If the Revolution Were Televised, Would We Recognize It?
by BENNETT WINTERS
Moving-picture media seems almost perfectly constructed to tap into our deep psychological weakness to appeasement.
The concept of moving-picture media, including film, video, and particularly television, as a dangerous sedative for the American public, is not a new one. Four decades ago, Gil Scott Heron warned in his spoken-word song “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” of the people-pleasing nature of television and of the powers that stand behind and project it. They want to please you not for your benefit, but for their own, Heron said, because their position at the top depends on the happiness of the foundation under them. Even before the true rise of television in the 1950’s, George Orwell foretold a similar fate in his dystopian prophecy 1984, depicting these powers as a totalitarian government that distributed “prolefeed”—art that was deliberately superficial in order to fill the brains of the people with dumb contentedness that left no room for reflection on the situation around them. But even long before art-as-entertainment was a primary weapon, this concept of appeasement threatened and ultimately dissolved great societies. In the year 100, Juvenal’s Satires lamented that the Roman people were becoming soft, now happy so long as their government provided them with “bread and circuses." To Juvenal, it was not the government that needed criticism—it was the people's low expectations that had enabled the government to take advantage of them. They were neglecting their civic duty to always think to the future and improve their situation, which is admittedly hard to uphold—especially across long centuries that provide successively greater comforts and conveniences, furthering the human tendency towards Sloth.
Moving-picture media seems almost perfectly constructed to tap into our deep psychological weakness to appeasement. It’s not just the form of television, it’s the very perceptual fabric of the medium. It requires so little effort to consume that we can sit through an entire episode or movie without really taking anything away from it, or even forming an opinion. Consuming other art forms takes much more work because they don’t mimic reality as closely. Reading, for instance, takes continuous, conscious work just to translate the story from words on the page to images on your mind. But this step is already complete with moving-picture media, so we can just sit back and let it flow through us. If a book is not gripping us, we’ll put it down because it’s too much work to slog through. For watching television or a movie however, it’s actually more work to turn it off and go do something else, so we’ll more often than not just sit through it, and afterwards—if there wasn’t anything that really struck us or challenged us—we’ll to turn our indifferent reaction into a positive one just to validate the time we chose to spend. This can manifest in exaggerated forms as the innate desire to see art succeed goes unfulfilled again and again, causing us to latch onto prolefeed that masquerades as serious art and to shower it with self-justifying praise. Many are saying that we are currently in a kind-of TV-Renaissance. That the great art of today is happening on television. This is not an easily falsifiable claim, but one that, repeated so readily, truly shows how underdeveloped our aesthetic instincts are as a society. Certainly, any medium has the potential to produce great art, including television. And while there have certainly been some important TV shows, the medium has not produced art on the level just that film has, just as, in turn, film has not produced art on the level that literature has. Of course, this correlates with the amount of time that each medium has had in which to produce art and perfect its techniques—I am not here to argue that any medium is inherently better than another. Certainly the way that moving-pictures mimic reality and engage all the senses is a strength for many desired styles. My hope is rather to suggest that these forms—television and film—can be more dangerous than others if left in the wrong hands (as they largely have been). The hyperbolic praise that certain recent TV dramas are getting, from critics and audiences alike, is representative of our failure in taste which allows the corporate hands that grip these mediums to keep a firm hold. There are already enough vices to choose from in the modern day world, let’s not let art, one of the few virtues left, become another one of them.
Many are saying that we are currently in a kind-of TV-Renaissance. That the great art of today is happening on television. This is not an easily falsifiable claim, but one that, repeated so readily, truly shows how underdeveloped our aesthetic instincts are as a society.
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To understand what we are fighting against, it is important to remember that another major difference setting apart television and film from other mediums is the massive amount of money that reaching the point of a finished work requires. This means that the creators need to not only raise money on the front end of production, but produce it on the back end. It creates a supply-and-demand economy of artist and consumer that, followed to its conclusion, homogenizes everything. The broader the appeal that any proposed project has in these industries, the safer it is for investors, thus the more likely to get the green light. And, as you might expect, it is often the blandest art that has the widest appeal, especially when audiences have been trained over the decades to respond to this wavelength. Let’s not forget that the term “dumbing-down” originated in the movie industry, used by executives to remind screenwriters that their target audiences were often much less educated than themselves. This phenomenon readily explains the main blight on Hollywood in the past decade: the superhero movie.
It creates a supply-and-demand economy of artist and consumer that, followed to its conclusion, homogenizes everything.
The genre is truly the perfect storm of mediocrity. First of all, it has a perfect mix of variety and repeatability: variety manifesting in the titular heroes, so that they can put out five a year without people getting suspicious, and repeatability manifesting everywhere substantial, such as plot, so that less work is involved and so that audiences know exactly what they are getting and are never elated and never disappointed. This cultivates a guaranteed audience, every time. The content is also perfectly hypnotic, and not just because of the face-numbing action and explosions. Alan Moore, revered creator of the graphic novel masterpiece, Watchmen, says it better than I ever could:
Moore captures the scale and urgency of this problem. The superhero aesthetic is so popular precisely because it is so antithetical to introspection. The black-and-white morality presented is much easier to digest than the ambiguity that plagues our real-life interactions, and it shares the attractiveness of idle fantasies such as being saved by the superhero, or becoming him/her. In this way, the market is being saturated, and any potential for real art that would allow us to better comprehend and engage with these confusing times is stifled.
A further consequence: the fall of the modern attention span is utterly intertwined with the rise of video media, each side driving the other into deeper and dumber extremes, and reaching every corner of our society. There is a reason why the modern American is more likely to have watched all of Law and Order than read all of War and Peace (and it has nothing to do with preferring the feeling they get from the prior). It’s because Law and Order is easy to consume, and War and Peace is very, very hard, even given intense interest. However, I would argue that every single person who has consumed the former, and salvaged an aesthetic experience out of it, would have had a better experience had they replaced it with the latter and finished it to the end. Why is this (besides the fact that Tolstoy is a better writer than anyone on the Law and Order staff)? Part of it is precisely because of the hard work required to get to the end, which creates emotional investment and gives more power to the artist. Some emotions simply cannot be inspired in a perfectly comfortable consumer, and the greatest art hits a range of emotions, and intense ones. But the average American can’t read War and Peace anymore. And yet, the desire for deeper aesthetic fulfillment has yet to be fully extinguished. So it pours out onto whatever we can still consume, creating the rhetoric of the “TV Renaissance.”
...the fall of the modern attention span is utterly intertwined with the rise of video media, each side driving the other into deeper and dumber extremes, and reaching every corner of our society.
The consummate example from the past few years, of course, hailed as a masterpiece by to critics and audiences, is Breaking Bad. It’s a fine show, sure. But to be hailed as the greatest show of all time by so many. . . It signals danger when people worship something like Breaking Bad, because it is not serious art. In fact, it shares many qualities of kitsch. It’s excessive and garish, but not self-consciously so. Its later seasons cater to the very apparent desire of its audience to take part in this TV Renaissance. We want a story that starts quiet, a tribute to the everyman in an empty town with an empty life, a story that picks up when he discovers the excitement inherent in the chaos he had always rejected, a story that now crescendos to exalt the evil and the power inside him, inside ourselves, until we blink and it’s no longer just a story but a death-opera, and he’s no longer just an actor but a scheming, scowling, fedora-toting, cliché-spouting chimera of references and characters and projections. It’s so easy to promise a masterpiece on the surface. However, upon closer inspection, Breaking Bad is a mechanical beast, and operates only on the simple formulas that have come signal meaning for its audience, and give them an excuse to gape, or cry, or rave. Once AMC realized what people desperately wanted—something to rave about—they saw the opportunity to rake in new audiences. Around Season 4, when the show was gaining major audiences, was when they began to pander, and that is when it became heavy-handed in its telling. The network had no remorse for and the audience had no awareness of the absolute schmaltz that saturated so many of the major moments. Take Heisenberg’s “Say my name,” his “I am the one who knocks,” or his crawlspace cackling fit. Take Gus Fring’s supervillian death, Skyler’s dramatic dip in the pool, or any of Jesse Pinkman’s meltdowns. Word of mouth spread about these moving scenes, and soon enough, the show was a phenomenon, a critically acclaimed cash-cow, the best of both worlds. It was a fulfillment of the promise that television still had new territory to conquer, more virtues to turn profitable vices, more bread and circuses. The bottom of the taste-barrel is already covered with the likes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the dangers of which have been covered by many others, but for the middle-ground of pseudo-aesthetes, exploitation techniques are still being perfected, though AMC might now stake that claim.
And yet, the desire for deeper aesthetic fulfillment has yet to be fully extinguished. So it pours out onto whatever we can still consume, creating the rhetoric of the “TV Renaissance.”
That all may sound harsh, but I don’t want to indict anyone who liked Breaking Bad. Liking anything is okay. It starts becoming a problem when we turn our preference into cold, hard, stated fact, such as “Breaking Bad is the greatest show of all time.” But the graver problem is when we internalize this belief, and it causes us to remain content, and to never seek out the works of art that truly deserve this praise. That’s what civic duty calls for—continuous searching, refusing to be satisfied. But this desired state of mind is by definition unpredictable, so the capitalist drive of the movie and television industries will always try to keep you reigned in and cultivate contentment. The Oscars award ceremony, for example, is a weapon used to convince us that we are on the cutting edge, history is being made before our eyes, this isn’t the same old story. But, of course, it always is.
Good art can still occasionally make it through the gauntlet of funding and approval in television and film, and can even show up at the Oscars, but it must rely solely on exceptional individuals who lie morally outside the collective industry’s robotic profit-seeking. The other, smaller AMC darling—Mad Men—is a perfect example. Mad Men enjoyed much the same popularity over its early seasons that Breaking Bad did, but its creator, the immensely talented Matthew Weiner, refused to compromise his vision to exploit that viewership. The show was pulled mid-series for 17 months because Weiner wanted to make sure he maintained creative control, and was willing to do battle with AMC over it so that his work would not become Breaking Bad, and he won. Breaking Bad is more popular, but Mad Men has its integrity, and its quality. Its final seasons were just as complex in their writing and subtle in their telling as Weiner envisioned them to be from the start. And people liked it fine. Jon Hamm finally won his well-deserved Emmy. It’s made AMC a lot of money, I’m sure, despite the fact that they lost the battle with Weiner. This proves that the system can work—people can make good art for television, and good art can make money for television.
Considering this disparity between the two shows, we must ask, what effect, if any, does quality truly have on the amount of money a show makes, or the reception it gets? (As a quick disclaimer, I’m mainly dealing in dramas here, and comedies are a different story entirely. Television has been and continues to be a satisfactory medium for the comedic form.) The closest we’ve gotten to a masterpiece from television was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, a Polish drama series from 1989 based around the Ten Commandments, which was really more structured like a sequence of films than anything else. However, it is telling that this great work came from the mind of a man who had already been established elsewhere as a cinematic genius, and that it was not conceived on the same scale that the massive budgets and viewerships of America demand. And if we look at The Decalogue’s level of accessibility, it is not too far off of that of the best American dramas. Our audiences might appreciate it, if it ever got exposure. Next down the line is The Sopranos, which many credit with sparking the “TV Renaissance,” and it deserves much of the praise it received. On the surface, this inspires hope in the taste of audiences, as it was a huge phenomenon. But, looking closer, we notice that nothing has really come along to rival the quality of The Sopranos. One show surely doesn’t make for a Renaissance. Was all the praise just coincidentally on the mark or because the show was in at that time and people wanted to praise it? Audiences are in control as long as they set the demand in the market, and the lack of demand for a Sopranos follow-up suggests that audiences were satisfied with whatever they got. In addition, popular reaction to the show’s finale, which represented everything that was brilliant about the show and magnified it tenfold, was largely scathing. The final shot cuts off so abruptly, that some thought their power had momentarily gone out, and then upon realizing their mistake, complained to the world of pretentiousness in order to cover their tracks. In this day and age, calling out pretentiousness typically signals a lack of understanding more than anything else. Perhaps audiences choosing the right show now and then to latch onto has been blind coincidence, or perhaps it’s a case of following the lead of a few, then pretending to enjoy and understand. As mentioned, the perceptual ease of television allows for consumption without strong opinion, so we can project whatever opinion suits our ego. That is, until something like The Sopranos finale jars us out of our seat, and we’re forced to reckon with reflection we weren’t prepared for.
The Oscars award ceremony, for example, is a weapon used to convince us that we are on the cutting edge, history is being made before our eyes, this isn’t the same old story. But, of course, it always is.
There’s more evidence to consider: Twin Peaks, a great show from another great mind, David Lynch’s, which came along well before even The Sopranos. It was wildly popular in the first season because of its unique-yet-comforting setting, ensemble cast, and consistent drama. David Lynch’s marquee name may also have piqued the viewer’s desire to be culturally informed. But were we just playing along again, fooling even ourselves into thinking we knew Lynch’s agenda? The second season brought out the sinister-surrealist undertones in full force that are Lynch’s trademark, and were more subtly present in the first. The result: ratings bombed. Audiences were, once again, alienated. Lynch’s aesthetic was always there, but it evidently flew completely over our heads until he brought it down to our eye-level, and we then turned around and booed that which we had just been cheering. The follow-up movie to send off the cancelled show, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, only amplified the reaction, and was initially dismissed as an utterly pretentious flop, but now is retrospectively considered one of the greatest films of one of the greatest modern directors.
Now, twenty-five years later, a similar situation has come the form of True Detective. The first season had a similar brand of meta-fictional, self-satirizing, even pulpy undertones to Twin Peaks, but it also had some consistent suspense, intrigue, and action. Audiences loved it. The second season has made it clear that this had been for the latter set of generic draws, not the former, truly rare and important ones—as this season, like Twin Peaks, magnified those challenging undertones, and audiences and critics alike are panning it. The two seasons are certainly different, and to argue which one was better would be grasping at straws—but the second season is no doubt more ambitious, and more challenging. We need the ambition of individuals like Nic Pizzolato, the creator of True Detective, and Lynch, and Weiner, to help us stave off the factory-produced dramas, but if we keep reacting in unpredictable ways, independent of quality, we may not keep getting all these chances. Has the beginning of the revolution already been televised in occasional but insistent iterations? Have we watched it intently every time, waiting for the spark, only to change the channel away out of impatience, trying to find it again? How do we break this cyclical stagnation?
Escapism is only a temporary solution, but pursuing art that makes us reflect on our life and find beauty even in the mundane is a true form of self-improvement.
To fulfill our civic duty, there is only one decision that we must make: to not settle. To make the effort. We need to forgo the night out to grab dinner and catch the latest summer blockbuster with friends, and instead invite those friends over, make it a night in, order a pizza. And turning on Netflix, we must then resist taking the easy route of Orange is the New Black, plastered conveniently across the front page, which we know makes us laugh. Better suggestions are easily available, and they never run out. Many are on Netflix Instant, and the others are all out there somewhere. Consuming great works of art is the only way to develop good taste. And don’t get me wrong, the big screen is worth experiencing as well. But we’re not getting the real cinematic experience with Iron Man and Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. These may allow us to tune out from the long and hard day we’ve just endured, but if we’re satisfied with that sensation, it’s only because we haven’t felt the true elation that higher art can offer. Escapism is only a temporary solution, but pursuing art that makes us reflect on our life and find beauty even in the mundane is a true form of self-improvement. In the moment, and after it, these works are a superior experience on so many levels. And these new classics are still being made—talent is an occasional but timeless constant—they’re just not shown in the theaters anymore. That won’t change until our taste gets better, and our taste won’t get better until we realize what we’ve been missing.
So when I say that the popular art forms of our day have been left in the wrong hands, it is not the bearers of those forms I wish to criticize. Certainly, they are not to be praised, but they are to be understood as simple-minded opportunists, no more, no less. The ones truly to blame are instead the willing givers, the millions upon millions who settle for an unenriched life because they are told and believe that’s all there is or needs to be.
Flood, Alison. "Superheroes a 'cultural Catastrophe' Says Comics Guru Alan Moore." The Guardian. N.p., 21 Jan. 2014. Web.
Heron, Gil Scott. A New Black Poet - Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. "The Revolution Will not be Televised." New York: RCA Records, 1970. Album.
Hume, David, and V. C. Chappell. "Of the Standard of Taste." The Philosophy of David Hume. New York: Modern Library, 1963. Print.
Juvenal, John E. B. Mayor, Herbert Augustus Strong, and Alexander Leeper. Thirteen Satires of Juvenal. London: Macmillan, 1882. Print.
Orwell, George. 1984. London: Secker & Warburg, 1949. Print.
Bennett Winters can be reached at email@example.com.