Monday, April 12, 2010

Television As Art?

"In my house, we don't watch television," the man says with pride as he scans the room looking for reactions from our classmates. He is a middle-aged pastor who has decided to return to school for his Master's degree. He is obviously quite proud of his anti-television position.

"You don't own a TV?" I ask.

"No," he corrects me. "We own one, but we don't watch it much. There's nothing on television but garbage." He looks at our professor for validation, but the instructor's body language gives him none. Interestingly, the class discussion revolves around cultural relevance and how Christians would be better served to be more culturally aware. I'm not sure why this is the moment this gentleman has decided to reveal his hostility towards in-home entertainment, but it is.

One of my other classmates asks, "So, why do you own a TV if you don't use it?"

"Well," he replies, "I like to watch the news."

Fair enough.

This gets me thinking. I've heard this accusation quite a bit. The idea that TV is nothing but garbage or a waste of time is something I hear articulated by people who feel superior to those of us who never miss our weekly programs.

I will admit it. I'm a TV watcher. Some may even call me an addict. A few years ago, I gave up television for Lent, and it was the most difficult fast I have ever attempted. When I was a kid, if my dad wanted to really get my attention he would ground me from watching TV. This was my Achilles Heel. In some ways, it still is. I am a man who loves his stories.

But let's return to the original question. Is TV really without value? Is it, as my classmate suggests, "all garbage"? Does it really offer nothing but distraction and opportunity for laziness?

I would argue that TV is none of these things. Not as an absolute rule, at least. Like music, theater, literature, photography, painting, and filmmaking, television is an artistic medium. It is a venue in which art is presented, critiqued, and accepted or rejected by the general public.

I won't go so far as to say all television is good art. In fact, most of it is probably not. But there is no medium in the world in which bad art does not exist. For every Vincent Van Gogh, there is some hack with a paintbrush who only traces bowls of fruit. For every WIlliam Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, there is a playwright who is going for the cheap laugh. For every John Lennon, there is a Britney Spears. For every Alfred Hitchcock, there is a Steven Seagal.

The same is true with television. Obviously, there are some TV shows for which there is no artistic defense. There are those programs that thrive on the exploitation of human weakness and bad behavior. There are shows that are designed to test people to see if they will cheat on their spouses. There are shows that are designed to do nothing but please focus groups and test audiences. There are shows that are exact replicas of a half-dozen other shows that we have seen before. There are shows that, without cliches and predictable plot points, they would not possibly be able to exist.

However, there are TV shows that reveal the artistic potential of television. There are programs that invite us to see the world from multiple points of view, that offer intelligent social commentary on our culture, and that tell compelling and interesting stories.

I wanted to share the Top 5 TV Shows I Would Consider "Good Art"...

5. The Simpsons

In college, I had a professor who claimed that The Simpsons was the most intelligent and socially aware show on television. I once heard comedy writer Dana Gould in a radio interview state that if you want to gain respect in the comedy world, you need to go work as a writer on The Simpsons. In its 20-plus years on the air, this show has employed more Ivy League graduates than you may think likely. I realize that this is a show that has drawn a great deal of controversy (especially in its earliest seasons) because it was a cartoon that was not for kids. However, if one were to truly watch this show, particularly the first ten seasons (admittedly, I have stopped watching in the past few seasons), you would find a highly informed and intelligent commentary on social trends, subcultures, and pop culture. There have been many books about philosophy and religion as depicted on The Simpsons. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a show that revolves around bathroom humor and cheap laughter (although those things are certainly present), but this is a show that sharply reveals perspective and confronts absurdity all through our culture.

4. Lost

This is storytelling at its finest. I know a lot of people who have given up on Lost, claiming that it is too complicated and confusing. I will admit that it is those things, but is one of the most well thought-out exhibits of narrative I have ever seen. There is intricate symbolism as well as multiple layers that exist in every episode. It is completely original, and it is in no way predictable. I am a movie lover, but I am hard-pressed to think of very many movies that have challenged viewers as much as Lost.

3. The West Wing (Seasons 1-4)

I can't answer for the final few seasons of this show, but the first four years, almost every episode was touched by writer Aaron Sorkin. He has written several other works, and probably his most well-known film was an adaptation of a play he wrote. Perhaps you saw it. It was called A Few Good Men. Nobody writes smart dialogue like Aaron Sorkin. Under his leadership, The West Wing sought to raise questions in the public forum about issues such as capital punishment, terrorism, women in leadership, social justice, education, and foreign aid. Not to mention that the characters were rich with depth and humanity. I have watched my DVDs of the first few seasons of this show several times, and it never gets old.

(Also, if you want to see more of Sorkin's writing, check out Sports Night, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip,and the Tom Hanks film, Charlie Wilson's War.)

2. The Wire

I have written elsewhere about David Simon and Ed Burns' masterpiece, but I cannot say enough about The Wire. Pulling no punches and sparing nobody's feelings, The Wire revealed the hopelessness of life in inner-city Baltimore as well as the deadly grip of drug addiction on those who suffer under the tyranny of poverty. Each season confronts a different social issue, ranging from how inner-city kids are helplessly drawn to gang life to how the public perception of the status quo is manipulated through the press. Not only was The Wire the most thought-provoking show I have ever seen, it was one of the most well-written. Among the staff writers were crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price.

1. Sesame Street

Not only is it educational, it's brilliant. I can't say what it has been like lately, but when I was growing up, nothing was better than Sesame Street. I have seen a lot of the programming on television that is designed for children, and it is often written for the lowest common denominator. Many shows depend on nothing more than loud noises and silly facial expressions to entertain children. Sesame Street (in my experience) would not reduce itself to such amateur antics. I have ordered DVDs of the earliest seasons of the show, and I cannot wait to share them with my son.

*Honorable mentions: Friday Night Lights, Seinfeld, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Charlie and Lola, Oz, Arrested Development, Mad Men, The Cosby Show, The Office

I'm sure people can think of shows that I have left out. If so, please feel free to post about it in the comments section.

This blog post was brought to you by the letter "T".


laura said...

How about Say Yes to the Dress?

Just kidding. We can still enjoy bad art right?

And it's interesting talking about TV shows being art. We talk a lot about that kind of thing in my classes. One of the big things right now in art education is visual culture. Visual culture is defined like you'd think--the images that surround us and that we interact with every day, like TV, advertisements, music videos, etc. There is a move to talk about this stuff more in the art classroom, instead of just focusing on dead white guys (Van Gogh, Michelangelo, etc etc). Its controversial stuff in the art education world.

And LOST is definitely art.

Rob said...

I think we can definitely enjoy a bit of bad art every now and again! I have "Ice, Ice, Baby" in my iTunes.