I don’t watch TV. Except when I do.
Ah, television. It’s like a box of friends in my living room. Friends who love me unconditionally, require no effort, never (or rarely) judge, and (perhaps most importantly) are always awake. Running ceaselessly (it’s still going even when it’s turned off), television remains ever-present in most people’s lives and, for better or worse, continues to make immeasurable impacts on our culture. From the beginning, TV had a mind-blowing ability to provide communal experiences. My mother still vividly recalls watching The Beatles appear for the first time on Ed Sullivan. More than 70 million Americans – nearly the entire television viewing audience in 1964 – watched on the night of the Beatles' American debut.
The writer John Leonard’s essay ''Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins” ends with the following meditatively maniacal reflection on television:
''Sometimes late at night, in the rinse cycle of sitcom reruns, cross-torching evangelicals, holistic chiropodists, yak-show yogis and gay-porn cable, surfing the infomercials with burning leaves in my food-hole, I think there must be millions like me out there, all of us remote as our controls, trying to bring back Ed, as if by switching channels fast enough in a pre-Oedipal blur, we hope to re-enact some neolithic origin myth and from the death of this primeval giant, our father and our Fisher King, water with blood a bountiful harvest and civility.''
Immediate reaction: TV does not sound like a good thing.
I once heard that Wendell Berry said he doesn’t like “screens of any kind.” This would include computers, movie theaters, iPods, iPhones, and (you guessed it) television. According to a recent study from the University of Maryland, unhappy people watch television 30% more than happy people. Television is our escape. Our friend in the dark. Our immediate ability to tune out by tuning in.
Is television simply to be avoided at all costs?
Cable TV recently entered my home. While I wish we could choose channels à la cart like tapas – I’ll take Turner Classic Movies and Comedy Central, with a side of The Food Network – cable includes 70 plus nonsensical sources of time sucking, brain cell killing escapism. Taste, decorum, and common sense seem nonexistent in the world of TV. I recently watched part of an episode of something called The Millionaire Matchmaker (note the absence of a link) and feel that I may have been permanently scarred. There is no doubt that where children (and our own hearts and minds) are concerned, television can be a minefield.
Why not just throw the thing in the street and be done with it?
For one thing, that would be littering. For another, television does have merit. Just as narrative, images, comedy, drama, and shared experiences have value in our lives, so does television. Some of the most seminal examples of good storytelling in our culture were created for television. It’s been said that while film is a “directors’ medium,” television is a “writers’ medium.” Stories can be told more deeply in television because of the longer running format. Characters can be developed and expanded upon. Tested and reversed. New writers brought in. Comedy mined. Shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, Mad Men, The Simpsons, and Battlestar Galactica present moments of pain, intimacy, and comedy that generate conversation, incite reflection, and amplify our world.
The experience of really great television is akin to that of a good book, movie, painting, or concert. We experience an intangible connection to something human and powerful when we experience great art. The filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky put it best when he wrote, “The idea of infinity cannot be expressed in words or even described, but it can be apprehended through art, which makes infinity tangible.”
Even sitcoms can do that sometimes.
Tina Fey was the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live. After nine years, she left SNL in 2006 and created her own show. The result is 30 Rock, a disarmingly layered and frequently brilliant manic comedy series. The show centers around the character of Liz Lemon (played by Fey) who writes for the fictional SNL-esque live comedy show TGS with Tracy Jordan. Episodes of 30 Rock (now in its 3rd season) are dense to the point where I frequently find myself turning on the subtitles to catch every off-kilter reference.
As the heart of the show, Liz is the empowered and successful 21st century everywoman – she’s single, wants to have a baby, and is happier with a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts than most anything else. She’s more neurotic than Elaine, smarter than Rachel, and more self-aware than most any fictional character on TV. She not only makes it okay to be a little crazy, she elevates it to an art form. Her co-stars include the hilariously bizarre Tracy Morgan, scene-stealing Jack McBrayer, and the very funny Jane Krakowski.
And then there’s Alec Baldwin. Baldwin plays Jack Donaghy, the Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming at NBC (the network that airs both the actual show – 30 Rock – and the show-within-the-show). Television writer Nancy Franklin exaggerates only slightly when describing Baldwin as, “His Awesome Majesty Alec Baldwin, the King of Comedy… whose comic magnetism is so strong I’m surprised it hasn’t caused weather disturbances.”
30 Rock is worth watching because it’s smart, funny, and blindingly self-aware. Multiple storylines frequently play off each other in surprisingly complex ways. In an episode where Liz (Fey) refuses to include “edgy” racial content in her show-within-the-show, Jack (Baldwin) participates in a therapy session with Tracy (Morgan) where he role-plays Tracy’s parents and essentially reenacts a combination of Sanford and Son and Good Times. The scene is one of the most hilarious and potentially offensive two minutes in recent television.
Last week’s episode included a great example of the show’s wry self-aware comedy. Liz is approached by Jack. Their conversation follows:
Jack: Lemon, how’s Tracy? What’s his mood?
Liz: Oh, upbeat and confused.
Jack: Perfect. You know his contract is up.
Liz: Has it been that long? Boy we sure have done some crazy things with Tracy in the last three years.
Jack: We sure have.
Liz: I’m thinking about some of them now.
Jack: Me too.
As a viewer, you’re braced for the obligatory highlight reel that follows the reference to Tracy’s antics. But instead, the camera holds awkwardly on the two of them thinking. Just… thinking. The moment calls attention to itself, the artifice of TV, and our expectations of that artifice.
Little seems off limits on 30 Rock. Pop culture references abound, challenging and illuminating our understanding of the world. A recent plotline where Baldwin plays the villain in a Mexican soap opera highlights his comic power and the show’s fearless strangeness. See if you can catch the Patty Duke reference in that one. Guest stars (including Oprah and Jerry Seinfeld) frequently portray themselves, as when Jenna (Krakowski) appears on Hardball with Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson.
Television will remain something to view with discretion. (For all its brilliance, 30 Rock is not appropriate for children.) But when done right, TV can be powerfully life-giving. A fan posted the following on an NBC blog: This will sound strange, but “30 Rock” has jolted me out of my month-long depression. No, seriously. It broke my 3 week drinking binge, and made me stop worrying about why I’m here and if I’ll ever make a difference.
Sure, people will make up anything to put on a blog (awkward pause) and television will continue to exist as an unhealthy escape for many people. But that can be said of almost everything in Creation. For all the trash to be found on the boob tube, TV remains an outlet for art and for stories of shared human experience. Sometimes it’s important to dive right into those stories. Because, as Tracy Jordan once said, “in order to stay sane, you have to go crazy.” It’s true. Sometimes.
30 Rock airs at 9:30/8:30c, Thursday nights on NBC.