Tom Miller wonders why news has sought to be more entertaining, while entertainment has tried to become more real.
TV, despite its flaws and biases, represents the world much more than we give it credit for.
My undergraduate degree is in hard science, mechanical engineering specifically. But as a student, you are required to take various core classes to round out your person. One of those classes was English. Clearly, the Big Brains in education want even the vector heads to be able to write a cohesive paper; they also wanted us to be at least familiar with some titans of literature. Some of my fellow nerds did not care for the works of Mark Twain, JD Salinger, and Jack Kerouac and thought their time would be best served studying history rather than some novel. I sort of agreed until a Lit professor explained that fiction was a much better source of Truth than history books.
His logic went as follows: history, written by the winners in the near-term and the fortunate further back, was very much an editorialized product. While we have a good idea of who won the battles, who the leaders were, and what crops were produced, we’re not at all aware of the tone of an era except through their fiction. The Old Testament, Iliad, and Mahabharata describe things that many people would probably classify as Spielberg-ian. However, these myths highlight the conditions, troubles, and beliefs of time, even if glamorizing it, to a degree historians cannot match. The poets had a taste for life that the scribes couldn’t match.
While The Great Gatsby was a story about a guy who chases down a bootload of cash to impress a girl and gets shot as a result of mistaken identity (classic), but it does a masterful job of illustrating the bridge between the haves and the sorta-haves in a foreboding pre-Depression frenzy. You could say the same about Candid, The Stranger, Huck Finn, and the collected works of Bret Easton Ellis, to name a very few. Pop culture is not just a reflection of culture, but it is culture itself.
The medium of TV is an extension of the greater narrative of literature and should be treated as such: snapshots of the era in which they were created. Unfortunately, there are three main problems with this. One: There is too much being created to get a sense of any overall theme. Two: Piggybacking on Point One, we’re too close to it to be able to appreciate it. Three: There is a blurred line between fiction and reality.
We’ve managed to create content for just about everyone. Movies and shows are created and marketed to specific demographics. While more people are watching TV than ever before, no single show is going to get the same ratings as MASH. A contextual analysis needs to be very broad and include DEEP cable, premium cable, networks and everything in between. Is Boardwalk Empire not a more intuitive depiction of corporate ruthlessness than several thousand underemployed placard-waivers at Wall Street?
We may think we live in the Information Age, but we may later recognize this as the Age of Selfishness or the Cynical Age. The hope is that a wide range of pop culture will survive for our descendents to dissect, not just what is critically or popularly resonant. There is a democratizing (re: dumbing down) effect associated with TV. The pilot system ensures that while shows are generally created by very smart people, it’s the people with nothing better to do on a Tuesday afternoon and who wouldn’t mind a slice of pizza who decide what makes it to air. This is neglecting the weirdly powerful and flawed Nielsen rating system.
In an age when the news has sought to be more entertaining, entertainment has tried to be more real. That contrived reality and the gross willingness to debase oneself for fame (not to mention all the meth and packrat-ism we Americans seem indulge in) may be more emblematic of our culture than the clever subtleties of the rest of the media. That is to say the Kardashians aren’t a funhouse mirror held up to our culture; they are our culture. We created Kim Kardashian in our image. Clearly, I’m breaking my own rule on letting history break down our pop culture, but here’s hoping the anthropologists take it easy on us on that account.
The media does a great job of spinning facts and partial facts to reflect its bias, that slant provides as much Truth about our world as any history book might; we just have to know where to look for it.
—Photo framesofmind / flickr