Television

So, I just got back from a movie called Clockwatchers. In my case, it also could quite accurately have been named How I Spent My Summer Vacation–basically, it’s a month or two in the life of four female temp workers, and it depicts a lot of the stuff which the first issue was about quite vividly. I’m not going to draw out that topic any more at present, but fear not, I shall return to it.

In deference to the requests of several subscribers, this issue will include some more paragraphs for easier reading.

Television is the subject at hand. As some of you know, I am totally fascinated by TV. In fact, as I write, I am taping ER so that I can watch it later and fast-forward through the commercials (although I love commercials, too–but that’s another story). What brings me to this is a conversation I had in a car trip the other day. The idea was put forth that perhaps the reason students today have such a hard time composing structured, complete, balanced arguments (or sentences, for that matter) is that the story-telling they have grown up with is that of TV, which is, by its nature, a kind of story-telling in which the tale is never complete. It has to be a story capable of endless regeneration, sort of like a repeating decimal. Soap operas are the best at this–I mean, soap operas have been going for 20, 25 years, some of them, with the same characters (only now they’re played by different actors–which actually makes soaps more like theatre, where many different actors can play the same role, whereas in a sitcom, only Seinfeld can play Seinfeld).

I had been arguing that sitcoms and dramas are the closest thing to 19th century serialized novels (such as those of Dickens and Thackeray) which exist. And before you jump on me to point out that Beverly Hills 90210 is no Bleak House (though actually, I have neither seen the former nor read the latter, so I can’t really tell you), please remember that there were many many schlocky serial novels written in Victorian England which nobody except PhD candidates reads anymore because they’re not as good as Dickens. Most TV shows will also be forgotten in a century, but I expect that a few will survive. (No, I’m not going to make any predictions on which ones–we’ve all been a little too inundated with 100-best lists for the turn of the millennium lately). But it’s also true what my opponent said–those novels did end, though perhaps their authors weren’t orignally sure when or how that would happen when they started. But they were still in control of their characters–Thackeray didn’t figure himself as the Puppet Master at the beginning of Vanity Fair for nothing. TV shows, on the other hand, don’t really have that luxury. There is rarely one author of the whole thing (though I do get the sense that Chris Carter keeps a pretty tight rein on The X-Files). Actors come and go, producers come and go, shows change location, ratings rise and fall. So eventually (in nine years, if you’re Seinfeld, or nineteen episodes, if you’re My So-Called Life) this story which has been working so hard to expand and regenerate and keep itself going has to end, quite abruptly.

The audience, of course, wants the story to end (Aristotle trained us well, I guess) nicely. Everybody whined about the last episode of Seinfeld–and it was overly showy, grandiose, self-absorbed, and some other stuff. But I did like the very end, which ended with a conversation from the very first episode, and Jerry said, “Wait, haven’t we had this conversation?” It was kinda like Waiting for Godot. (My So-Called Life, on the other hand, didn’t even know it was going to end; it just serendipitously called what turned out to be its last episode “In Dreams Begin Responsiblities” (which, it turns out, is the title of a short story by Delmore Schwartz), which strikes me as pretty apt for a show which a lot of idealistic-types liked which got cancelled ’cause because the world is stupid, to put it briefly).

I still haven’t gotten to my point, which is maybe proving the point I started out with, that our young minds have been poisoned by endless TV plots and we can no longer think in coherent units. But I’m not so sure that’s true, because a lot of sitcoms end up okay each week–I mean, the Simpsons frequently manage to save the world in half an hour (minus time for commercials!) When a movie called Reality Bites (which is basically a music video about some college grads and some slackers and their impoverished full lives) first came out, the bit which the Time magazine review quoted was, “Why can’t everything go back to normal at the end of the half hour like The Brady Bunch?” The reply was, “Well, because Mr. Brady died of AIDS.” At the time (1994), I thought that was a pretty dumb thing to quote, but today it seems quite accurate. I mean, life is pretty much an endless, pointless, often repetitive plot (sometimes its a good plot, luckily). Why should art, or writing, be so different? Even Shakespeare acknowledged that–examples will be provided on request, but this thing is way too long already.