Thursday, December 06, 2007

Swimming in memory: Or, Bad TV, Young Kids, and How a Generation Fetishized Itself -- An Introductory Essay

One by one the bulbs burned out, like long lives come to their expected ends. Then there was a dark house made once of time, made now of weather, and harder to find; impossible to find and not even as easy to dream of as when it was alight. Stories last longer; but only by becoming only stories. It was anyway all a long time ago; the world, we know now, is as it is and not different; if there was ever a time when there were passages, doors, the borders open and many crossing, that time is not now. The world is older than it was. Even the weather isn't as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were. -- John Crowley, Little, Big

My brother-in-law has this theory. He says if you watch enough episodes of Full House in a row, you'll eventually enter a zone where the jokes are funny and the character interactions believable. He calls it "The Full House Zone," and when he tested it on me with one of those Nick at Nite marathons, damned if he wasn't right. Most people would say this was simply evidence that watching enough TV numbs your brain, but I consider myself a fairly astute viewer, and I was reading a novel at the same time anyway. What I think the Full House Zone says about us as viewers and as humans is that at some level, television stops being just something to look at and becomes ritual. We carve out a little time each week to "drop by" the house of our on-screen friends, and there we are entertained and occasionally edified, filled up to the brim at the great Church of Pop Culture.

My generation (the one born in the late '70s and the early '80s) was the first that was literally carried, cradle to grave, by television. There had always been kiddie programs, and there had always been shows for teens, but we were the first to get whole NETWORKS pitched to us as we hit those ages. We were the generation of Nickelodeon and The WB and the music-free MTV. Without a war or crippling economic depression to harden us, we bounced through life on a constant diet of vapid pop culture. Basically everything was available to us, but we increasingly grew bored with "the classics." Have you seen the biggest hit in Nick at Nite history? It's Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and it's all thanks to the constant bumping up of just what "retro" is. When we were kids, our parents were reliving the shows of the '50s. The Gen-Xers bumped that up to the '60s and then the '70s. But we've mostly been interested in the shows of our youth and teen-hoods. TBS has been ridiculously successful simply by recycling recent hits, and we're watching more comedy than ever, but it's almost all in reruns.

I used to be sort of mad about this, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't have room to. I consume my fair amount of culture, and while I'm not anxiously awaiting sharing the G.I. Joe movie with my kids, I did buy The Muppet Show DVDs for just that purpose. It's all nostalgia; it's all longing for that time we can't quite recapture when the cold stung more sharply on your cheeks and you ran in through the crunchy snow to yell answers you didn't even know at the screen before Alex Trebek could correct you. You might lay under the Christmas tree and stare up through the layers, lights glowing just out of reach, blinking those colors back onto your face.

When you walk into a church -- even one you've never attended -- you can't avoid just how much the very action of taking part in ritual calls to mind memories of that ritual before. (You, of course, may have never been in a church. But you know what I mean.) It's the same with turning on a television. The Golden Girls is climbing up on the couch beside your grandmother and sharing ginger snaps. The X-Files is your mom watching it with you, trying to fix that connection broken in adolescence and finally giving up when she just doesn't understand what's going on. Watch that famous finale where Ross says Rachel at the altar and think back on that spring day, the scent of grass heavy in the air, the sky slate-grey, that boy you liked on the phone.

I don't have any proof of any of this, but I would wager that because my generation had no real hard times, we fetishized everything we did into ritual, into something encompassing meaning. And that's why we're all a little bit crazy about the things we loved as kids.

When you're a kid, you don't understand the value consumer culture puts in making everyone feel valued so they buy more crap. So I think in a weird, subconscious way, we really took the presence of whole networks pitched right at us as a strange form of validation. "Look, kids! You're special!" was what we heard, even if it wasn't the text. "Your parents never got all of this!" Kids are terrible at subtext, but they're also terrific at it, at figuring out just what isn't being said and why it isn't being said. And teenagers are self-absorbed anyway. Give 'em a whole network, and they'll go nuts.

As a child, I didn't get to watch a lot of television, and my television time was strictly regimented. We lived a good hour away from the nearest movie theater (a one-screen movie palace that couldn't quite wait to slough off the skin of its former glory and become a multiplex). I read. A lot. Compulsively. And for whatever reason, a lot of what I read (when I wasn't working my way through the unexplained phenomena section of the library) was about television and the movies, both of which fascinated me, I guess, because I couldn't really get them. In this manner, I worked my way through the canon without actually seeing anything. I remember reading that The Godfather, Part II was the best Godfather and then being shocked when I read someone saying that Chinatown was the better movie released in 1974 anyway. I remember being surprised to find out Bob Newhart was in a show BEFORE Newhart. And I remember being shocked that the few shows I was allowed to watch weren't the ONLY shows out there and weren't even particularly good ones. A whole universe of forbidden fruit, flickering on a screen.

So I devoured. When I was old enough to choose what I watched, I gobbled and gobbled and gobbled and stuffed myself until I was full. And then I ate some more. I read "adult" books, and I watched R-rated movies, and I took a look at television shows that aired at the end of the evening, the shows where the evening news anchors bumped in helpfully over the credits and told you what you'd be looking at in mere seconds. And I loved ALL of it. Indiscriminately. I just liked being a part of the culture, not feeling so isolated and cut off from the world, no longer an island in the prairies of South Dakota.

When I would read that television was bad for you, I would always sort of scoff, even when it came from someone whose opinion I respected. Television was only bad for you, I was starting to understand, if you let it be, if you simply disengaged from it. Television could provide information. It could provide education. It could provide enlightenment. It could provide comfort. Oftentimes, as critics, we value the first three at the peril of the fourth, but that fifth is invaluable. It's EVERYthing. How beautiful is it to be wounded at school and to come home and turn on The Simpsons and laugh and laugh and laugh until none of it matters anymore? To some, turning off your brain is something to be frowned at, but sometimes, turning off your brain is the only thing you want to do. And if you know what you're doing, you can turn it off and turn it back on a half hour or hour later and be no worse for the wear. Yes, it's damaging if that's the only way you watch TV, but if you give it time, you learn better ways of watching.

But now I've been doing this for a while. I grow more and more cynical. Most television disappoints me now, and I often feel ashamed of the stuff I actually do like, terrified that my fellow critics will find out I really like watching Lost and recognize me for the 12-year-old just thrilled to be playing with the grown-ups I still feel like down at some base level. The part of me that grows more and more discerning with every show I watch also feels sort of sad about that. I just want to love things again.

So, this list, which is both an attempt at something like a personal history lesson and a way to reacquaint myself with so many things that I loved. There are 215 shows named in all on either the top 100 list or the 10 supplemental lists. It's not meant to be a 100 favorites list (or it would be a lot more esoteric), nor is it a 100 greatest list (or the rankings would be far different), nor is it a 100 most influential shows list (or I would have had to include a lot of shows I just don't like at all). It's something of an attempt to blend all three into one document that you can print out and look at and argue about and try to understand. Some of the rankings are completely arbitrary; some of them are set in stone (and I'll explain more about the process I used to arrive at this list tomorrow). This is simply an attempt, at the end of a stressful, trying year, to look back at a medium I loved once and figure out what about it is worth preserving. It's about flipping on that screen, letting it shimmer into being, and just letting yourself swim in the pleasures of memory.

But first, look immediately below, where we're going to dissect some shows I loved as a young critic that just didn't deserve to make the list in any way, shape or form. The first step toward becoming a critic is figuring out that some of the things you once loved are things that you no longer love as you grow. The second step is parsing out why that is. And the third step is writing about it.

So let's go back. The prairies are windswept, and you can just hear the fire siren from atop the water tower every day at noon. Tonight, The Cosby Show is on, and for an instant, you'll all be together and there will be popcorn and maybe even soda. You'll have to go to bed after that, but that's OK. The darkness outside is somehow warm, not scary at all. Still, better turn on the set. It'll provide a little light.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

Great analysis, Todd. I can't wait for the list.

As much TV as I watched growing up (and I watched a lot) I don't think I fully understood what good TV was until I saw the pilot for ER. That's when the light clicked on and I thought "this can be more than I thought." I've been hooked on quality dramas (and unfortunately still hooked on dreck like what I used to watch) ever since.