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Monday, November 01, 2004

Ninety nine problems...

I was sitting in my living room reading the other day, and I looked up at something which shocked me out of my normal malaise. I want to warn you, that this is the sort of thing which, in the correct circumstance, can act as a trigger for a cascade of other awarenesses simply by taking one out of the normal, every day expected experiences.


They were showing Kabuki on television.

I'm not sure why this has affected me so deeply. I've thought a lot about it over the past couple days, and I think the answer has a lot to do with the nature of other things on television, and in fact, with the context of television itself. If you flip to any given channel at any given time of day, it's incredibly likely that you'll come upon, say, Becker. Or the Bold and the Beautiful. In all of these instances, whether it be CNN or or a sitcom, there is to a large extent a self-defining context to the whole endeavor. It's designed so that, while there is continuity within the fictional universe, there are certain pieces that are there to self-reinforce each half hour as a universe unto itself. As long as one speaks English, any episode of Friends is going to be immediately understandable. As far as the plot, that is. Not why it went on for so many seasons. That is going to be a mystery until the end of time.

Even shows where it is not immediately apparent what is going on, like 24, the use of common cultural stereotypes is something that will let you know pretty quickly - the bad guys are strong and silent and have an ethical code which makes Baby Jesus wnat to cry, the good guy shirks the autocratic authority in his unit, and so on right down to the black SUVs with black tinted windows. Television has to be innovative only insofar as it can't immediately be comperable to another show, yet at the same time has to be completely generic in its use of every other possible means of conveying meaning. Shows which are too revolutionary are relegated to cancellation (or TBS) - and even the ones, like Will and Grace, which portray individuals outside the social norm have to do so in a world of character foils.

Depth and complexity are things which can't coexist with thirty minutes of mindless entertainment. Any depth that is portrayed is almost always counterfeit - President Barlett on West Wing, for example, is a semicomplex character, but he's still an archtype of the visionary who struggles with his humanity from time to time. The twisting human storyline that soap operas give us are still just a second level of discourse, alongside the immediate "She's pretty and so is he." Every show for any fictional universe is always going to involve a beginning where a problem comes up, a middle where things happen and it is solved, and an ending postscript. You could put socially constructed cliches in a bag and pull them out and then, say, pretend one lost a baby and if you got the neurotic fourty year old male and a balding, fat man you have Seinfeld. If you get two teenagers and a vampire, you get Buffy. And so on.

The problem I had with Kabuki Masterpiece Theater isn't just that it happens not to follow the typical model of TV shows - PBS is hardly known for the riviting attention they pay to the Neilson ratings as a barometer for success. The problem is that it was born of a thousand years of cultural evolution in an environment where, for those watching it, you could expect them to understand the importance and so on without helpful little computer generated boxes giving it to them. That the metacontext for television is that it will only bring us things which can be neatly commodified into thirty minute or hour long portions. Things which come up on TV need to be self-defining, and Kabuki is not. This is probably a pretty obvious thing to say - that a TV show requiring vast amounts of background knowledge is going to fail. But consider the wider implication.

Our society lacks a common base from which we can all work. We try counterfeiting a common culture and a common dream by appealing to silly things like "patriotism" and "freedom" while dreaming that we have some adamentine link to the founders of the country that binds us together. But we don't. It's really just a geographic boundary, and to the extent that our country has any cohesion it's found in our epileptic culture and the fact that we're just a little less different than the people of another place and time. I'm not a huge history person, but it seems like diversity hasn't ever existed in such a way as to render communication between people in a given nation nearly impossible. A common context strikes me as necessary for meaning on any level of depth to be transmitted. It's possible that mass media is both the cause and the effect of this cacophony of worldviews.

cranked out at 2:59 PM | |

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