Television Is Still Terrible


Red Shoe Diaries, Showtime, 1992-1997

by Justin E. H. Smith

Until our current quarantine began, the last time I had intentionally watched a TV show was when TV sets had knobs, and TV signals came down into them straight from the ether.

I was never one of those self-righteous prigs who boasted of not having a TV. I liked TV very much when I was a kid; it constituted, I would even say, the canon of my first education. I knew it was bad, but it was bad in a way that always seemed to me honest and true, never pretending it was something it wasn’t. It offered, through its obvious artifices, enough truth to impart to a child a fairly good idea of what the world of adults is like: the opera buffa of Jack Tripper’s ruses and Mr. Furley’s exophthalmic fits; little Tattoo, the island, the eternal return of the plane.

I never renounced TV, I mean. It abandoned me, with its ever more complex boxes and wires and remotes, with the subscriptions and customised services that were now obligatory, when TV as I had known it, as I had been born into it, had been an ambient force all around us like the air, always ready to appear in human form to anyone who summons it.

Now when I check into hotel rooms I see the flat screen on the wall, and I know if I turn it on I’ll find some complex textual instructions that will cause my life-long situational illiteracy to kick in. If I happen to guess at the right buttons and get past this part, I will enter an unexplored world of further options, all of which will seem to straddle the strange boundary between the entertainment part of the technology and the revenue-seeking part, and will make me think of ridiculous, foreign Professor Pnin looking in dismay at an unwieldy American newspaper of a Sunday morning, and declaring: “I do not know what is advertisement and what is not advertisement.”

Let us agree for the sake of argument that Breaking Bad and The Wire and the other vaunted representatives of the new golden age of television excel in what is called “raw realism”. Even if this is consistently so, the techniques in question might still be said to bear somewhat the same relation to true dramatic art that recent photographic hyperrealism in painting bears to the Dutch masters. You do not automatically arrive closer to the ideal of an art form by ramping up the verisimilitude. What you get, usually, is the gratuitous display of talent, talent without style, talent wasted: talent, most importantly, that is subordinated to impressive new technologies.

Often in the history of art, what appears at first natural, instinctive, “artless”  turns out only to have appeared so in view of its novelty. Give it a few more decades, and I’m willing to bet that the current fashion for naturalism in television will appear as stylised as Chinese opera. And apart from the question whether it is naturalistic, we may also ask whether it is self-evident that naturalism is something for art to aspire to. It is, after all, a curious thing for art to aim for artlessness — not that it never should, just that the imperative to do so should not be taken for granted. For every Renaissance Italian painting exhibiting all the hot new techniques of perspective and lifelikeness, there is a highly schematic, rigidly two-dimensional Eastern Orthodox icon that, seen in the right way, is just as capable of inducing profound admiration, and experience of life, as its supposedly more naturalistic Western competitor. The great genius of Eugène Green’s films lies in his total abandonment of the aspiration to eliminate artifice. Of course people don’t use Molièrean diction on the streets of twenty-first-century Paris. If you want to hear people talking the way people talk in Paris today, then go take a walk in Paris! If you want to see the transfiguration of the commonplace through the cinematic art, go watch an Eugène Green film.

Anyhow the talk of realism and naturalism in the new critically acclaimed television series is more confusing than anything else. I saw an episode of Better Call Saul, and the Mexican drug-dealer toughs had to my eyes all the verisimilitude of the comically caricatural extras knocked off by Charles Bronson in the Death Wish franchise. I saw an episode of Unorthodox, and the group of musician friends Esty falls in with in Berlin was as two-dimensional as anything I ever saw on an ABC after-school special. I saw an episode of House of Cards, and its sex scene recalled nothing so much as Red Shoe Diaries, that wonderful softcore series on Showtime from the stone age of subscription television, back when it knew how bad it was. What, I kept wondering as I surveyed all of this golden-age output, was the source of all the critical effusions? Why was so much space being given over to it in august venues that used to engage with, say, literature?

My real problem, anyhow, is not just that it is mostly schlock. My problem is that even when it is well-executed, the adjective one naturally reaches for is not “great”, or even “good”, but only, at most, “successful”. It succeeds on its own terms, but what are those terms? Even when it is technically virtuosic in a way that suffices in the current critical context to earn glowing praise, the question still comes back: to what end? What would the pay-off be for sitting through this? Is there any shred of a possibility of any trace of moral growth, cultivation of one’s sensibilities, expansion of one’s sense of self? Of course there isn’t.

This is not a defense of some pristine art form, “cinema” over low entertainment. For one thing, nominally big-screen movies, even the “serious” ones, have for the most part been pulled down to the same level as the content made for streaming. Natalie Portman’s supposedly high-minded production of A Tale of Love and Darkness (bearing a genealogical relation to, but sharing in none of the same spirit as, the Amos Oz novel of the same name) was, visually and technically, very much like an episode of The Spanish Princess or The Outlander. Circa 1966 you could chart the trickle-down effect from, say, Nouvelle Vague films to the televised Batman series; today by contrast there is a clear and unmistakable evaporation-up, or spilling-across, or just a general moldy spread from television to the movies.

To the extent that this distinction can still be made at all. The closest thing I’ve seen to an entertainment made in the past few years with a passable film-like quality was an episode of L’amica geniale. It was pretty good, as middle-high respectable melodrama with a fair dose of Neorealist nostalgia. (Producer Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza was, similarly, a pretty good ode to La Dolce Vita, while La Dolce Vita was not an ode to anything but to Fellini’s own singular vision.) But the merciful thing about Natalie Portman’s movie is that it unfolds within a closed universe: when it’s over, it’s over, and the absence of an internal need to drive the potential binge-watcher ever forward means that it was made without the same algorithmic dopamine-enhancing tricks by which our social-media feeds are also custom-designed to sap us of our humanity. Portman’s film, I mean, in being mercifully self-contained, is also mercifully humane, in the way that cinema has always been, at bottom, humane, while television has always been, at bottom, an exploitation.

The boundary between the forms —the cinematic and the televisual, art and entertainment— is also compromised by the franchises that are increasingly making the experience of movies a serial experience: The Fast and the Furious, or the never-ending additions to the Marvel comics “universe”. Full-grown adults, some of them even my age, have exchanged their dignity in order to live in this universe as eternal children; I even read recently of a newlywed couple that repaired straight from the wedding back to their home to celebrate… by watching a Marvel movie. To say that the passion they are indulging is “as bad as television” does not get anywhere near the bottom of the moral and aesthetic abyss this wedding announcement invites us to sound.

I see the smart young people on Twitter sitting in what I imagine are their extremely expensive, extremely crowded apartments in Brooklyn, tweeting about Game of Thrones, or whatever came after it to instantaneously fill its void, and I think to myself: what did you go to the trouble to move to New York for, to brave all the challenges of life in the capital, when you could have stayed in your parents’s suburban home outside Columbus and watched these same dumb shows with them? What’s the difference where you are if your life is still anchored to substantially the same cultural touchstones as the lives of the people you thought you had to get away from in order to create yourself anew? I understand you don’t have a lot of money left over after rent is due. But there are webcams turned on the inside of beaver dams streaming live on the internet, right now, and to watch costs less than your Netflix subscription, and the rewards are infinitely greater. Take a street-view tour of Yakutsk. Watch the cargo-ship GPS trackers, the global wind maps. There’s an amazing world out there.

My feeling, after this recent tour d’horizon of the recent wave of critically acclaimed television, is this: if it’s not Hee Haw or The Gong Show or some other ridiculous farce from our pre-internet past, then leave me alone about it. You say the medium has developed of late into an art form? Roy Clark’s fiddling is an art form. Effin’-and-hambone is an art form. That moment when Gene Gene the Dancing Machine’s signature song begins to play and Chuck Barris soars into ecstasy? We arrive with him at the very summit of the artistic sublime.

To despise the unfounded conceits of the middle-brow, of which Emily Nussbaum et al. are the dutiful cataloguers, is not the same thing as to proclaim the superiority of the high-brow. I still love Hee Haw. I wish there were still television being made that could be appreciated in that register. The problem is that today TV is made to be appreciated with the same serious face we were supposed to put on a few years back when Marina Abramović convinced Jay-Z to rap at us under the banner of performance art. It’s the idiot face of people too easily convinced, by other people with lots of financial capital translated too easily into cultural capital, to take something more seriously than it deserves to be taken. If there is anything that preserves the spirit of the Gong Show, it is of course not on television, but on Twitter and TikTok. Those are venues for the true creative genius of humanity (almost exclusively very young humanity), and it is a corollary of this fact that no one mistakes these venues for the sort of place where you have to put on your reverential art-appreciation face.

Lauren Oyler, one of the few lucid truth-tellers among the critics who came up in the generation of new media, has said that while it is wrong to follow fashions in books and visual art, it is acceptable to do so with, say, television and cookery: the idea being that, where nothing is really at stake, there is no harm in going along with the chattering crowd. Her priorities are right, I think. Yet one still must express disdain, not towards those who follow what is not important –where is the harm in that?–, but towards those who seek to artificially inflate the importance of the thing followed. I usually regret expressing my disdain, and revert back to my usual quietism after an occasional outburst such as this one. But if I were truly righteous I would never shut up about it: the content vendors deserve to be driven from the temple of art.

Piece crossposted with