CONFESSION TIME. Somewhere between Season 6 of “Below Deck Mediterranean” and Season 3 of “Felicity,” I was finally forced to confront a long-delayed reality: I watch a lot of TV, good and, more often, very bad, all too much of it during the hours qualifying as wee.
Always have, really. It’s an escape, a Soma drug stand-in, and whatever other bad things you want to say about it. Yes, yes and yes. Guilty as charged; it’s right there in my DNA chain next to extra cheese and Coke Zero and everything else I know is bad but cannot avoid.
So shoot me.
(Actually, if you’re into “The Baytown Outlaws” or “Instant Death,” both offered by Amazon Prime Video, one of the leading streamers of truly Schlock TV, please ignore the foregoing sentence.)
I come about it somewhat honestly.
Like many in my generation — born in 1963, lost in the fog between Baby Boomers and Gen X (albeit with a definite tilt toward the latter), I was a latchkey kid. My Dad worked swing shifts at Boeing, often seven days a week, for most of my childhood. My Mom, a city clerk, was rarely home when we three kids got off the bus.
Kids being kids, rather than accomplish something productive during this delightful, unsupervised, after-school time vacuum, we found comfort in an increasingly accurately nicknamed appliance: the boob tube.
Scale is critical here. Back then — pull up a chair, young’uns! — what is now known as a remote control was a simple “clicker,” so named because it had only two or three buttons, which were spring loaded and actually clicked. It was miraculous, allowing one to scroll through the entire TV grid — all, say, 11 channels — in numerical order until you finally found something that did not star Adam West — not that there was anything wrong with that.
So in the mornings you could go up one spot, avoiding the horrid stultifying nature of local news, to J.P. Patches. Or down a couple to find Brakeman Bill. After school, click click went up to “The Brady Bunch,” maybe down to “Gunsmoke,” or just staying put for the sadly prevalent cultural cornerstone that continues to unite all too many of us — “Gilligan’s Island.”
So you’re getting the point here, and a lot of the mental scaffolding supporting the, um, profundity I have expressed here over the decades is probably starting to make sense.
Like I said, guilty as charged.
But here’s the thing: So are you. Oh, yes, yes, yes, you are. You either know this, and choose to ignore it, or don’t know, but someday will find out.
Based on our current state of national political dysfunction, cultural warfare and garden-variety public psychosis — more on this after a few commercial messages urging you to ask your doctor about a new wonder drug, Byxlflipitaz — it’s undeniable that the mainstream American today possesses all the crisp, mental faculties of a Jell-O salad left too long out in the sun at an August picnic at Marymoor Park.
My thesis: American television has made the country what it is today — fat, lazy, uninterested, selfish, intellectually comatose and uninspired. And the relatively recent phenomenon of streaming — injecting into the brain unprecedented troves of this mind-numbing stupidity (granted, with occasional gems) for longer and foggier periods of tilting back and tuning out — has exponentially amplified the effect.
Basically, those of us raised with TV as a companion that was as omnipresent as the erstwhile butler Mr. French on “Family Affair” are probably too far downstream to paddle out before the falls. For better or (mostly) worse, it is who we are.
Is that a problem?
TELEVISION, IN ITS formative years, wasn’t widespread in the United States until the 1940s and only went color in a broad scale in the mid-’60s. Its inculcation into our daily lives feels, in some ways, like either a simultaneous event — or a driver — of our present undoing. But oddly, many of us also feel, with good reason, like it’s a touchstone that keeps us grounded and sane.
When history is written — if this should be permitted by our eventual robotic overlords — TV might stand out as a too-easy root cause of the breakdown in national civility. (At which point, yes, both the Interwebs and smartphones will shout, “Hold my beer!” but everyone knows all of these brain bombs have crossed digital streams and merged into one massive, digital Thought Suck, so this is a distinction with no difference.)
Yes, the global dumb wave of streamed content is not uniquely our own creation. But it is undeniable that we here in celeb-obsessed United States of Hype, in the land of the free and home of “Braveheart,” cast the first soap opera stones.
Consider: Only in the incestuous, contemptuous corporate media cesspool in which we all happily bob along could a free market spawn, foster and propagate the following series of interconnected landmark events in the history of energy wasted on marginal entertainment:
● In the 1980s series “The Joy of Painting,” public television figure Bob Ross, a mellow oil painter with an impish smile and several hectares of hair, tapes a bunch of segments of himself painting, adding “little happy trees” here and there to painted landscapes that — and this is a rumor — proved irresistibly transfixing to an entire generation of young Afterschool Special ganja huffers. (And others.)
● Relatives and hopeful clingers-on to Bob Ross, The Brand, manage to either bilk, wrestle or inherit ownership of most of his image and imagery, even before his untimely death at age 52.
● Multiple spinoff shows, games and entire streaming Bob Ross broadband channels, which reportedly leapt off the charts as soothing background noise during the panicked days of the pandemic, combine to reintroduce Ross to a non-happy-treed audience — and in doing so suck every drop of inconceivable profit from his image from an entire new generation of Americans.
● As of last month, a new documentary about the remarkable nature of all the above could be streamed directly to your phone, via Netflix.
Lather, rinse, reuse. God Bless America.
We could end this screed right there, and in the interest of not going other dark places, probably should. But, like streamers unable to stop themselves from allowing the “next episode” chain to play out through multiple seasons of “Gossip Girl,” this thought train keeps careening down the track toward the unwitting, sleepy mental village below.
Important point of order: Most of the TV that rotted our brains and flabbed our abs back in the day shared a common trait: It was often silly, but mostly harmless. (How quaint, in hindsight.) A horse was a horse, of course, of course, until it wasn’t: None of us thought Mr. Ed could really order takeout. Similarly, “I Dream of Jeannie” might have been dumb and blatantly sexist, but it didn’t spawn a political movement of zombie cultists marching around with little glass bottles, trying to Make America Blink Again.
All of that would come later.
IT WAS AROUND THE MID-’90s, if memory serves, when the sinking feeling began. Scrolling through a list of the nation’s top-10-rated TV shows, I noted that something like eight of them shared a marked distinction: They were “reality” TV, shows that required little cast, sets or the inkling of creative spark God gave a common garden snail. Manna, in other words, for the geniucrats running the U.S. entertainment industry.
This began modestly, with camel noses under the intellectual tent such as “The Real World,” “Big Brother,” et al. Like comparable venereal diseases, it spread quickly. Entire books have been written about this run-up, and our downfall, so we will spare that detail here. But suffice to say that what was dumped upon our heads by the circling turd plane of the late-century infotainment industrial complex continues to flow down our necks into every available crevice.
If you doubt this, please open a new tab, open up your personal Netflix page and treat yourself to this stunningly depressing link: “Survivor: Season 41.”
I kid you not.
“Survivor,” as it turns out, became not only a national cultural obsession, but an early window into our nation’s own current me-first jag, which might well wind up being the death of us all. It reinforced every self-centered tendency blasted into our brains since the Cold War — memorably ensconced in entertainment pop culture via the Reagan-era capitalist mirror reflection film “Wall Street” (surely intended by Oliver Stone as more cautionary tale than the fanboy Alex P. Keaton TED Talk it became). Once Gordon Gekko weighed in with that generational sound bite (“Greed is good!”), the lack-of-morality foundation was laid for “reality” run amok.
These quickly embraced offerings evolved from prime-time game shows and lack-of-talent contests to the remote sets of “Survivor,” which rewarded members of an isolated community for double crossing one another, making our dark-side propensity to scheme and backstab seem not only OK, but the sort of stuff one might put on a résumé for a career in finance.
Reality TV, to the unwitting Boobis Tuber, was like injecting the underlying creed of unchecked capitalism — namely: Many, many spectacular losers must exist to produce a few winners, and damn, the winning is fine! — straight into the bloodstream.
Which brings us to the modern cultural anti-Christ, Mark Burnett.
Yes, it’s clear that if Burnett, a Brit born in 1960, had not created the “Lord of the Flies” prequel “Survivor” in 2000, someone else would have. But no one could imagine the next, simultaneously hideous and dunderheaded place it would lead under his unique guidance.
That would be “The Apprentice,” the long-running celebrity-worship mind grope which, upon its launch in 2004, created a wholly fictional, successful-business-running character to hold court over hapless minions who attempted to gain his favor by out-hustling — and yes, of course, backstabbing — their way into his favor. Like “Survivor,” “Apprentice” wrapped each week with the ritual sacrifice of a cast member who didn’t measure up, much to the pleasure and coffee-shop bemusement of middle America, wherever that is or was at the time.
The fictional character holding the “You’re Fired!” sword was, and is, Donald John Trump, who rose, like wadded tissue in an overflowing septic tank, to national fame; moved into politics, of a sort; and ultimately spawned a screw-y’all political movement that today threatens the very existence of American democracy.
As we have already established: You can’t make this stuff up. But you can put it on television — and then hide from the undeniable consequences, a skill that Burnett, modern heir to Dr. Frankenstein, seems to have mastered in the unpleasant days since.
To be fair, one could argue that Burnett and company could not possibly have imagined that anyone with the common sense of a clump of phlox would actually believe that fictional characters such as the former guy would ever be assumed to be real. But this has since been proven, on a daily basis, laughably optimistic.
In the modern era of television, truth and consequences, the only thing exceptional about America seems to be its rank gullibility.
ALL OF THIS is perhaps unnecessarily dark. It might well prove true that television mirrors our own inadequacies rather than drives them. But it’s tough to argue anymore that the mix of the two are incapable of creating a substance giving off fatally toxic fumes. Either way, the truth is that, for the discerning viewer, modern broadcasting of an ever-expanding array of news, documentaries, drama, comedy, art and other categories that comprise modern TV streaming similarly can enhance our lives — or at least make us feel better about ones not well-lived.
The obvious problem: Who among us is a discerning viewer? A select number of Americans, it should be noted, don’t even own a flat-screen, tablet or other instrument of destruction delivering all this rottery into our cerebral cortexes. I salute all those people. I just don’t share their self control.
This all became obvious during 2020, The Year It All Went Bad, when tens of millions of Americans suddenly were stuck at home for extended periods of time with nothing to keep them company but marauders in “Vikings,” dope peddlers in “Better Call Saul,” intergalactic warriors in “The Expanse,” creepily hot robots in “Westworld,” stuffy Brits in “The Crown,” suburban punks in “Better Things,” mythical antiheroes in “Game of Thrones” and the 89-year old Ellen Pompeo starring in what surely must be Season 1,466 of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Don’t even let me get started about the utter inanity of modern “Gong Show” equivalents like “American Idol”’ or the Schadenfreude Suite of contemporary celebs-at-home voyeurism on display in “The Kardashians” and the “Real Housewives of (Wherever)”; or even worse, the titillating stupidity that is “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette” or any spinoff to this mind-numbing parade of badly-in-need-of-a-life dating shows.
I am a self-confessed connoisseur of spectacularly bad television, but even I have limits. Result: I am happy to mentally travel the globe with “River Monsters” angler/melodrama king Jeremy Wade, and even wander through Outer Bleakistan with pasty-skinned self-appointed survivalists being “Naked and Afraid.” But I maintain the semi-decency to draw the time-suck line somewhere well in front of Shondaland dreck such as “Bridgerton,” or to slide into the hollow side-boobism of “Too Hot To Handle” or the serialized coma ilk of “Young Sheldon.”
One has to have standards.
Conversely, the open floodgates of streaming have produced a trickle of dramatic gems: The first serial that drew me into the streaming rabbit hole was AMC’s dark do-over “The Killing,” a supposedly Seattle-set show where it never stopped raining. It foretold the era of streaming services picking up well-crafted but non-niche popular series and adding a season or two for a different digital audience. (See: “Longmire” and many others.)
The stream boxes also have opened new windows to cutting social commentary and satire such as John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” (today one of the more important news shows in the country); Larry David’s cringe-brilliant “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; and the irresistibly cutting Julia Louis-Dreyfus showcase, “Veep.” Add “Brockmire” and “Loudermilk” for comedic dessert.
If one can cut through the dreck, there’s plenty of worthy stuff out there. Ask your friends, maybe even a couple of enemies.
Yet somehow, for a kid of the TV generation, modern streaming seems to elevate the medium to an all-consuming fog; the more you attempt to wave it out of your face, the more it circles back and fills your nostrils.
None of which is to say this is a lost battle for the national soul, or even individual redemption. Despite my ingrained TV habit, I’m still arguably a (semi-)productive member of society who’s able to swear on a stack of stream app passwords that I believe the following:
1) I can quit anytime I want.
2) Don’t ask me to quit, and if you do, keep notes, because the ensuing scuffle, possibly involving “Clockwork Orange”-style aversion therapy, would make gripping modern American television — a good three seasons’ worth.
3) My own show would be about a guy who watched too much TV, confessed this publicly and rendered himself forever tainted in the eyes of readers.
Fortunately, because it’d just be TV, nobody would really believe that.