I grew up watching television at a time when honesty and reality were unwelcome exceptions. Instead, the tube projected the America we “all” wanted. Homes and apartments were unreasonably spacious and modern. Everyone drove the latest cars, and even the African-Americans portrayed – when they were portrayed at all – were well-educated suburban Republicans. Well-employed. Well-heeled. Well-spoken. So what if they were denied opportunity in real life? At least TV expressed our societal ideals in its myopia.
“Makers of men, creators of leaders — be careful what kind of leaders you are producing here” – Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman
There was no poverty, no drugs, no dissent on TV — save an occasional performance by Elvis. Perhaps that sanitized America never existed beyond Universal Studio’s Back Lot in Hollywood where Herman Munster lived next door to Theodore Cleaver, but there was the belief we could all live like the Cleavers if we worked hard. They represented “us.”
An African-American college friend from Queens — then home to Archie Bunker and later the setting for Everyone Hates Chris — once told me that until Middle School, he had no idea he was different from Greg Brady. Then he learned a sadder truth about racism — one television had successfully hidden from him for a dozen years — as others quickly identified him as outside the norm they saw on TV.
Enter the circus mirror
Over the last years television has left ideals behind, first becoming a mirror to inspect our carbuncles (reality TV), then one obsessed with the much darker and less comical angels of our nature. Our heroes have gone from Superman and Batman to Tony Soprano, Walter White, “GOB” Bluth, some Kentucky guy named Tickle and Wildred, the bong-smoking dog. At least we could be getting out of the Honey Boo Boo phase, though there is always a new crop of intellectual car wrecks to whistle past while channel surfing.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, our children, who do watch sanitized channels, indulge in alternate realities where they casually role-play about drug dealing, auto theft and bank holdups a la Grand Theft Auto V. So now we are evolving from a sad comical reality to a violent and depraved hyper reality – and the financial rewards of such behavior propelling the trend even deeper are astounding for the media business. GTAV passed a billion dollars in revenue — in what, three days?
From Lex Luther to Walter White
We have gone beyond a fascination with Superman’s arch nemesis to a state where we no longer need the Man of Steel himself at all. Do your children now associate more heavily with the bad guys? Are they imbued at an early age with a desire to go out in a blaze of glory while grabbing the cash and poisoning their associates?
We don’t all want to be Cleavers, but we have banished them from the block entirely. Like our political system, or a half-eaten Oreo, we have lost our center. I do get it. As a kid it was always more fun to be the bad guy when playing cops and robbers. As songwriter Tom Waits described Las Vegas in Mr. Siegel: “Tell me, brave captain, why are the wicked so strong? How can the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves the porch light on?” But, something is lost through the constant dumbing down and criminalization of “everyday” American life on TV.
Now there are those who will quickly blame the media for school shootings and gun violence in general, and for exposing the mentally ill to bad ideas. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that, but I also think we need to keep an eye on the babysitter from time to time. Jim Carey was right in The Cable Guy for implying that too many of us are learning the facts of life by watching The Facts of Life.
This ain’t Monopoly money
Now I know that during the Great Depression people loved playing Monopoly to take their minds off real money issues. Perhaps during an era where people feel powerless, TV shows about guns and drugs and gangs provide a similar anesthetic gratification. But we should really consider ways the media can additionally reflect positive values, ideals and heroes along with the freak shows we crave like sugary soft drinks.
The answer from Hollywood is predictable: “We tried that, but nobody watched.”
Superhero movies do still sell, but it’s the villains that seem to be stealing center stage… The Joker, not Batman. Television critics have long feared that vast cable offerings would ghettoize television, thus splintering an electorate crammed into a two-party box. Remove values from the equation and we have a mess.
More than 100 years ago Phineas T. Barnum said: “No one ever went broke underestimating the American public.” Instead, it was our democracy that broke, our children have little sense of a broader society beyond Karate classes, which sell citizenship in a videogame wrapper. Yet there are huge profits from televised depravity – be it a 24-hour news cycle distorting reality or a videogame creating an alternate reality that’s just too close to actual Los Angeles.
The only detail missing from GTAV is the Brady house. While the absent middle class sells the fantasy, it flushes our societal ideals down a virtual toilet because these middle-class values hold us together. Have we lost faith in our leaders, or have they just cashed out?