Friday, May 18, 2007

Let's talk about television for a minute

TV isn't something I frequently blog about, but recently I've seen a more than my fair share due to circumstance. So some cheers and jeers...

CHEERS to Human Giant. It's hit or miss, as all sketch comedy shows are. But when it hits, it's very funny, and when it misses, it's never as cringeworthy as most SNL sketches. Best of all, I just know they've got some classic sketches in them. Escalating Interview is right there.

JEERS to Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, for the same reason. Both of these shows have spent the last 6 months trying their damnedest to insult the viewers with moronic plot twists, when the soul of the show has completely disappeared. Remember when Desperate Housewives used to have a running mystery? First season, it was "why did Mary Alice kill herself?", second season was the Applewhites and the man in the basement and the disappearance of Zach Young. This season it was the Orson/ex-wife/crazy mother plot, but has anyone noticed that since Marcia Cross left for maternity leave, there isn't a mystery going on at all? There was a single episode where the lady had the body in the freezer. But that was a single episode. For the last 8 episodes, it's been love triangles and sleeping around. All soap opera. There used to be a cheekiness, sneakiness, creepiness about the show. Now, there's none of that. Just self-absorbed, terribly selfish women who care nothing about anyone but themselves. Watch the show through this prism: every motivation of every single character is due to selfish motives - and the plots of particular episodes and story arcs are driven solely by those selfish motivations. Grey's Anatomy is even worse in this regard. That show has never been about anything but selfishness. There isn't a single character on the show without this flaw. In every scene, in every episode, every bit of dialogue includes one or more of the characters acting like spoiled children. Yesterday's season finale was the epitome of this. In a scene that surely will be shown at next year's Emmy's, Sandra Oh's character breaks down after jilting her fiancee with an overwrought "I'm free!" In a season where her character encouraged, aided and abetted her fiancee's reckless endangerment of hundreds of patients' lives, ratted him out, caused him to lose a promotion, engaged in flirting with a former flame in front of said fiancee, and stood him up at the altar, we're supposed to feel any sort of empathy for her character? Really? And stunningly enough, that wasn't even the most selfish act of a character in the episode. The shit-or-get-off-the-pot dialogue between Dr. Shepard and Meredith Grey immediately before a wedding they were both in was a stunning piece of television. On one hand, we had McDreamy's passive aggressiveness (begun with his bragging about flirting in a bar with another woman) about how it's not his fault their relationship isn't working, and on the other hand we have Grey's incoherence - an inability to commit at all against her own shock and horror that McDreamy would look elsewhere - matched with incredulity that she might actually be at fault. Two characters that truly cared about him or herself, and didn't mind intentionally hurting the person they supposedly love in order to make themselves feel better about themselves. It was a shocking, horrifying scene to me. Simply because the selfishness was so palpable, so loathsome. It shocks me that so many people like that show. I find the morality of the characters on this show to be abhorrent.

on the other hand... CHEERS to Entourage, for the exact opposite reasons. Entourage's short season hasn't been spectacular, but it's been adequate, and when I compare Entourage to other shows that get buzz for people in my age group, I think it's very good. Compare Entourage to Grey's Anatomy or Sex & the City, as many are wont to. There's the natural tendency to look at the primary casts and think Entourage is a male show while the others are female, but I think the sensibilities of the various shows go far beyond that. As said above in regard to Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, and Sex & the City was, without a doubt, the single worst offender of the selfishness as plot device, the individual characters in all of those shows are interested only in themselves. Entourage is precisely the opposite. Not an episode goes by where one of the 4 main characters doesn't sacrifice or go out of his way to help out one of the others. Whether it's fixing up Drama's old Lincoln, or helping Turtle get a rare pair of shoes, or putting up every cent E has to help Vince buy the Medellin script, or Ari causing tremendous trouble with his wife by helping out Vince (who isn't his client) on Yom Kippur, everyone on the show is constantly doing things for others. It's a completely different sensibility. In the supposed "female" shows, the main characters drive the story by asking "what's in it for me", but in the "male" show, everyone is on the same team, and the plot is driven by how they work together in order to make all of their lives better (no matter how shallow their group desires might be, the key is that their "group" desires). And you know what, the characters on Entourage lead incredibly happy lives, while the characters in all the others lead miserable, self-involved, nothing's ever good enough lives. Working with others, and putting others' needs ahead of one's own, leads to good things for everyone. That's a theme I can get behind.

which brings me to... CHEERS to Lost. If I haven't written it before, I'll say it unequivocally here. Lost is the best show on television, by far. No other show has the depth, the detail, and the production quality of Lost. But more than any of that, the morality of Lost makes it the best on television. Lost, unlike other shows, rewards selfless, moral and ethical behavior, and severely punishes selfish, immoral and unethical behavior. Lost is a fantasy, but the societal laws that operate in reality apply on the crazy island far more realistically than on dozens of television shows that are set in supposedly realistic settings. Throughout the series, the one theme (among dozens) that continues to resonate the most with me is the idea of community vs. individual information as a resource. When characters keep information from one another, nobody benefits (and indeed, it costs them all). When characters share information with one another, solutions appear (even if new problems arise, the existing ones are solved). I used to look at the series as an allegory to technological advancement. Open source technologies available to many provide countless more opportunities for advancement (because multiple users bring specialized expertise and experiences that offer new uses for such technologies). Closely held technologies limit potential uses and advancements. On Lost, the show presents to us a world where we're all connected somehow - we just don't know it. If we'd communicate and work with one another, our connections might help us solve the problems we face. It's this idea that makes the show so powerful, yet so frustrating to many. It's intentionally frustrating. When particular characters conceal information from other characters, and the effect is that something bad happens, it is maddening to watch at times. But that's the point! When a particular character's insecurities or fears or shame causes him or her to hide something, that's selfishness, or at least weakness - and the show punishes the character for it. It's frustrating to watch someone punished for selfish behavior because on television we're so used to selfishness getting rewarded - Meredith Grey gets McDreamy, Carrie Bradshaw ends up with Big. But the point of Lost is that the punishment is appropriate - our frustration isn't with the punishment, it's the selfishness that is the underlying cause that we're frustrated with. The fearlessness of Lost to discipline its characters, when so many other shows let the characters act like spoiled brats, is what makes it morally and ethically powerful television.

And finally, CHEERS to Homer Simpson for his recent charity work, but JEERS to this rusty tailgate.