I Heart Television

I didn’t have television in childhood. We lived in places without electricity, without television service, and then in places where we had no interest in television (and couldn’t have afforded one even if we’d wanted television service). I was exposed to television occasionally in my teens at the homes of friends, where I watched in strangely mesmerised fashion, drinking everything in, including the ads, because the whole thing was so novel and strange. This was what all the fuss was about, and this was what everyone seemed obsessed with. But I didn’t really get television until my twenties, after I had graduated from college, when I was living on my own.

Not because I acquired a television (although I did, so I could watch movies, I think it may have been a hand-me-down from a friend), not because I got television service, but because I discovered the wide and brilliant world of TV on DVD. It is, in my opinion, the superior method for consuming television, for two key reasons:

  1. It allows you to watch multiple episodes in quick succession, which allows you to follow complex narratives and identify subtle themes. By back to backing episodes, you feel much more immersed in the story, which gives you more of a cinematic and less of an episodic experience; you understand on a visceral level how fantastic the medium is to watch, and how much room for play and exploration there is for creators interested in making something beautiful and ornate.
  2. You can ensure that you watch shows only after they’ve finished airing. This may seem petty, but it’s frustrating to get caught up and then spin your wheels, waiting for a show to catch up with you. It’s also irritating when a show stops abruptly, is forced to wrap up quickly because it’s not renewed, or just doesn’t air anymore because a network has dropped it. I want shows to run to completion, ideally with a chance to resolve naturally and elegantly, so I can consume them as whole volumes, rather than as books with the last few chapters torn out.

As a storytelling medium, television has much to recommend it, and I feel that it gets short shrift when compared to cinema. There’s terrible, schlocky television, but by the same token, there are also terrible movies. There’s so bad it’s good, but there’s also just plain bad, a growing sense of misery and doom as you realise that you’ve been trapped in a story that isn’t getting better and will never get better, because it is terrible and the creator should feel terrible, but unfortunately the creator is not in kneecapping range. Both media have their merits, their highs and lows, but the snobbishness about television never ceases to irritate me.

It’s not just because it’s an insult to the genre, although that’s definitely a factor. Television provides a medium for very different storytelling modalities, some of which are quite interesting. It offers great opportunities for character development over the course of many episodes and even seasons. It also creates a venue for experimenting with social and political subjects at low risk — people might get angry over a single television episode, and depending on what it contains they might stop watching or write some pissy letters, but the damage to the studio isn’t on the same level as that involved in a controversial film. Studios can effectively write off experimental and potentially controversial TV episodes, which they can’t in film format — one reason television can be more diverse, can take on interesting and progressive stances on social issues, can push audiences further.

Of course, film can and does this too, especially in the indie world. But sometimes it feels as though television can go farther, in part because it’s a medium people sneer at. Those who make no bones of the fact that they think television is frivolous and pointless elide the presence of political and social issues on television, convinced that only film can comment on these issues — and that means that television can operate as a sort of social commentary underground, while major films will get a pass for not following prescribed Hollywood norms, like casting white leads and erased disabled people, with the voices of protestors muted in the tide of supporters.

But the trashtalking about television also incenses me because much of it seems to carry classist overtones, especially with the rise of reality television and shows documenting the lives of people like the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo. Television haters point to these as evidence that television audiences are trashy and uncultured, that all television as a sweeping genre is for people who ‘don’t know better’ when it comes to the media they consume, suggesting that television is an endless parade of superficiality and boring content that no one except those obsessed with celebrities could possibly be interested in.

Yet, television is so much bigger than that — though of course there’s also nothing wrong with being a fan of such shows, either. As a medium, television provides amazing opportunities for delving into things, and some of those very audiences that people mock are also tuned in to a broader variety of shows and issues. People also fail to pick apart the misogyny and classism embedded in what they say; Kim Kardashian, for example, is an extremely smart, successful, high-powered businesswoman. People assign her superficial traits, assuming that because of the way she looks and talks, she must be garbage, and it allows her to slip under their guard. She’s just one example among many of people written off by the haters who actually deserve a great deal of credit for their work.

Sure, assume that television is filled with trashy people and that the only people who watch it are equally trashy. We don’t want your kind anyway.

Photo: Television Rules the Nation, StudioTempura, Flickr