March 26, 2007


Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La Télévision has been in my pile for an unconscionably long time. It wasn't until I bought Jonathan Stump's English translation that I made real headway, but I did read the novel in French. 

(From the Department of You Learn Something Every Day, there's this, said of a sandwich purchased outside a museum: Je n'avais pas fait une affaire." Come again? "It was no bargain.")

In either language, Television is a great read and, because it makes you feel about television instead of just asking you think about it, it's an important book.

September 14, 2006

Laura Won! (sob)

Well, Laura Bennett won. And Kayne Gillaspie got auf'd. Oh, the depths, the depths - that I know such things, because I just watched them with my very own eyes! Where's my Rolodex of excuses?

What? I threw it away? In the interest of better blogging?

I know that I'm a goner for the rest of this season, and I accept that. The question is, what happens when the next season starts? With luck, I will tune in dutifully (grrr!) - and realize that I just can't go through this again.

Project Runway is a brutal reality show, but the brutality is strictly professional. The designers have personalities, just like anybody, and they vent and carry on - or don't, like Michael Knight and Uli Herzner. But it doesn't matter: the grading is strictly on the fashion and its construction. Best line from last week's show: "Vincent, are you glueing?" Vincent Libretti got auf'd last week because of his really rather mistaken creation.

And what I mean by "brutal" is that the remaining five contestants thought they'd seen the end of him. Surprise! Vincent and Angela Keslar, the previous loser, were given second chances - with a twist. If they didn't win, they'd be out. Comebacks are always possible, but they're never probable, and I wasn't surprised when both designers fell into familiar traps - Angela was too strange, and Vincent just didn't plan very well. As Laura said, he's a genius in his own mind. You might think that he has Jeffrey's confidence, but what he really has is a bluster to compensate for it.

So - how demoralizing can it be: I got auf'd twice. That's something to tell the kiddies. The nephews and nieces.

But the experiment was far more demoralizing for the five who had survived the last round. The deflation was reflected on every face. Competitors love small fields. Anything can go wrong - so why have two ringers brought back from the dead who just might get something right? I couldn't have gone on. When Laura broke down, in her sharp, sort-of, way, I was totally with her. Why bother? Bringing Vincent and Angela back on the show was the most Sisyphean thing that has ever happened on television.

I am hoping that Laura will win. She's a tough broad, but I think that she combines a great design sense (that might work quite well outside of Project Runway's freakish time constraints) with an obvious command of the nuts and bolts, dollars and cents of fashion - as she showed last night, with the fewest fabric extras. I'm really wondering about the wisdom of this (now showing!) pregnancy, but, again, that's personal: it has nothing to do with her abilities as a designer. The failure of her Paris dress was striking, because what worked well on the bâteau mouche got sat on in cargo and looked tired in New York. (It was definitely a dress for an outdoor venue, not for the cave of Project Runway's studio.) But Laura's confidence has had a battering. Her dress for Jeffrey's mother ought to have fit a lot better. Tonight's dress couldn't have been a better fit. Good for her.

Given a good backer and a sane life/work environment, Michael will almost certainly be a successful designer, even if he's never a brand. As the judges said tonight, falling all over themselves, he knows how to dress a woman. That will never fail him. Uli knows how to dress a woman, too, but I worry that she's stuck on things she might have seen her mother wear twenty or thirty years ago. And Jeffrey doesn't like women. His winning dress for the last show was all about gift-wrap. It was a fun dress and I liked it. But it was a disguise, something that Edith Head might have dreamed up for someone with a poorly-proportioned body.

Although I never watch television - but never! (sob) - I do believe that the idea of fashion is central to the functioning of civilization. It gives the libido an opportunity to show up in polite society. A dress is not supposed to advertise what its wearer actually looks like without any clothes on; a dress is supposed to suggest how great she looks without any clothes on. Or, rather, how great she is. Plus (I can say "plus" in a piece about fashion, can't I?), human beings crave novelty, and the genius of fashion is to provide it inconsequentially, just for pleasure.

Next week: Heidi Klum in The Night Porter!

May 17, 2006

Droll Mixup

My correspondent in Pittsburgh sent me the link to a BBC story that her husband stumbled upon. In a case of mistaken identity at Reception, an African bloke with the first name of Guy was mixed up with an English expert on music downloads, also with the first name of Guy. The African Guy was led to a studio, where a television correspondent introduced him as English Guy and then asked him how he felt about a High Court decision in favor of Apple (iPod) against Apple (Beatles).

"Were you surprised by this verdict today?" Bowerman asked.

"I'm very surprised to see the verdict come on me because I was not expecting that," he said in a heavy French accent, blinking in the studio lights. "When I came, they told me something else."

Nonplussed, he pressed on, growing more confident in his punditry as the interview progressed. He gamely delivered his opinion on the future of music downloads and cyber cafes following the landmark verdict.

Meanwhile, the real [Guy] Kewney, who was waiting to be taken to the studio, looked up on a monitor and found another man in the interviewee's chair.

Ha-ha. This is a little story, to be sure. It suggests a certain disregard for the wonderful world of music downloads on the part of television journalists. It depends upon a farcical coincidence at Reception. (Guy Coma was there to try to get a job. He must have thought he was auditioning.) But here's the most delicious line in the story.

Producers apparently realized by the end of the interview that something had gone wrong - and, after they had gone off the air, asked their "expert" if there was a problem.

Watch the video, and see how long it takes you to see that "something had gone wrong." Things like this don't happen very often, it's true, and I don't mean to suggest that the Coma/Kewney mixup is a good reason to distrust all television news (although you shouldn't be watching it anyway). It does illustrate, however, how plausible a medium television is. Everything is flattened to look normal. The wild improbability of the BBC's fielding an expert whose English is sometimes unintelligible, which is making me laugh as I write about it, evaporates under the diminishing glare of studio lights. Mr Coma's double-take - which unfortunately looks like a face that Buckwheat might have made in a Spanky and Our Gang short - is the biggest "Ooops!" that I've ever seen on television, but when it's over, it never happened. Amnesiac and banal, television naturally short-circuits judgment and common-sense. It always does. This little episode simply provides the opportunity to watch it happen.

April 24, 2006

Turn It Off

Contrary to first impressions, this entry is not about Israel. Not really.

In The New York Times on 19 April, Tony Judt published an Op-Ed piece, "A Lobby, Not a Conspiracy," urging Americans - insiders and regular folk alike - to debate this country's policies regarding Israel, which, as a recent report in the London Review of Books by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt makes painfully clear, have been protected from discussion by an extremely powerful "Israel Lobby." Mr Judt writes,

But above all, self-censorship is bad for the United States itself. Americans are denying themselves participation in a fast-moving international conversation. Daniel Levy (a former Israeli peace negotiator) wrote in Ha'aretz that the Mearsheimer-Walt essay should be a wake-up call, a reminder of the damage the Israel lobby is doing to both nations. But I would go further. I think this essay, by two "realist" political scientists with no interest whatsoever in the Palestinians, is a straw in the wind.

Having fallen behind in my reading, I hadn't got to the report, and it's very likely that I wouldn't have read it without Mr Judt's prodding. It's not that I'm not interested, it's that I'm long since convinced that our Near East foreign policy has been hijacked by a group of Americans whose loyalty to the United States is clearly not undivided. Messrs Mearsheimer and Walt (at Chicago and the Kennedy School respectively) back up their argument with a lot of facts and figures, but this only makes the blatancy of the operation more depressing. They conclude with the argument that it is the Israel Lobby, and nobody much else, that's behind the push to take some sort of pre-emptive action against Iran.

Well, I'm not going to belabor this point. Whether or not there's a powerful Israel Lobby is not a matter of argument to me, and, as a New Yorker, I'm used to ritual kowtowing to Jewish sensibilities on the part of all civic leaders. What I do fear is that the excesses of Israel Lobby policies is going to breed some genuine anti-Semitism in this country. The LRB report - what a scandal that, whatever its merits, it hasn't been published here! - brings one to the point of wondering if certain Jews and their evangelical sympathizers aren't out to fulfill the libels of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This isn't what's really on my mind, though. What's on my mind is the fact, never quite stated by the report, that the Israel Lobby, like all lobbies, commands what power it exercises largely by means of campaign contributions. And where do these campaign moneys go? Dash me if more than half the money doesn't wind up on television spots (often produced by lobbyists who take a commission of the production costs, thus recouping part of their outlay). And television spots are only as important as the intelligence with which they are received by the public. In the course of my lifetime, I've watched television hone its powers of dumbing down even as it flatters. Flattery is arguably the most effective dumbing-down tool in existence.

So, don't flatter yourself. Don't suppose that you're clear-headed enough to resist the spuriosities of campaign ads. They're not aimed at your head. They're aimed much lower than that, especially at the insecurities that you don't like to acknowledge. They are wholly corrupt, and you can no more consume them without consequence than you can drink a shaker of martinis without getting drunk. To those who say, "But what can I do?" I reply, "Don't watch television." Yes - making campaign contributions, even writing letters and volunteering to canvass the wards sounds easier. But as a young man who was here the other night agreed with me, the longer you go without watching television, the harder it is to go back to. It becomes less tempting every day that you don't watch it, and inevitably you find other, more satisfying occupations. Television may be good for invalids, and for people of unusually low intelligence. Now you can flatter yourself.

(Tip: watching movies is a great substitute. Just stay away from anything pretending to be factual.) 

January 31, 2006

Not Seen on Television

Yesterday morning, I dragged myself out of bed only to pitch headlong into the slough of despond. Reading the Times only made things worse. It occurred to me to issue an SOS: can anybody out there buck me up? Gradually at first but then quite quickly, the malaise evaporated.

When I wake up, I think of all the things that I have planned for the day. Normally, they amount to something to look forward to, but on days like today they're empty burdens, chores to be performed for no good reason. Except for that best of all reasons: don't make things even worse.

What's causing this spontaneous negativity? A dread that I have to talk myself out of every day - a dread that the United States is in a rudderless little boat heading straight for Niagara Falls. Does it matter which particular rocks destroy the ship and its passengers? An oil shock? A debt shock? The evisceration of the Republic's vitals by theocrats? The rudderless little boat is, of course, the Administration. We're still too far from the precipice for outright panic. But the anxiety is wearing.

We liberals stand by uselessly while our countrymen swallow the line from Washington. Here's a sterling example of how stupefying that line is, taken from a Times editorial about the White House's refusal, so far, to do anything about New Orleans.

But the Bush administration refuses to support the plan of Representative Richard Baker, Republican of Louisiana, which would give everyone the capacity to rebuild and which had the backing of the mayor, the governor and the state's Congressional delegation. (To add insult to injury, two days after the White House shot down Mr. Baker's proposal, President Bush suggested at a news conference that Louisiana's problem was the lack of a plan.)

How does the man get away with it? Thomas Frank sheds some light on the problem in the current Harper's (February 2006). Mr Frank has been trying to understand how Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America has held onto its Best-Seller listing. After all, as Mr Frank is able to show, there is nothing, quite literally nothing, in Mr Goldberg's book that could not be cobbled together from popular conservative Web sites. How can it be that so many book-buyers lack the critical acumen to see that Mr Goldberg brings nothing new to the discussion? (And that they are really - unless they wish to support Mr Goldberg - wasting their money?) Mr Frank eventually hit upon an explanation.

Like so much of today's right-win thought, 100 People owes its success to the remaking of American consciousness by television. The book's episodic structure, for example, reflects TV's amnesiac style: Each little hit-piece flickers by, the previous installment's outrage instantly forgotten, the staggering, mind-stopping contradictions between them (were Goldberg somehow to critique himself, he would no doubt call them "hypocrisies") flowing without narrative consequence.

Mr Frank does not leave it at that, but goes on to suggest why television has such mindless impact.

A convenient rhetorical benefit of this emphasis on electronic speech is that it solves the difficult problem of real-world power - by which I mean a problem that is difficult for conservative populists who like to depict themselves as society's victims. If offensive speech is the raw material of politics, then things like ownership or wealth distribution are not worthy of consideration. Nor can the threat posed by liberals be minimized or made to seem less dire by pointing out those liberals' inability to win elections: as long as liberals exist, getting their ten seconds on TV or posting their liberalisms on the Internet, the danger to America is clear and present.

Just as speech trumps deeds, so do individuals trump larger social forces. In the world of the right, as in the world of TV, personalities rule. Character is king. "There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher said; there are only individuals.

And so Bernard Goldberg scolds Kenneth Lay of Enron but has nothing to say about the moldy climate that has spread through the nation's executive suites as the sun of federal regulation has been dimmed. I want to take Mr Frank's point one half-step further, if only because I've never thought of this before and am feeling somewhat eureka-ish: television can't handle institutions. It can only reduce them to individual representatives or spokesmen. Institutions, insofar as they are more than rude collections of individuals, are necessarily abstractions. They're very real abstractions: they own property and file lawsuits about it all the time. But when television inquires into a bit of litigation, it can't see the abstraction that is, say, the General Motors Corporation. It can only see lawyers and executives - individuals all. You, meanwhile, following the camera and trying to understand what it's showing you - you will find it very hard to keep the abstraction in your mind, no matter how bright and sophisticated you might be. The only way to judge television footage critically - to discover, that is, what is being ignored or withheld - is to have seen it before.

The invisibility of abstract institutions, from the "Federal Government" on down, is dandy for conservative pundits, because if we could see institutions on television we'd be asking a lot of questions about how, for example, so few people own so much of the country. Instead of which we see the occasional plutocrat, on his way to prison or not as the case may be. We don't see his wealth, however. We see a few of the things that it has bought, but we will never learn from television that most of the assets of the rich are highly liquid, and therefore much too boring to look at. (Television is also constitutionally incapable of registering quality, obvious to the naked eye, on the screen. That's what makes the home-shopping networks so successful. Visit a TV set if you doubt me.) And we will never see "the rich." So they don't exist - on television. There are only rich people, and someday, if you're lucky, you might be one of them. Although that's highly unlikely, given the collective power of "the rich" to keep you right where you are.

Torture:Others :: Watching Television:Self.

February 11, 2005

Loose Links (Friday)

¶ What's wrong with television? Let's hear what other people have to say. Googling the phrase "what's wrong with television" brought up a few interesting links; here are four from the first ten. In History Today (but in an issue from 2002), Tom Stearn analyses what's wrong with history programs. He seems to think that producers could do better, but his arguments suggest otherwise.

¶ In an interview with his publisher, Jeffrey Sheuer, author of The Sound Bite Society, gives his answer to the question:

One really has to ask, "What's wrong with television and politics, or television and society," because they are totally intertwined. I'm not ferociously anti-television, but I do think it is generally bad for children and their viewing should be limited and closely monitored. But my specific prescriptions are more political. They include reversing Buckley Vs Valeo, the terrible Supreme Court decision in 1976 that equated campaign spending with freedom of speech; revoking the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which purported to be about increasing competition, but which in fact only accelerated the concentration of media ownership and further dampened competition; and an excellent idea of Lawrence Grossman and others, to replace public television as we know it with an information "freeway" on the superhighway. The bottom line is this: television is overwhelmingly commercialized, which limits its value and makes it a dangerous tool of political inequality instead of an arena of democratic conversation.

I couldn't agree more about overturning Buckley v. Valeo; it's the Dred Scott decision of our times.

¶ On a site called Deep DT's Pages, the question is the title. DT reasons that television needs to be more exciting than ordinary life, or people wouldn't watch it. "This need to be larger, more exciting than life and to constantly maintain peoples attention from minute to minute leads to the television that we know and hate - the fake, false nonsense that poisons our minds."

¶ On a page belonging to, "Smallville" cast member John Schneider seems to want to go back to "Father Knows Best."

Schneider observed that on television, parents are not given the respect they're due.  Instead they're usually depicted as "the dumb people in the house."  "If it weren't for the innate intelligence of their teenage son or daughter they would never be able to make it through the day."  It's this lack of respect for authority, and for the institution of parenthood, that Schneider thinks is most damaging.  "Far beyond the language or even visual content, this is really what's wrong with television."

That line of criticism is as old as television. Almost all of these positions would favor some kind of censorship (or self-censorship) if only "censorship" weren't a per se bad thing. This implies a belief in the possibility of good television that I don't share. Television can be entertaining, certainly, and it can certainly help pass the time. But it is inherently flawed, because we are not wired to cope with it, as I shall argue in a little while. (See the Against Television archives.

February 02, 2005

Two Weed Pit


Years ago - and I do mean years - Kathleen and I would watch Law and Order reruns at eleven and then lazily remain in front of the tube for an installment of Biography, a show that was usually just interesting enough to make us postpone going to bed, a tedious procedure that involved turning off lights, locking the door, and clearing away our Along Came Polly collection of throw pillows. So I understood what Ms Nola was talking about last night when, having obtained permission to watch The Gilmore Girls, she was challenged at ten past nine for watching the next WB show, One Tree Hill. Now, trust me when I say that Ms Nola has sound professional reasons for watching what she concedes is a terrible soap opera (it is, she claims, the highest-rated TV show for teens). But her first justification reminded me of all the Biographys that I'd watched. "After my friend H- and I have consumed a bottle of wine during Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill is irresistible." We were waiting for Kathleen to come home for dinner, so I sat down and watched. Lord, what an awful show. Of course it's awful! It's written for teens.

Everybody in One Tree Hill has slept with everybody else, except for Lucas (Chad Michael Murray), a soulful young man with a heart condition. Without exception, the young women look like pole dancers dressed for church. The dialogue is predictable and trite, and the story lurches from one wrenching but fundamentally vapid disclosure to another like an Arthur Miller drama on speed. I was quickly convinced that Keith (Craig Sheffer) was only pretending to be  concerned about Lucas's heart condition, for if Lucas dies, the pot of money that he will necessarily fail to inherit will go to his stepfather. I'm making this up. Actually, what this show needs is the What's Up, Tiger Lily? treatment: dubbed sarcasm. Lucas, whose lack of a love interest is obviously plotted to trick viewers into believing that he really belongs to them, could keep all his lines, because nobody's listening anyway: Chad Michael Murray is the Fred Astair of furrowed brows.

"Just wait till Kathleen comes home and sees this show," I warned the kiddies. And it was fun, now that I was back in the kitchen finishing the macaroni and cheese, to hear Kathleen's cries of disbelief.

Does this mean that I can't say "I never watch television anymore?" Of course not. My interest, like Ms Nola's, is really professional. As the lady put it herself, "We're watching this so that RJ can write about it in his blog."

January 24, 2005


At the risk of being ridden out of town on a rail, I have to say that I will not miss Johnny Carson. Indeed, I haven't missed him in years. He was one of the first to teach me, inadvertently of course, that watching television is an often pernicious waste of time.

Tribute writers at the Times speak of Carson's having been "gentle," "brilliant," and (on television only) likeable. What I saw instead was a leveling hostility to passion, particularly to the passion of intellectual engagement. Carson was a past master at ridiculing strong feelings and showing them up as laughably lunatic. His presentation, paradoxically for a widely-seen program, reflected a deep Midwestern mistrust of the outstanding. His set was a drab American living room in which everyone was required to be "fun" (not "funny") and "nice." It's worth noting that the core of Carson's style of humor was understatement and winking silence. 

In large part, the Tonight Show was an infomercial for entertainers, who typically appeared at Johnny Carson's desk whenever they were about to do something new, such as open in a Los Vegas hotel. The audience for these announcements was not the one sitting in the studio or the other one watching at home, it was the world of other entertainers and their agents, handlers, &c who could take note of the competition's success. For the vast majority of viewers who never made it to Las Vegas to see the new act, the entertainers who paraded across Tonight's screen were famous because that's where they were, on Johnny Carson. When the Tonight Show became the source of celebrity, it was clear that circuits of significance would inevitably close. There would be no need for broadcasters to report on or assess events occurring elsewhere when they could present televised events as inherently the most meaningful.

Johnny Carson's deadpan officiated at this interment of vitality. He took a show that was broadcast live from New York and transformed it into a routine that was taped in Burbank. I will agree with the encomia on one count: at whatever cost to the American imagination, Johnny Carson made himself very wealthy. 

December 21, 2004

Against Television I: Quitting

The nation that elected George W. Bush as its president is a nation that watches far too much television. Because it is difficult to watch just the right amount of television, whatever that might be, it's best not to watch television at all.

Sounds radical, like quitting smoking, dieting, or going to the gym. This long-term discussion of television will begin, therefore, with what's usually the final topic: living without television. Once all the arguments against television have been rehearsed, there remains (usually) a small problem of addiction, which does not easily yield to persuasion.

I quit smoking once, successfully, and, believe me, giving up television was much easier. In fact, I never actually gave it up. There simply came a day when I realized that I hadn't watched any television in some time. That day was years ago. Unlike smoking, television can be given up gradually, if you follow two simple rules. First, never have the TV set on when it's not being watched attentively. If you must have something going in the background, play music, or tune into NPR. Second, never drop what you're doing in order to catch a weekly show if you are happy with what you're doing, or if dropping it would be inconvenient. There is also a rule that is not so simple: don't watch television just to "be" with someone else. Try to understand that watching television is not a shared pastime. The sharing comes later, when you discuss what you've seen. There are better things to share. Movies, for one thing, are much better than television shows. They're more complex, and they're not interrupted.

Smoking is bad for your health. Television is bad for you. What's the difference? Smoking directly affects only certain parts of your human organism. Television colonizes the whole operation.

The archive will put this entry where it belongs: at the end. But (ideally) it will have been borne in mind throughout.