the very, very poor attempts at subliminal messaging, and all the while that pervasive brand of advertising is far from necrotic. It’s just become invisible by virtue of not taking itself seriously. It exists in the open air, as slang, as clothes, as brands of cola. Admit it: you’ve mocked a Pepsi or Coke commercial while holding a can once in your life, but you probably are also very loyal to either Coke or Pepsi nonetheless.
Lest you think this long thing is all about how television and our opinions about it used to be better, I would take 2016, too many shows, and skippable ads over the 90s’ dangerously effective TV/reality meld any day of the week.
The only problem is that television is larger than the ad exec and the network president. Television is like power, in that it has always existed, even before the proper conduits existed. Television is nothing more than the need for a story to disseminate. When a cave dweller heard a story at one campfire, walked over to another, and told the same story… that was the birth of television. (Forget the written word; this guy is animating it! I can see a simulacrum in the words now!) Plays were not television; plays drew in the crowd, made it an event— a human connection. Television spreads. It, uh, finds a way.
Now that I look back, I kind of have to marvel at the way television knew how to position itself at the perfect place and in the perfect form. Think of electric cars: an incredible and game-changing invention… without any sort of infrastructure to support it. Not only that, large economic sectors are rebelling against it, for they have something to lose. And indeed, movie producers might have believed they had something to lose, if television were not so incredibly benign and shit-upon in comparison. It was colorless people, talking about everyday domestic problems. Who cares if it looks like a small movie? It’s not a movie. Then it was a goofy alien on cocaine, talking about everyday domestic problems. Who cares if it’s popular? It’s completely without artistic merit. Then it was a bunch of college-aged idiots, practically cartoons, living in the same house, talking about everyday domestic problems. Who cares if they’re self-aware? They’re self-aware of being morons. Because we grew up with movies being so prevalent, no one ever expected to become television. We never became movies. But we are television, or at least an inextricable part of us is. We are entire weekends of House of Cards/OITNB. We are endless twitter and facebook statuses. We are reaction videos and thinkpieces about our favorite characters dying. I’ve tried to take all of this into account when I look at the billboards that I hate with unmitigated and unmerited passion.
I feel that the barrage of claims to genius are television, the entity, tacitly evolving once again. Since television has become human and human has become television, it makes sense that television, the entity, would develop human insecurities. It didn’t need so much adulation when it was a static vessel. Now that it moves and breathes, it has a perception of itself. It isn’t working around the clock for public acceptance; it’s got us. Television wants to be appreciated for what it itself has done through us. Much like when the individual reached a count of seven billion, television realizes that it can no longer hope to be ubiquitous. It’s too fragmented to successfully compete against itself.
I guess my frustration with the billboards is the realization that it doesn’t matter if I disagree with the hyperbole. I can disagree with ‘masterpiece’, but it doesn’t matter. It isn’t being made for me; it’s being thrown against the wall and more of it is always coming. With streaming, ratings aren’t the end all-be all. The thing that started as a means of vicariously understanding myself does not need me anymore. It’s not geared for anyone but a billion avatars too overloaded with content to really care that much about one thing at once. Q: Why the fuck should I care if it is genius? If I write, why should I care if it’s seen? A: I love doing it, thank God. Best of luck to those seeking an audience.