White Elephant Television

If the MSM trendsters are to be believed, we can all breathe easy now that it's not gauche to talk about our television watching in polite company. Actually, it's now the opposite: everyone is talking about the tube. I'm referring to Alessandra Stanley's article in the Sunday NYT Arts & Leisure special section on the new TV season, one of those Sunday Times trend pieces that makes a small number of Manhattan professionals stand in for us all. It begins and ends with her self-serving pronouncement that now if you don't watch at least some of the buzzed-about shows (the kind Alessandra gives good reviews) you're missing out on the big common conversation. I read this to mean: it was once standard cultural literacy to have seen the latest Broadway plays and arty prestige movies but now the same society that dictated these preferences has adopted the likes of The Wire and Weeds as its favored chit-chat fodder. For what is the point of consuming any culture if not to have something to talk about with your family and friends when such topics as the weather, the Bush administration, and one's children or pets have been exhausted? She ends her essay with this pronouncement:

"Television used to be dismissed by elitists as the idiot box, a sea of mediocrity that drowns thought and intelligent debate. Now people who ignore its pools and eddies of excellence do so at their own peril. They are missing out on the main topic of conversation at their own table."

Helping to spread the meme of television's newfound cultural centrality, here's James Poniewozik of Time proclaiming (on his blog): "Say It Loud, I Watch TV and I'm Proud." JP tells us that he seems to

"encounter fewer and fewer people nowadays who claim that they never watch TV. The old snobby line used to be 'I never watch TV, except for PBS'; now it's '...and HBO, and Showtime, and FX, and Bravo, and AMC, and Lost, and Law & Order, and...'"

Everybody's doing it, talking proudly about their shows. I am. Aren't you? Well, you might think that someone like me--someone who considers television to be as significant an art form as any other--would be pleased by this turn in television's fortunes. Not so fast.

First of all, Stanely's and Poniewozik's amateur sociology is hardly reliable as evidence of widespread constructions of taste or social behaviors. They are both professional television critics with an interest in television being taken seriously. It seems obvious that people would be keen to talk about television with a TV critic. Does this tell us anything about what people like to talk about when they're not talking to a TV critic? And even if we grant that some people are more comfortable talking about TV these days, who are we really talking about? Both AS and JP work for high-profile New York media outlets. What social circles do they move in? Where have they gathered their evidence? Poniewozik's blog post is a propos of having appeared on public radio to discuss new television shows. He is pleasantly surprised to find that the listeners of public radio watch TV. Huh? Just about everyone watches TV, and people who call in to discuss TV on the radio are a self-selecting group keen on advertising their viewing habits.

I have been talking about TV with all kinds of people, polite and otherwise, for my entire life. Wasn't the whole country talking about who killed JR in 1980? Didn't the national conversation revolve around Murphy Brown's baby in 1992? Did anyone talk of anything other than OJ for the year of his constant media attention? Didn't everyone have conversations in the mid-1990s in which some experience was described as "like a Seinfeld episode"? Didn't everyone speculate about The X-Files when it was on? (I never watched it and always felt left out of conversations.) Didn't the whole country have an opinion about whether Richard Hatch could win Survivor and whether Ally McBeal's skirts were too short and whether Ross and Rachel should wind up together?

JP and AS may be right and they may be wrong. It doesn't matter. Even if society has not changed much, the media has been circulating this meme such that people will believe that a change has occurred. It goes hand-in-hand with the TV-has-improved meme, the one that says that television now is finally holding its own in comparison to the movies. Never mind that such broad comparisons are virtually meaningless (what TV? what movies? on what terms?). They are printing the legend, and it will be true. Television will be legitimate if the critics say it is.

But more important than the empirical matter is the fact that the kind of television that is being legitimated in upscale circles is precisely upscale television. It's television that has been constructed to appeal to a classy consumer. Showtime and HBO are only available to those who can afford premium subscriptions, more than $100 a year typically. Mad Men has a boutique appeal, and abysmal ratings when compared with, say, CSI. It is precisely the fragmentation of the television market into so many hundreds of channels and so many niche demographics that has allowed for the creation of TV for the upper crust, TV that can be satisfied with 900,000 viewers with a median annual household income $30,000 above the average (I'm making up these figures, but I doubt I'm far off for Mad Men). Most of TV isn't like these upscale shows. And most of TV isn't the stuff that JP and AS have in mind when they talk of the common conversation and the pride in viewing. They don't mean daytime dramas or talk shows or game shows. They don't mean sports or local news. They don't mean HGTV or home shopping or VH1 or shows for kids. And they don't mean reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance or American Idol or The Hills.

The kind of television that is constructed as legitimate in this notion of legitimacy is television stripped of its typical associations with femininity and domesticity, television made to seem in some way cinematic (camera style and lighting, dark themes & morally ambiguous characters, a widescreen aspect ratio, availability on DVD). It is especially by offering television as cinematic that this new legitimacy has been constructed, because it allows TV to piggy-back on the cultural cachet of cinema. This is what artforms do when seeking new legitimacy. They try to make themselves seem like already-legitimate forms, as cinema once did by fashioning itself after the theater and as photography once did by imitating oil painting. Consider that the television shows regularly recapped in the cinephile blog The House Next Door all fit this masculinized, cinematic category: The Sopranos, Mad Men, BSG, Dr. Who, Deadwood, The Wire. Shows movie-loving boys would like, recapped by movie-loving boys. Taste, says Bourdieu, is perhaps first of all distaste. The distaste lurking in this new taste for television is directed at the "not TV" of HBO's slogan: the stuff millions of people watch and love. The rejection of their taste in the phrase "not TV" is an insult to the general public.

If television is to be legitimated, I propose that critics and enthusiasts look beyond the boutique shows, the upscale dramas and single-cam comedies, the ones produced with one eye on the DVD box set. Because by legitimating these shows, TV's new champions are reinforcing the delegitimacy of genres like the soap opera and the reality contest. This is a loaded issue. Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You makes a case for TV's aesthetic legitimacy on the basis (among other things) of the cognitive demands that shows like The Sopranos make on viewers when they jump back and forth among so many storylines. But soap operas have done the same thing for decades. The difference is not aesthetic or cognitive; it is social and cultural and ideological. David Chase reinforces this distinction when he tells interviewers how much he dislikes network television and makes known his life-long ambition of making feature films (e.g., beginning around 29:30 of this Fresh Air program Chase accuses the networks of caring most about selling stuff.) He promotes himself, his show, its cable channel at the expense of others and perpetuates the cultural hierarchy that has always kept TV down. It is because of this rhetoric that that the polite company that JP and AS describe consider it acceptable--even in this new golden age of television--to discuss so many kinds of TV only in the guilty pleasure category. Stanley adopts this stance when she confesses that she tunes in to NCIS and Jag. I'm sure you hear this stuff all the time: people (very often women) confess that they're addicted to this or that reality show or soapy prime-time drama. Their tone says it all. There is a taboo against appreciating many kinds of television that is reinforced by the ascent to legitimacy of masculinized, cinematic TV.

There is real beauty in The Hills, in the simplicity and directness of its emotional impact, in its universal narratives of friendship and betrayal, in its expressive performances (LC has become one of my favorite screen performers, and she has learned to use her eyes like Mary Pickford), in its use of music to comment on action and of action to reveal character. It seizes moments in the flow of everyday events that no scripted show can capture and even as we know that its scenes are staged, its performers improvise their lives for us in such a way that we know that the stakes for them must be real. It is shot to reveal the sun-drenched boulevards and cafes, stark modernist office buildings, and shadowy night-spots of LA in a way that I haven't seen before, making them cozy and comfy, like a plastic backyard play set for the coddled, overgrown kids whose tales the show tells. It is edited by smart storytellers who know how even a suggestion of a smile or a downward glance can sell a scene. I wish television's new champions would celebrate more shows like The Hills. (A perceptive and intelligent blog about The Hills, among other topics, is Songs About Buildings and Food. I found it linked from one of Virginia Heffernan's reviews. Heffernan is one of the few TV critics writing for a major paper or magazine who show an appreciation for programs outside of the predictable range of legitimate taste.)

I'm all for television being legitimated, but I insist on legitimacy for more than just the small fraction of TV made to appeal to the sort of people likely to write for and read Time and the Times. Manny Farber's distinction between white elephant art and termite art is instructive here, even if it's not very precise. The Sopranos is a white elephant show, grand and ambitious, craving accolades and masterpiece status; the spectacle of the Emmys paying tribute to it earlier this month was garish and embarrassing. Termite television would be the opposite: unpretentious but vital in its own underground way. Its beauty and art are intrinsic to its form and are the product of serious creative thought. But it doesn't advertise itself as beautiful or artistic, and is still waiting to be appreciated by sensitive critics willing to break the taboo against genuinely, publicly admiring most of what is on the tube. We need a discourse of legitimacy for more than just white elephant television.

Updated 1/27/08: If I had seen it when writing the post above, I would have included a link to "In Praise of Termites," an appreciation of Manny Farber in The Believer.


Beckylooo said...

I agree... And yet, this issue becomes much more complicated when you approach it from the artist's perspective. Chase's take on it isn't just about his work being legitimized in a cable environment, it's about him finally being given the opportunity to tell the stories he wants to in the way in which he wants, with out getting fucked with at every turn by a network which really does only care about selling shit. You can not fathom how complicated and miserable network execs make the process until you've sat on a notes call. The cultural hierarchy doesn't keep TV down, the people who sign the checks do.

I grew up a huge fan of "Days of our Lives" and "Dynasty." I'm all for legitimizing all strata of TV. I'm a fan, first and foremost. But the fact is, "termite" TV ain't going anywhere. It doesn't need legitimacy bestowed upon it by Times-type critics to remain a vibrant part of the culture. "White Elephant" TV does. And as someone who's work tends to lean towards the later, I'll take whatever legitimacy cultural critics are willing to bestow.

Jason Mittell said...

Great post, and I have a lot of thoughts in response, but I'll keep it brief:

Living in Vermont, I encounter many people who say "we don't have television," which means no cable or satellite, and over-the-air signals are horrible here. But these folks do have DVD players, and many of the vids they watch are "television" (HBO shows, West Wing, kids' shows, etc.) - what "watching television" means is pretty contextually variable, not only in urban NY!

I agree that there is beauty & legitimacy in the termites, but the distinction between the elephants & termites is pretty fuzzy for TV, given the longitudal shifts that occur. Take Seinfeld - what was it? It started as a termite, but maybe grew into an elephant, or at least a midsize feline. Many shows seem to shift their size, scope & ambition as they evolve, so a broader spectrum of categories is needed.

And you gotta check out the comment thread in Poniewozik's blog post to see some great quotes like "From the second you turn on a tv, it starts projecting light and warmth into your room. The only way you're going to get light and warmth out of a book is if you set it on fire."

shahn said...

yes, great posting

its a shame television never grew into its own despite all the hopes at its inception. it seems to have always been visual adaptions of radio programs (think "seinfeld" is original? listen to "the jack benny show") or condensed versions of films. i wonder what would have developed if the initial plans of television being used as an educational tool had been carried through.

since i can't afford the upper strata of cable, i did away with tv viewing and now just wait for the inevitable dvd releases.