Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Television: A Black Hole or a Useful Tool?

I must confess that (like most "modern" people, I guess) I have developed a keen interest (should I call it an addiction? I don't think it's quite that serious) in the watching of television. 
I don't want to call it an addiction because I know that, as with any other "drugs" in my life (which in my old age have pitifully, though perhaps healthily, reduced to just red wine, and sleeping a little too much sometimes), I am capable of taking or leaving them, depending on circumstances. I have been known to go on a detox and quit wine, cheese and rich foods for months; I have in my past lived for years without a TV set; I have been capable of getting up at dawn if my job at the time required it.
Winter, though, is invariably one of those times when I am particularly depressed, for reasons both personal and weather-related (I probably suffer from the most-appropriately named S.A.D.), and therefore more prone to reach out for "the three great stimulants of the exhausted ones", as the Joni Mitchell song would have it. 
In her case, she called them "artifice, brutality and innocence"—and though I'm not sure what she referred to (all poetry requiring a certain degree  of hermetism), I know all of these terms could apply to the TV shows I watch. I am not fond of cops, yet I do watch Criminal Minds and even CSI NY; since reading Dracula as a teenager, I have had a literary fascinations with vampires yet I am spiteful and weary of all the spin-offs that feature these wondrous creatures today (haven't vampires been done to death yet—if you'll forgive me the cheesy pun?). This weariness, and even my intolerance for any plot featuring the lives of American college students and of blond cheerleaders in particular, didn't prevent me from getting totally hooked on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer

Of CSI NY I admire the fabulous acting (let's not forget Gary Sinise's past as a founding member of Chicago's Steppenwolf  Theater), but I dislike the extreme reliance on scientific proof and hi-tech instruments to solve crimes; I also abhor its all-too-facile implication that good and evil can be so easily separated. 
Such an implication is instead dissected and constantly pulled at the (frayed) seams by both Buffy and Criminal Minds, which makes them a rewarding and worthwhile use of my mental time. Well, here you have one intellectual excuse for escapism—but at least I'm not pretending, like some theories of the media that used to be fashionable, that all mindless TV is instead an exercise in critical viewing, that viewers "negotiate" their own meanings instead of taking everything at face value, etc. The sad reality is, more and more people are hooked on mindless television shows and Internet sites; all the more important, then, to extol the virtues of those programs that manage to instill some shred of doubt (I doubt, therefore I think) into the viewers.
In Criminal Minds, for instance, almost not one episode goes past (at least in the old series; I have yet to catch up with this year's) without the discovery that some form of family abuse and/or social, religious and moral rigidness and intolerance are the root causes pushing the "unsub" (=unidentified subject) over the threshold of the basic life traumas we all inherited at birth into the murky territory of violent psychotic behavior. 
Yes, the psychological analyses the members of the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) come up with to explain the criminal of the week's behavior may be simplistic at times (but this is television after all, not a conference of the psychoanalytical society), yet the message is more than a touch subversive: that threshold between good and bad, normal and abnormal, Criminal Minds tell us, is a lot thinner and more easily crossed into than we care to believe... 
The underlying implication, which flies in the face of "commonsense" American stories about good and evil and the rewards of a life spent doing good deeds as opposed to the "wages of sin", is that, given the right (=wrong) circumstances, we could all be the unsub...
Also, the lives of the members composing the FBI team investigating and solving the crime (though on occasion arriving too late to save the latest victim of the unsub, a fact which also flies in the face of American conventions of "happy ending" storytelling) are anything but neat and tidy, or rigorous and full of morality as Anglo-saxon puritanism childishly expects of its public figures—forgetting that they, too, are human beings: their lives are messy, full of heartaches, break-ups, drug addictions, controlled rage, unfulfilled desires, and dark family histories. In other words, the stuff of life...

Buffy, though, in my mind went more than a notch better: by positioning itself in the world of the impossible, or rather of the anything is possible, the script gave itself room to breathe, the freedom to expand, grow, change, be in turns utterly dark and painful or terribly churlish and funny (and, often, both in the same episode). 
With Buffy, it took me a lot of viewing to get into the story, and this wasn't because I was required to suspend belief about a world filled with new monsters constantly surfacing and vampires prowling cemeteries at night the way raccoons prowl the less frequented areas of some American towns. All storytelling, whether visual or verbal, whether "factual" or fantastic, requires that we suspend belief (and, I would argue, the more "realistic" the story the more we should probably be suspicious of it). 
No, the reason it took me so long to get into the series is because the characters are written in skillful, careful and complex strokes that bimboesque Cordelia, the impossibly goody-goody Riley—and even the Buffy character herself (and Sarah Michelle Gellar's work on her). 

Just think about any other TV series featuring the same characters, week in week out (Raymond, Friends, even the much wittier Frasier): mostly, what changes is what happens to the characters, it is the external events, but their reactions remain similar and predictable, because they are predictable and unchanging. Yet this is not really the way we experience people in reality; in real life, we are in constant flux, and over time, while our most inherent make-up may not change much, we reveal aspects of ourselves we didn't even think we had, or others who knew us didn't think we possessed. So one could say that, although being about something completely outlandish and fantastical and implausible, Buffy was much more about real life, real human experience, than some "factual" documentaries could ever engage with (think of the complexities of a character like Spike, for instance—and James Marsters' masterful rendition of them).

But what I most like about Buffy is that it was not afraid to court controversy, by promoting the character of a highly-sexed, vulnerable-yet-amazingly-strong, not-too-intellectually-deep-yet-profoundly-philosophical, aspiring-to-goodness-yet-ridden-with-a-dark-side young woman; by daring to present us with homosexual as well as heterosexual love as both being perfectly acceptable and normal; by insinuating several messages about the real evils in our lives: capitalism and consumerism, regimented school learning, the military machine, even, god forbid (!) religion (in one episode, after hearing about the significance of a reliquary from Giles, Buffy utters: "Note to self: religion—freaky"). 
The ultimate message in Buffy (as exemplified in one of the most sublimely-written episode, Lie to Me) being that our facile vision of the world as neatly divided along the lines of good vs. evil is a convenient but totally untrue story we tell ourselves because we are, surprise surprise, afraid of, and in denial about, the darkness within...

I think there's a lesson in there for writers too, especially those of us who work with non-fiction, and particularly in the genre of memoir—a territory that is inherently hybrid and murky, unstable and unreliable, like quicksand in the bayou; yet always threatening to cave in to the absurd demands of those who clamor for "just the facts, ma'am"...


  1. Wow, I love this post! Now I feel less guilty about TV, relieved that 20 years ago my teen-age son had an obsession with Buffy and stimulated to explore my murky side.

  2. Hello there Kass,
    and thank you for your comment!
    And how did your son end up? What's he up to now?
    I only very recently started getting into Buffy and I must say it's more pleasurable to watch it away from all the media buzz, and also against the framework of all the spin-offs and copycat series of today (none of which, in my opinion, matches up). But it's also more lonely because now Buffy is now so passé and, as we all know, one must always be up to the latest trends... (said the woman who's not even on FaceBook yet).