Friday, May 07, 2004

Not Really a Review

Listening to television is a rather disorienting experience.

I thought that as I sat plugged into my multi-band shortwave radio, a gift from my wife who insists I use it far less than she imagined I would when she bought it for me. The many bandwaves included on this radio let me tune into a range of world broadcasts from Korean pop hit countdowns to Cuban propaganda to Masses being said at the Vatican. The more interesting and esoteric stuff is hard to pick up often, due to weather and the generally feeble range of most shortwave broadcasting, though I can always find a good ranting preacher late at night.

And the reason I was listening to this radio, tuning in the local NBC affiliate was that I was listening to the show finale of Friends.

I’ll admit it, I actually liked the show Friends. I have possibly in some of my cooler readers’ eyes lost an enormous amount of face for this admission. Among intellectual types (and you know who you are out there—and, yes, I’m trying to butter you up now with compliments), there is an abhorrence for liking anything popular.

“Anything that millions of people like must be crap,” is the general mantra and to some degree I subscribe to that belief. I can’t believe Rob Schneider movies make money because a certain class of Americans has found something real and valuable in his work. He’s a grade Z moron and fans of his films are mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging simpletons who should have gone straight from high school to ditch digging.

And, yes, the show was chock full of stupidities like how such lowly paid people could afford not only multiple roomed apartments in Manhattan, but one with such a spectacular view. And, yes, there were maybe three black people total on the show, two Asians, and maybe a Hispanic guy somewhere hanging out with the show’s one Arab. And so on and so on.

The show, though, was perfect television. Is that a good thing? Perfect television is light, entertaining, requires virtually no actual thinking on the part of the viewers, and has the quality of being somewhat addictive. The show featured six very white people who lived near each other and had various romances within their group and with a few short-lived outsiders. It was fun, funny, and not terribly smart. The characters did develop, they did have good chemistry, and their quirks did become predictable staples, much the way your own friends’ do.

The finale was entertaining, amusing, sad at parts, and surprisingly more whimper than bang. For a show finale, there have been far greater shocks in Friends seasonal finales. Everything turned out the way you rather expected it would, the surprises weren’t too terribly surprising (and one, that a woman could make it to full-term pregnancy without realizing that she was carrying twins, was idiotic beyond belief). It was a finale with no grand.

And as a whole, Friends never did make any controversial decisions, by which I mean controversial for the time or in a greater context, not controversial in the sense that some viewers didn’t want to see Joey and Rachel together and begged, no, demanded that Rachel end up with Ross.

At one point, as a child, I remember sitcoms were a bit riskier. Diff’rent Strokes dealt with child molestation. Gimme a Break dealt with homosexuality. Maude had an abortion. But controversy, alas, is not perfect television. Controversy can make for the perfect market for larger projects such as films (Mel Gibson comes to mind) and for supposedly hard-hitting investigative report shows, but television has essentially one business anymore (if it ever really had any other): selling you, the viewer, some products.

Which brings me back to the shortwave radio. Listening to television’s fictional shows is a rather different experience from listening to the news or Sunday morning talk shows. Most of that programming is auditory in its primary focus, while many other shows, especially sitcoms, rely on seeing the events. And the commercials are geared in the same way. Half the time while I listened to the commercials, I didn’t have the slightest clue what was being sold or if the advertisements in question were successful at the selling. I also realized that commercials for cars are both boring in visual content and auditory content.

This was rather a lightening moment for me. I felt easier listening to TV than I felt while watching it. I’m rather a sucker for commercials, not so much because I buy lots of things or succumb to the pressure to have the latest, the biggest, the fastest-acting, but because I find a great deal of commercials unintentionally funny. One ad shows what is clearly a very primitive black and white illustration of brain chemistry consisting of one mushroom lump on one side of the screen and one on the other. Tiny circles move from one mushroom to the other while a voice-over intones that serotonin isn’t processed by some people’s bodies as well as it should be. At the very bottom of the screen, we are reassured that this cartoon is, in fact, a dramatization. I feel ever so much better knowing that.

And in a way, listening to the television was something of a relief. If you’ve watched any news or read any news lately, you have probably seen this. (Gentle hearted souls who deplore violence and torture are recommended to not click on the link.) It is rather shocking. For many Americans who live within the framework of perfect television and use that as their primary entertainment, their primary information source, their primary definer of what is valid, worthwhile, important, and good, these images are a profound jolt. Even for those of us who avoid television as much as we can, even for those of us who tell ourselves we are hardened to man’s inhumanity to man, these images are a jolt. Television rarely seeks to actually confront us with uncomfortable imagery and hard-nosed truth.

As a bit of a panacea to the all-powerful television view of America as the land of fun righteousness, I deliberately coupled my listening to the Friends finale with two lectures by Noam Chomsky packaged together as Case Studies In Hypocrisy, U.S. Human Rights Policy.
Those who have listened or read Chomsky will find the abuses at Abu Ghreib prison likely less shocking than many others in America. The average viewer of the Friends finale would most likely believe that America is the global good guy, that our motives are almost always pure, that we are the Shining City on the Hill. Chomsky easily demolishes this illusion. Human rights have rarely if ever been much of a concern in American foreign or domestic policy, though they do make a sometimes-convincing (apparently to many) mask to hide the more imperial designs of our government.

Chomsky is not much of a stylist either in his writing or his public speaking. He has apparently taken the idea to heart that eloquence makes for an easy way to discredit people in America. Anyone capable of poetically putting words together must be a phony and a liar to boot.

And this makes Chomsky sometimes a bit of a hammer to listen to. Again and again you are pummeled with the abuses of power our government has both perpetrated and allowed others to perpetrate over the years, and ultimately the effect is dispiriting. I have rarely read a book by Chomsky or listened to a lecture and not come away sadder, wiser and more informed perhaps, but much much sadder nonetheless.

Listening to these two wildly divergent items, I am stunned by how widely America can embrace contradiction. We can be as purposeless as the cast of Friends or as evil as those who torture, on the side of angels and devils both. You can see Friends as an enabler of what Chomsky describes, just one more circus to keep the populace stupid and contented while the real story is done in the back hallways of power. Or alternately, you can see it as some of the bright, harmless kindness that is as American as apple pie, a light in a window, a meaningless trifle and a toy, but a net positive all the same.

In either case, we are captives to the image. The Czech writer Milan Kundera fretted about this very thing in an essay written years ago: in a world dominated by the image, how can we break free of iconocracy and its ability to manipulate? Listening to the television, I have never felt less dominated by the image in its broadcast presence. Though at the same time, I am reminded that the news of abuses in American run military prisons and knowledge that there were souvenir photos of those abuses first broke as a story on January 21st.

Without those pictures, this news story disappeared from view. Right down the memory hole. Three months later, the pictures finally surface and we are, as Kundera explained, captured by the power of the visual image. A news story without those photos dies and we perhaps may have never been made aware of just how wrongly our military has acted.

The power of the image is the power of a double-edged sword. Newsmakers, advertising geniuses, celebrities with a knack for reinvention, and politicians have all learned how to use this sword rather effectively. How long, I wonder, will it take Americans to learn better how to defend ourselves against it.

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