Television


Sometimes, critique of ideology is just a matter of displacing the accent.  Fox News’s Glenn Beck, the infamous Groucho Marx of the populist Right, deserves his reputation for provoking laughter –  but not where he intends to do so.  The dramaturgy of his typical routine begins with a violently satiric presentation of his opponents and their arguments, accompanied by a grimacing worthy of Jim Carrey; this part, which is supposed to make us laugh, is then followed by a “serious” sentimental moral message.  But we should simply postpone our laughter to this concluding moment: it is the stupidity of the final “serious” point which is laughable, not the acerbic satire whose vulgarity should merely embarrass any decent thinking person.

Zizek, Slavoj.  (2010).  Living in the end times. London: Verso Books.  4, footnote 2.

The rear-view mirror of a Mazda 626. It shows ...
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I was really enjoying this show’s pilot episode until the very last scene, more about that later.  The premise:  one weekday afternoon all people in the world lose consciousness for a little over 2 minutes.  Initially called blackouts, people quickly realize that they all moved forward in time almost 6 months.  These dreams were shared so they were not actually dreams but instead flash forwards in time.  The main characters are a husband/wife.  He is an FBI agent, of course, and she is an ER doctor.

Before turning to some theorizing about the show, a few notes about production.  The show seems to have cut some corners, there is a bit of sloppiness throughout.  It strikes me as unlikely that the carnage would be as complete as the show depicts.  Not to doubt some catastrophes after a 2 minute blackout, but the destruction to downtown LA seems nearly total.  And yet there are signs everywhere of poorly placed props as completely demolished cars and corpses are laid next to cars that show no damage, not even a minor collision.  When looking through the windshield at the main characters the rear view mirror has been removed yet the mounting bracket remains in place.  I cannot help but wish that this was intentional, a statement about the obvious lack of a mirror to track our lives through.  As the world is immediately coming to grips with the event, a manager at the FBI asks, “has the Pope chimed in yet?”  As though that would be entirely preposterous.

I could not help but groan as we learned the professions of the main characters.  The initial premise of the show will eventually be subsumed by the professions and the traditional genres of prime time drama.  Given the global nature of the event it would seem the show would not track such well-hewn lines.  But, alas, that is the state of TV these days.  Of course, there is another reason the show’s producers did choose these occupations: the last scene reveals that instead of an act of divine intervention there is surveillance coverage of some people not losing consciousness like everyone else.  An FBI agent will then be able to uncover the mystery.  I wish this attack of the airwaves had not occurred.  The show, however, helps identify why these genres are so successful: they uncover and also conceal a fundamental anxiety of Americans.  These professions all happen while at work because the work never ends.  These shows are, fundamentally, about labor and how we do not like to labor.  Instead we watch shows about people who have little leisure and yet they love their jobs because it gives them a sense of purpose.

A little bit about the event.  It is global.  It is a flash forward.  It is therefore not technological, it is not the result of a human manipulation.  It would instead be the one true miracle.  All other supposed miracles are events of interpretation and hence disputable.  This event, however, has shared affects.  But not only does it represent a true transcendent intervention but it also is an event of representation.  During the event people are forward in time looking back upon the event.  The remembrance of the backward looking flash forward is then used to propel some people forward into that very leap.  The intervention acts back upon itself as not only a signified but also as a signifier.  What then do we call a transcendent signifier and signified?  I would contend that is the very definition of God.

The main question I am vexed with is about the direction of the show.  Will the show remain one of sci-fi/fantasy or will it turn instead into a tale of government conspiracies and become a mystery?  I am hoping for a fantasy setting.  I want to see people not obsessively grapple with “what happened?” but instead “how do I deal with knowing my future?”.  I will give it at least two more episodes.

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Disclosure:  I am not a fan of Jay Leno.  I once stopped dating a woman because she preferred Leno over Conan.  I guess this belief is acceptable in someone younger than 83, but until that age there is no excuse.  In absolute terms I guess Leno is not so bad.  But not compared to Conan.  And not in Prime Time.  NBC has now committed both crimes.

The interwebs are abuzz with talk of Leno in Prime Time and I, too, have a couple of thoughts.  No, one thought: it sucks.  For a couple of reasons.

First, it means people out of work.  Producing a normal show requires many more people than producing a variety show requires.  NBC, in its attempt to spin this move positively, makes precisely this argument.  A variety show is much less costly and so even if it drops viewership in that time slot, it can afford to do so and still turn more of a profit than anything else would have earned.  Here ‘profit’ means less labor costs to make up in revenue.  That sucks.  The very cheapness of the Leno show means we ought not watch it because it represents a corporation’s thought that we not only deserve lower quality but will gladly reward them for downgrading us.

My second problem with it is that it represents NBC’s resignation. The business model for TV is changing and profits are dwindling.  But, this does not mean that TV is dead.  There are numerous shows on TV that make money.  Lots of money.  And then there are shows that are like those money-makers that may also make money.  NBC has given up though.  By moving The Tonight Show into that spot NBC has signaled its lack of willingness to try and break ground.  They have gone back on decades of programming wisdom and stopped trying to produce good shows and instead just produce sure-things, even though a Lost like show is also a sure-thing.

Some will say that it’s business and they’re in the business of making money.  Blah blah.  It’s about making money off of the art of storytelling.  Art needs to be fresh and experimental.  TV is still profitable.  NBC was still make money, what they have decided to do, however, is to give up and accept the changing current.  Maybe the current will sweep TV aside and maybe that cannot be halted.  Maybe they should try.

I own a TV but I do not have cable because I watch all of my shoes online.  For free without commercials.  However, there are some shows that I will watch online only in ways that provide advertising revenue to the distributor: Lost, Rescue Me, Defying Gravity (still giving it a chance) and Burn Notice. There is money to be made off of me and NBC has ceded that potential away.

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Sometimes there are just some weird occurrences. Last night I watched the newest episode of Rescue Me. I have always enjoyed the show mainly because despite the shit that happens it never seems to take itself too seriously. Until this latest episode anyways.

We get it: Tommy’s son is dead, some close friends are dead (fellow firefighters killed in the World Trade Center), his father is dead, his mother is dead (although long before the show started) and even his brother is dead. Throughout the show Tommy has struggled with his grief and alcoholism and not taken itself too seriously.. But the last episode was a self-important dive into his despair ending with an episode akin to cutting.

Then, just a few minutes ago I was reading a chapter of Michael Chabon’s Maps & Legends while Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails came over the iTunes shuffle. At nearly the same moment I read the following line. “Lies…tell the truth; but the truth they tell may not be that, or not only that, which the liar intends.” (84)

Moments like these make me pause. Because Rescue Me is a show I automatically assume it is a lie and hence subject to Chabon’s inquiry. What is the lie of the episode and what does it expose and what is intended by it?

The lie is the same lie of the Nine Inch Nails song: I hurt myself today/to see if I could still feel.

I have talked before about my doubts of the accuracy of this statement. Humans are never completely numb. Even if it means an altered psychic state we are still aware of misery no matter how much we would like to think we have become accustomed to it. Numbness is the lie. Even being aware of one’s own numbness carries a pain with it. On Rescue Me Tommy grabs a blow torch and burns a hole in his leg. It is not because he fears he is numb but rather because he wants to inflict the pain. All of the people who died were taken from him. Tommy is reasserting control over his pain.

NIN and Johnny Cash are singing not about numbness but instead about control over the pain of being alive and human.

What then is intended by this lie? It is possible that it is not a lie and just a misunderstanding, after all it might be likely that a television producer has never felt so conflicted that she thought about cutting herself. There is, however, a remnant of the masculine image in the numbness myth. The man so closed off that he can rise above the world. The man so strong that he cannot be wounded emotionally. All of that however is merely a reaction to our actual sensitivity to emotional wounds. It is a denial and also a repression. A prescription and also a prophylactic.

Here we come back to Rescue Me. It is not that Tommy is so wounded that he is an empty vessel (as his dead father tells the other ghosts haunting Tommy) but rather that Tommy wishes he were numb so he would not be hurt so much. His response is then an accurate reversal, to stop being hurt and instead hurt.

Rescue Me last night seemed to lose some of its luster becoming an ordinary show. It no longer struck out on its own but instead pandered to my desires and the desires that I as a demographic am supposed to hold: a man watching a show about firefighters. Normally Rescue Me is good about challenging those very desires that made me watch in the first place. This is precisely what Baudrillard warns us about media, how it is

a circular arrangement through which one stages the desire of the audience, the anti theater of communication, which, as one knows, is never anything but the recycling in the negative of the traditional institution. (80)

Baudrillard, Jean. (1981). Simulacra and simulation.

Chabon, Michael. (2008). Maps and legends.

Morena Baccarin  @ the Serenity Premiere
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Happiness is a warm…afternoon seeing an alien fleet around earth tellign us they come in peace.  Only to, of course, find out later that they are actually lizard-like posing as our friends so they can eat us because they used up all the resources in their homeworld.  Yes, I am talking about V, one of the best TV shows.  Ever.

Well, it seems it is coming back for the 2009-2010 season on ABC.  And it stars Morena Baccarin.  I am guessing she is the evil leader of the lizards.  If you do not immediately recognize the name Morena then you need to watch Firefly or its big screen adaptation Serenity.  Even if you do not like sci-fi you will like those shows becasue they are so well written.  And if you do not…then may god have mery on your soul!

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Saint Wolfgang and the Devil by Michael Pacher).
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The season is finally over.  I have been home 3 days over the past 3 weeks.  I thought I had finished the travels early but then Matt asked if I would be willing to help him househunt for a new place in upstate New York.  Much to The Swede’s disaproval I went along: helping a friend, road tripping to upstate NY, camping in the Adirondacks and the possibility of catching some opening day baseball in as-yet-unvisited ballparks all made for a perfect storm of disappointment for The Swede.

In any case I am now home, and I have been trying to catch up on my shows.  Last night I watched an episode of Reaper which begged a valuable question: why does the Devil care about accumulating souls?  This statement of purpose came during a debate with the Devil about whether his goal was soul accumulation or spreading havoc and misery.  The answer was soul accumulation, which strikes me as utterly capitalist, wealth for wealth’s sake.  Most of us accumulate wealth to enhance our quality of life, but for the super rich this is not the case.  It should come as no shock that on the show the Devil always looks daper and speaks like a true blue capitalist.   It’s such a good show.

I have done some basic research for why the Devil is concerned with soul accumulation and I have only found two answers.  First, there is the claim that the Devil is insane.  I am never comfortable with this description.  Someone’s rationality is another’s comedy sketch but to say it is irrational is lazy in its lack of rigor and its far sweeping non-falsifiable power of explanation.  The second excuse is that God cares for the souls and so the Devil is just trying to fuck with God.  I am also not satisfied with this explanation.  Why would someone dedicate eternity to fuck with an unbeatable foe?  Why would God an omniscient and omnipotent being even desire?  Instead there is something else, something that imbues significance to the ‘fucking’.

If theological texts are going to paint us in the forms of God and the Devil then some of the same methods of inquiry should also translate, especially to the Devil who, while more powerful than humans, was also created by an Other and is limited in relation to that very Other.  The Devil is trying to regain God’s graces and love and has chosen soul-accumulation as the method to do so.  If the Devil accumulates enough souls, so he believes, then he will demonstrate to God his power and value and then God will need to reaccept the Devil into the fold.  Like the boy that accumulates baseballs hoping to earn the love of his father who happens to be a huge baseball fan.

That’s the theory as of now.  Why do I spend time thinking about this stuff when I do not even believe?  I am not sure, but how can believers not spend time thinking of this stuff.  It’s all the same dubious nature of desire at play in all of us, even the Devil.  My concern though is, assuming this is all true, what happens when the Devil finally learns about the futility of this mechanism, what then?  Will psychoanalysis then bear out the ‘final solution’?  The Devil in his anger then really begins to care most about sowing misery and havoc in a self-immolation reminiscient of eschatological premonitions?

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At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man (“back in my day…”) let me just say that back in my day TV quiz shows were better.  Visiting family means I watch a lot of TV, especially TV I do not normally watch.  One example is the modern day quiz show.  At home I will watch “Cash Cab” and “Jeopardy!” but not the others for a couple of reasons.  This essay is about why I no longer watch those quiz shows and why I find them so infuriating.

My first problem is related to a larger trend of TV programming: it is becoming democratized, which is to say it features ordinary people and not extraordinary people.  Quiz shows (remember Quiz Show, those were extraordinary people) used to be about watching people smarter than the average Joe answering difficult questions.  TV used to be about the super-humans and not about real people.  I want to learn when I watch quiz shows.  I want to watch someone smarter than myself do things I cannot do. I want to be amazed.  I do not want to wonder why this person is on TV and I am not.  I do not want to wonder why the contestant is having such a hard time answering a question I remember (I actually do remember, instead of being told that I did) learning in 5th grade.

My second criticism is related to, possibly a product of, the above trend in TV, melodrama.  I guess it makes sense that if the contestant is an average Joe then there should be some drama to make the contest more viewable.  This justification is, however, a side effect.  Just as talk radio is done s-l-o-w-l-y drawing out the air time, lessening the burden on content creators, so to do the quiz show producers.  If “1 vs. 100” were to fire through questions at the rate “Jeopardy!” does then the average Joe contestants would not last very long.  This revolving door show would then be giving away much more money, increasing costs and decreasing profits, and would also highlight the average-ness of the contestants.

While watching these shows I do not feel tested intellectually but I do feel my tolerance threshold being tested.  Maybe next year I will buy my mother a new TV that way I can guiltlessly put my shoe through her current one, which is what I really want for this holiday season.