17 June 2009

Bryan Loves Television Part 1: Reality Bites

I do love television. That's it. I've heard a plethora of complaints recently though about the sorry state of modern television programming. Well, actually I only misheard a single offhand remark that wasn't actually a complaint but nevertheless, I felt this note had to be written. I am compelled to defend this modern era, or what I think is the greatest era of television ever.

This is the first in possibly a series of sophomoric notes concerning one of about four things that I truly understand and love: television.

I don't really know what makes good TV any good. Based on popularity, the final episode of M*A*S*H* still reigns as the king of most viewed and biggest share of any television program. Does that make it the greatest series in television history? Probably not, but that's not really my call. By popular ration, American Idol and Two and a Half Men should be the reigning Queen and Queen of modern television. That can't be the case though, right?

There's a few things we must deal with first. Your first thought about modern television has to turn towards reality. As the most recently developed and massively popular genre, reality tends to ruin modern TV's good name for the rest of the shows. The chronology of this development, though, is relatively simple. In the era of shows like M*A*S*H* and one reason why its record WILL never be broken is that when those shows were on, there would never ever be another opportunity to see them outside of syndication. No downloads. No DVR. No DVD. No VHS baby. It's relatively easy to catch up with scripted television through these means, the best example is always pounding out LOST in a weekend. Right.

So there is little need to rush home from swim practice to catch some of these shows. The need to be on time, or even the need to be in front of the TV has dissipated. With reality, however, things remain interesting. You can't watch Dancing with the Stars four months after the finale has broadcast. There's no tension when you already know the winner. This is the same reason why sports remain popular, and a Super Bowl is the only thing that will ever possibly break the M*A*S*H* record, XLII and XLIII have come close...

This is the sole reason why it would appear that reality is popular. It's one of the only things that people do need to still actually watch weekly to be able to not necessarily understand what's going on, but since it exists so temporarily and immediate, to watch the entirety of Survivor months after the fact is without purpose. A show like American Idol even becomes self-sustaining, you need to watch it LIVE both in order to vote for who you like, and also to be able to discuss it with other watchers as immediate as possible.

Now all this rationale for watching reality underway, I fucking hate it. I do not think it really has any discernible merit in any way. Now, I will admit I was a big fan of Survivor Seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, and 8. There is some explanation for that gap that I will address later. But really, in the Summer of 2000 we had never seen anything like this. I mean, you had The Real World and stuff, and there were game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, debuting in the United States in August 1999 that presented "must-see" material each week with a million dollars at stake, but not until Survivor did we see this entire package of essentially combining a game show with people's lives.

Finally, a reason to tune into CBS Thursday at 8:00/7:00 Central!

Essentially, America loved being a peeping tom. Loves being a peeping tom, that is. It attracted my attention for the first four seasons or so and I will admit I was pretty addicted. The formula after a while just became stale, though. It lost its innovation. I watched season seven because it was about pirates. Eight was the All-Star season, which garnered my attention from bringing back people (read: "characters") that I had already been emotionally invested in in prior seasons. Clever girl. Some time after that I ended up just losing all interest, not only in that show, but reality in general. It had nothing left to show me.

It still doesn't. I haven't followed a reality show intently since 2004. I will still consistently watch a show like Seinfeld which ended 11 years ago now and I find I can elicit more substance from something like that than from contemporary Survivor. Why? It's because Seinfeld is STILL funny. It's funny because each line was thought about for hours and then directed and edited for maximum humor and impact. It's impossible, even with the best editing, to churn out a show with that much value when all the major characters are speaking off the top of their head.

Hey Whaddya know?! Me too!

There's one last topic I need to address, which is MTV, VH1 and all this Celebreality crock. In the 80s, and to a lesser extent the 90s, MTV was a pioneer of cable programming and I will always respect them in some way for giving shows like Daria and Beavis and Butthead a chance where other "respectable" networks wouldn't (I will get into Cartoons in a future entry). Yes, I do mention Beavis and Butthead, just imagine, without them we wouldn't have King of the Hill. And then where would we be? Shitty.

Anyway, I'll talk about cable in general later as well, but for a while MTV was this really cool network that would play music videos, another entirely new genre for a while, give chances to a lot of people who wouldn't have them elsewhere, and in an awesome way, would stick it to the man by being this youthful, rebellious station amidst all the straight-collared basic networks. This was the Reagan Era, people, MTV was a revolution.

So, what happened, well again, this is pretty simple. MTV's edginess and unpopularity with the established mainstream made it incredibly popular. Then a generation grew up with MTV who are now reaching the age MTV was rebelling against. Thus, MTV's popularity among youth became popular among middle-aged. And that is never cool.

For a short time VH1 ended up being the station that played music videos while MTV was the station that never did anymore. But soon it became just as bad, if not far far worse. I would like to try to elucidate why some of this stuff is so rotten, and not just deride it for a second here: I have watched some of this Rock of Love 2 - type stuff, and if, you know, watching rich good-looking people complain about their lives and cry on television, most likely because in some pathetic form of brain activity they thought it would be a good idea to find the love of their life by winning a competition, is your thing, then well, all the more power to you, I've got nothing wrong with that.

But understand something here, I was mainly raised on two and only two shows: Simpsons and Seinfeld. When you're raised on the most well-written cartoon and the most well-written comedy that has ever been made, your standards get pretty high. Again, I will probably devote an entire entry towards these guys as well. Watching rich people complain is not for me. I also find no interest in seeing people who are arbitrarily acknowledged as famous celebrities find love. Half of these people are only famous for being in their damn reality shows. As I hinted at before with Survivor, I lack any emotional investment, which in many cases seems to be forced on by these shows and not derived from my own natural responses.

I do, however, like to masturbate, so shows that feature contestants named "Cocktail" and "Cashmere" do serve some purpose.

Alright. I'm game.

So anyway, MTV after ripping off E!'s "The Anna Nicole Show" in 2002 with "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica" in 2003 found a way to create series that would have a prior-built in crowd instead of having to earn one. Put celebrities in front of a camera! Why? Who cares why, people watch them! Well, this has worked spectacularly. So spectacular that VH1, facing plummeting ratings from lack of interest in Behind the Music and Pop-Up Video (can't imagine how that happened), decided to sell their soul for an easy buck.

And it could not have worked better. This article sums it up nicely: http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/100361-COVER_STORY_VH1_Hits_a_New_High_Note.php. To paraphrase, 23 quarters of consecutive growth, top 10 cable series in terms of advertising money, 32% increase in visits to VH1.com between 2007 and 2008, and averaging 1 million viewers per premiere episode of "Random Celebrity wants to fuck big-tittied airhead" of the week.

Not bad. Not bad at all. I miss Men at Work. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNT7uZf7lew.

So while Reality is a vacuum of any intellectual or may I say, meaningful pursuits, it's here to stay. It is, however, the only major detractor from this incredible age of good television. Now that we've got that out of the way, I feel like we can start to examine some of the facets that make it very much worth our while to close our doors, minds, and hearts, sit our asses on the couch, and turn the box on and keep it on.

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