13 December 2007

Television : A Modern Sophist's Mirror

"For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of all things. . . The human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it" [Bacon 1620, xvi].

Modern television is by many to be considered solely a form of entertainment -- a mechanism for television channels to deliver their true product to customers, i.e., consumer attention for advertisers. I feel however that it has a different meaning, where we can use the TV shows that someone professes to enjoy as a kind of Socratic mirror, in which is reflected the true intentions, ideals, likes and fears of the viewer.

So, what are we to make of the current plethora of television shows which grace our TV screens (or Bit Torrent trackers?) Can we learn something about our Western culture (I am confining myself to the current "Rex Artis" or cultural hegemony of the USA and its satellites in Australia, UK, New Zealand and even Canada) by identifying the themes which rise to the surface?

Perhaps TV writers are like the Delphic pythonesses, drugged on the steady stream of residuals emanating from the crevices of Producers' nethers, while mining insights and visions which are served symbolically in the context of a 45 minute sit-com or a 22 week story arc. Jung's collective unconscious suggests that we share a deep connection with all other humans at some level, which may be addressed through the historically unprecedented sharing of compelling stories by millions of people simultaneously (or time-shifted as the "Must-See TV" hour precesses across the time zones.

A dark place

One of the most psychologically revealing shows of recent years has to be Showtime's Dexter. My wife cannot bring herself to watch it, but I find it oddly compelling -- the story of a deeply damaged serial killer, struggling to be a productive and happy member of society, while cleaving to a unique moral code which allows him to act on his darker impulses, killing only those who "deserve it." As Florida is one part of the US where executions are common place, it makes sense for Dexter to pursue his career there. The show has excellent production, great acting with believable characters and compelling stories, with characters you care about. The recent and ongoing writers' strike fortunately didn't interfere with completion of the current series, with a finale which hit one out of the ballpark. I wonder however if people enjoying Dexter are measuring themselves against his clearly-defined ethical standards, or whether they continue to lead an unexamined life.

Heroes and Villains

Season One of Heroes was fantastic. Season Two was somewhat hit and miss, with Tim Kring admitting that there were pacing issues, and regretting an emphasis on the romantic angle, which fell somewhat flat. (I still loved the Hiro storyline though, as he is my favourite character.) The premature end of Season Two, yet another casualty of the Writers' Strike, didn't do much to rescue the show, but it's still not going to stop me from watching Season Three, whenever it arrives. The show itself, when we look beyond the great special effects and cool ideas, seems to be telling the same stories about relationships, families, secrets and lies which make for great viewing anytime. Ultimately all characters seem to be linked in various ways, and the struggle especially of the HRG to keep his family together, is simultaneously bathetic and profound.

Who's on First

As one raised in the shadow of Dr. Who stalking my nightmares, I have a fondness for the Timelord from Gallifrey. Even if we exclude the delectable Billie Piper, and some of the more dodgy scripts from the past few seasons, there have been some amazing stories -- especially "Blink", "Girl in the Fireplace" and "Empty Child." So, what does this tell us? I think it informs us with a sense of the connectedness of history -- that those people who make up are past are somehow still there, beyond the liminal "now", trapped in the amber of the past but potentially visitable by anyone with a TARDIS, or perhaps via a Shamanic journey. While it's always fun to see the aliens and other planets, the best stories seem to involve people, and mysteries as yet unsolved.

Guilty Pleasures

Californication. David D. just does it for me. Excellent, funny writing, with yet another po-mo take on the importance of family and relationships. I'm not sure I would go so far as Hank Moody did for Charlie, his wing-man and friend, but it makes compelling TV. Writers writing about writers with issues seems to too-strictly follow the dictum "write what you know", however it's also fun following all the cultural references, especially for fans of the late lamented Warren Zevon.

Another recent discovery which has rapidly appeared on my "Must Watch List" is "Curb Your Enthusiasm", by Larry David. I can't believe I missed such a great show until its sixth season, and will definitely add the DVD Box Set to my Christmas wish-list. Its tales of a hapless middle-aged neurotic Jewish guy, with a talent for misunderstanding and a Black Belt in Passive Aggression, make Curb very funny indeed, if sometimes a little edgy.

My curmudgeonly qualities are encouraged by the delight that is the sarcasm of Dr Gregory House, M.D. The perfect antidote to generations of past TV doctors, we have a vicodin-addicted cynic whose use of the Socratic method would impress any would-be sophist.

Journeys Into Redemption

Many stories deal with journeys -- through space, seeking a new home (such as the reincarnated Battlestar Galactica), or through time, such as Journeyman (perhaps an updated Quantum Leap with better grooming?) The recent made-for-TV movie Razor showed us just how good BSG became up until the Pegasus story arc, but recent episodes have left me somewhat disappointed (except for the ones with Lucy Lawless.) Come back Dr Baltar, all is forgiven! Sometimes the mirror to society symbolism is a little heavy-handed, but certain viewpoints might require a higher degree of philosophical water-boarding before its intended audience gains a further measure of self-insight.

Journeyman gives us a more mysterious Dr Beckett, traveling without conscious volition into his past and that of others, having to live by his wits and work out, along with the viewers, just what the heck is going on -- while also trying to prevent his family life from fracturing. I have hopes this show won't jump the shark, due to the quality of the writing, but am not certain that the network can refrain from interference.

Honourable Mentions

There are a number of TV series which have moved, inspired or simply entertained me in the past couple of years. Onto this list, I would like to add the following:

  • Flight of the Conchords -- Kiwi cultural cringe at its New York best.

  • Stargate Atlantis -- consistent Canadian SF fare, with occasionally interesting themes.

  • Blood Ties -- nice retelling of Tanya Huff's vampire/detective crossover

  • Bones -- excellent production values with some great stories, and on-screen chemistry in abundance

  • Pushing Daisies -- takes risks, but they sometimes pay off. Eccentric, quirky, oftimes amusing.

  • Aliens in America -- not what you might think. More "Family Values meets a Muslim" than X-Files.

  • American Dad -- cartoon, but more Adult Swim than Roger Ramjet. Edgy animation (but not as bad as Drawn Together.

  • Daily Show with Jon Stewart -- together with the Colbert Report, two of the first casualties of the Writers' Strike. Sadly missed.

  • My Name is Earl -- endearing retelling of the nature of Karma for Rednecks. Appealing, sometimes appalling.

  • Dresden Files -- wonderful books, nicely translated to the screen, cancelled in the first season.

  • The IT Crowd -- inspired British nerd silliness. Have you tried switching it off and on again?

  • Painkiller Jane -- started with a nice premise, but soon jumped the shark.

  • Numb3rs -- one of the few shows I have included in a university class I taught.

  • Burn Notice -- smart, funny, educational story about an ex-spy trying to get on with life.

  • The Sarah-Jane Adventures, Torchwood -- two spin-offs from Dr Who.

  • Primeval -- short-lived British time-travel mystery, with dinosaurs and intrigue.

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