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Archive for October, 2008

Television: Part 1: The Dumbening

Posted by Steve on October 23, 2008

Remember when television used to be good? No, neither do I. Actually I do, but for me it was so long ago. Thing is, it’s NOT just looking at the past with a rose tinted brain. I can revisit stuff I remember as being good, and it genuinely IS. And there used to be so much more of it. (I went to a lot of trouble digging up the links in this post. I hope, dear reader, you at least click some.)

I grew up in the UK watching the BBC. I see a lot of people these days complaining about the TV license fee. (It goes to fund the BBC for those who don’t know.) They say it’s not fair, that the BBC should be forced to compete blah blah blah. To them I say SHUT UP! YOU KNOW NOTHING! Seriously, you don’t realize what you’ll miss until you lose it. The mere fact alone that you’re paying for 365 days of two channels with NO COMMERCIAL INTERRUPTIONS makes it the bargain of the century. I should be so damn lucky! Seriously, if I could pay such a small amount of money a year to get two commercial free channels, I would! (And PBS doesn’t count. Begging for money, “This show funded in part by…” and “This show sponsored by…” count as advertising.)

I am in the rare position of having lived BOTH sides of the Atlantic, experiencing TV from both sides, and can categorically say that I would gladly pay $300 to have access to BBC1 and BBC2 for a year, than not pay a thing, and have access to what passes for network TV here.

I mean sure, the BBC has dumbed down, I make no argument about that, but this is still the network that airs QI, Top Gear, Doctor Who among many, many others, as well as numerous documentaries, and has produced far too many classic TV shows to mention. Yes, they’ve produced some bad shows, especially comedies, but all the time the likes of Mitchell and Webb are given air time, I’d gladly pay! In the UK, you pay your license fee, throw up an antenna, and VOILA! You have some of the best TV on the planet, and the people who say otherwise are clearly “glass half empty” blithering idiots.

Then there’s TV THIS side of the Atlantic. Sure, it’s free, no license fee, but the cost is one of quality programming, and I’m sorry, that cost is too much. Sure, there’s the occasional good show, I myself am a Lost addict for example (though I often ask myself why), but really, how many CSI shows do we need? Or Law and Order? I’m not saying any of them are bad as such, just that it highlights the absolute lack of creativity and imagination in the people responsible for putting shows on the air. Instead of coming up with new, intelligent concepts, we get CSI: Little Rock and Law and Order: Lost Property Unit.

Then we head to comedy. I am sorry, but all the time Life According to Jim is allowed to thrive, nobody is allowed to say anything positive about American network comedy. Ever. Why? It’s like having a giant, juicy steak on your plate. It smells divine, looks fantastic, and has a giant cancerous tumor hanging off one end. It doesn’t matter how awesome the steak is, because the fact it’s got a giant ugly growth on it renders it pointless.

That is what Life According to Jim is. A show so crushingly unfunny that it’s mere existence renders everything else within the genre irrelevant. Like a giant comedy black hole which destroys anything in near orbit, sucking into the black, soulless void. People can hold up The Office as an example of great American TV comedy (one of the few shows to transfer from the UK that didn’t fail miserably), but all the time someone can counter with Life According to Jim, the argument can never be won, because the fact people exist who find this insipid, violently awful show watchable means that American TV comedy is doomed. Cream may rise to the top, but so does scum.

So let’s move onto educational, or let us call it non-fiction TV. In the UK on the BBC you get fantastic nature documentaries and other shows you can actually learn from. Planet Earth for example. On US TV, what is there? Shows like To Catch a Predator, which is fueled by the media powered neverending paedogeddon, and of course 37 different kinds of sensationalist scaremongering “news” shows, and I use the word “news” in its loosest sense there.

Now I know the BBC does have its share of pandering lowbrow garbage, I’m not trying to say the BBC is immume from producing crap, because it’s not. However the ratio of good to bad is far greater than anything this side of the pond.

Thing is, it’s all about ratings, and, sorry to say, the majority of people are easily amused low attention span morons. I would add “or are at least perceived that way” but the fact is ratings bear this assumption out. Unintelligent, vacuous shows that require very little of the viewer other than to sit there drooling are the greatest successes. (I am starting to sound like Charlie Brooker here…)

A friend and I were talking about this the other day, and he is appalled that so many of his friends and family love reality TV like X-Factor (see Charlie Brooker link above), Pop Idol etc… Then he went on to rant about some of the garbage that passes for comedy on the BBC. While Mitchell and Webb are comedy gods in my book (that link is to a different sketch, one of their best I feel, and it would be wrong to not mention Peep Show), despite loving her as Donna in Doctor Who, I found Catherine Tates sketch show, which is ridiculously popular in the UK, horrifically unfunny.

But then there ARE signs of hope on the west side of the Atlantic. While network TV is largely out the window, and the once educational channels on cable are in freefall due to ratings pandering, there IS quality TV out there. It’s on cable, and you have to pay for it, but there is TV out there that gives me hope that the little square box isn’t totally doomed. TV that requires the viewer to pay attention, doesn’t look down on the viewers intelligence, and rewards those who put the effort in to follow along and passively, by its very nature, punishes those who aren’t. That is what is lacking these days, television that demands something of the viewer, and I will be covering this good TV in part 2.


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