Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Too much television

Posted by boakley59 on February 9, 2009

You know you’ve watched too much television when you find yourself shouting, 45 seconds into the show, “Shoot her now!” because you can already tell that the quiet neighbor casually volunteering useless information at a crime scene is going to turn out to be a psychopath.

The reason you’re so sure is that she has no meaning in the scene otherwise, and you have become well-versed in the conventions of television crime drama. Such shows are so short that there is no time for mere background noise, no time for a character who is not eye candy, ear candy or comic relief to be anything but evil incarnate.

Knowing how these things work kills the suspense and just makes the smugness, nastiness — insert-choice-of-stereotypical-character-flaw-here — of the psycho that much more annoying. How much of this do I have to endure before we get to the point and shoot the monster? And don’t try to arrest and rehabilitate, because she’ll just come back in a later episode and manage to kill your friends and dismember your dog in elaborate schemes but be unable to pull the trigger and kill you from two inches away after seven years of perfect planning!

Of course, some of this anger at “too much television” is simply anger at “bad television” (many may consider each phrase redundant, and the two identical). Real cars seldom burst into flames in the worst gunfire or crashes. Real office windows are hard to break through and real glass that is easy to break will slice important blood vessels. Real criminals waiting for a pursuer to come around a corner will fire real bullets at speeds that don’t leave time for ducking out of the way.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that shows stop using such foolishness to tell their stories. It’s not as if these techniques are new. I do get the animal rush from fast, loud, fiery, violent. I’m more or less willing to suspend belief for a while to get that rush, but there are residual effects with increasing doses. The worst of these effects is becoming used to things being wrapped up in neat packages in short order. Patience fades. I can suspend belief for a while, but I am less and less able to wait through the nonsense to get to the poetic justice.

The true sign of too much television is not so much that these things can’t be tolerated during the show, but that I grow sad that real life isn’t so simple. I wish I could pick up that piece of chewing gum discarded on the street, run the saliva through DNA testing and jail the litterer who spat it out. I wish I could fire spider silk from a wrist dispenser to seal the lips of the foul-mouthed jerk who wants to send the black people back to Africa or the sweet-talking Bible-thumper who calls on God to strike down the homosexuals.

The thing is, we’ve all seen too much television and want things to be just that simple. Character becomes caricature, where the litterer, jerk and Bible-thumper are just that and no more. We don’t recognize any more that it’s entirely possible the litterer was just a little kid who hit a bump on his bicycle and his gum fell out. Perhaps the foul-mouthed jerk saw a black guy running away from his car with a knife and found his tires slashed. Strange he didn’t think the black man who installed the new tires was the more typical one than the tire-slasher. Maybe the Bible-thumper runs a soup kitchen for drug addicts, which leaves you scratching your head about the nature of forgiveness.

Yes, real life is far messier than the most twisted of shows. Real people don’t fit into neat packages. Eggheads do know what American Idol is, and cheerleaders do study nuclear physics. Not all of them, of course, but not none of them. And even that isn’t complexity, though that often must pass for depth of character on the screen.

No, depth is more like a divorced businessman staying at your house during an out-of-town installation because his company is hanging on by its fingernails and avoids hotel bills when it can. That alone is not really depth, either, because, well, he’s just a salesman. You know: “heart of stone, tell ’em what they want to hear, make the deal, that’s just business” type. Until he talks about the numbness inside when Darth Vader delivers the cruelest blow in The Empire Strikes Back: “No, Luke, I am your father.” The salesman wonders if he is that monster, if he, with his limited visitation rights, has failed his daughter so miserably that a movie caricature of evil might be the man in the mirror. You’d think that’s maudlin, ridiculous, but there’s a tear and he can barely get the words out.

In real life, you can’t tell when the show will end, and the mere structure of the scenes or color of the hats isn’t enough to separate the good guys from the bad guys. Most of the time, we neither rise high to good nor fall low to bad. We muddle along in between. We’re all wounded salesmen, hoping not to disappoint each other.

We have the strength in us to make each other happy, if only we haven’t watched too much television and have no patience for the mess.


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