Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

This is the most wonderful time of the year. I am reconnecting with old friends and past loves which meeting new people, having new crushes and suffering disappointment. It’s the new TV season. My addiction to the medium traces back to childhood when my siblings and I would negotiate over which shows we’d watch. Oh those Happy Days!

These days I have two DVR’s programmed to the hilt, with my goal not to miss my favorite returning shows or the new ones. Each of the DVR’s have their own criteria…one is for action and crime oriented shows while the other is more relationship shows, news/info and, of course, HGTV. “My stories” transport me around the globe, allow me to get to know interesting people and relate to their experiences. I get to have adventures, learn new procedures and am vicariously romantic. I laugh. I cry. I get thrills and chills. Television is no vast wasteland, it’s a rich cornucopia of human experiences.

I don’t watch much “reality,” preferring the imagined relationships of scripted fare over the situational absurdities that largely fill the reality genre. (The Amazing Race, of course, is the shining exception to that rule – where the character development, adventure and challenges best virtually anything else.  Starts Sunday 9/26!) As Premiere week goes along – it’s like being 5 years old on Christmas morning. Everything is shiny and bright, the bows are so pretty! I know there’ll be some stanky stuff in one or more of the packages, but I’m hoping they are few and far between this year.

In moments of introspection I wonder what draws me so strongly to the TV. Conspiracy theories about “The Man” sending messages and controlling me via the box notwithstanding, I think that TV offers what life could be, and maybe even should be.

My house was robbed twice in 2009. In addition to the loss of material property, the intimate invasion of privacy stayed with me long after the incidents. The LAPD took 28 hours to arrive after the first robbery. The officers asked if I wanted to have fingerprints taken – to which I naturally agreed. There are only 2 fingerprint units in all of LAPD. Two. They’d get to me within a week. To have a report filed I had to go to the station. After waiting 90 minutes there was no detective available to take the report, so I just left the paper with the front desk. After the second robbery I bailed on the fingerprints. A suspect was arrested. Speculation is that this person had been doing similar robberies in the neighborhood for the better part of the year. I know this only because of the local supermarket newspaper. I called the detective “assigned” to the cases to see if any of my property was recovered or if I could be helpful as a double victim. No response. After so many years of Law & Order, CSI and a host of other criminal procedures I had an expectation that my police force would care, be efficient, act fast and that forensics were ever present. Such is the dichotomy between television and the real world.

Television offers the promise of solving complex issues in 45 minutes or less. Doctor’s are dedicated and never seem to ask or care about insurance or payment. Lawyers get cases in the morning and are in court that afternoon. The bad guys are nearly always caught. Everybody seems to have sex, and it’s always hot and satisfying. The disconnect between how the world really operates and how it’s portrayed seems to grow with each season.

As viewers we see hero’s performing extraordinary physical, emotional and relationship acts – all neatly packaged. When a similar situation interrupts our actual lives and we can’t solve the issue as succinctly, frustration with the actual world increases. Why can’t we just parachute into Afghanistan, like Chance in Fox’s Human Target or like Jack in the newly departed 24? When we see somebody we find attractive and interesting – shouldn’t our eyes just meet and bliss follows? Shouldn’t we be clever enough to have a pithy response to every situation? Where is President Bartlett when you need him?

President Obama won the Democratic nomination and ultimately the election by being a good character on television. He is attractive, well spoken and has a great rise-from-nowhere-to-conquer-the-world story. Months after taking office and the challenge of governing and building coalitions became the primary narrative, his popularity waned. What do you mean he can’t turn the economy around in a few months? If it were on ABC that would have happened by mid-season. A year to pass a legislative bill? Josh Lyman used to do it in half an episode of West Wing. Health care? Just go to General Hospital or any number of other fictional hospitals.

Most people cognitively know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Even with this knowledge, the prevalence of so much content that we all consume voraciously (whether it be television, movies, plays, video-games) has established a baseline of expectations. Politicians market themselves as the next deodorant – fresh and new! No wonder the dissatisfaction of established institutions is so high. When we are marketed to, we expect a certain result – and that result is unlikely to be realized in a world where people fundamentally disagree on the size, scope and role of its institutions – both public and private.

Private enterprise is not immune from the expectations game. Most of the characters we know, love and root for on television spend the majority of their time in their work place. They seem happy, fulfilled and making next week’s rent or mortgage is rarely an issue whereas in the day to day living most of us have that as a primary concern. Certainly TV shows primary function is to allow us to escape the mundane of our daily lives to imagine something different.

Nielson (the TV ratings company) reports  that the average home has 3 TV’s and we watch about 5 hours a day, or about one-third of our waking lives. Consuming this much television enables the disconnect between how the world works and how we want the world to work to exist.

Certainly the answer is not less television. Maybe we need perspective television – where our dramatic stories are more representative of actual experiences, where people of different sizes color and economic backgrounds are better represented. Maybe there are more shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights that take present extraordinary stories based in identifiable worlds. A landscape where murder and mayhem aren’t the primary sources of conflict. Whoa! I’m teetering off to never-never land. Back to originally scheduled programming...

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