Saturday, December 2, 2006

Makes me wanna smoke crack

I watch a lot of television, though not as much as I did when I had On Demand, HBO, Showtime and DVR in college. I do manage to avoid two of the most popular types of programming: procedural dramas and reality television, with a few exceptions, all of which are on MTV.

MTV is a tough channel to defend, as it is perhaps the single most evil influence on our society, only al-Qaida and Islamic fundamentalism even running a close second. A short list of MTV's crimes: perpetrating the careers of people like J-Lo and Jessica Simpson, who sap the collective IQ by broadcasting stupidity like anti-intellectual Tokyo Roses; celebrating being rich and wasting money ("My Super Sweet 16") and purveying the culture of being famous for being famous ("Laguna Beach", which is also is about the rich wasting money and tops that by being ephebophilic to anyone over 18 who watches it). But worst of all, MTV created reality television with "The Real World" in 1992 and in the process became the forefather of everything from "Temptation Island" to "The Swan".

Most MTV reality shows, or any reality show on any network, follow this simple formula: put ridiculous people together in ridiculous situations and encourage them to overact to any perceived slight or affront (bonus points for getting them drunk too). Shows like "The Real World" boil people down to specific stereotypes (conservative, thus bigoted, southern white girl; flamboyantly gay black man; girl with emotional problems stemming from bad childhood; angry black man; angry black woman; angry white man; angry white transsexual who wants to be an angry black lesbian...) that the people on the show seem to constantly try to live up to, rather than escape from. MTV screens these people with a professional psychologist before hand, to ensure they really are crazy and find out which cast will be the least compatible, and thus the most entertaining.

In Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman says that he thinks everyone in the world became like people in "The Real World" after the third season. Before "The Real World" he viewed people as individuals, but after the third season he realized that everyone is just like someone from the show. In other words, despite being incredibly inauthentic, "The Real World" is more real than real life. His tongue may be firmly in his cheek, but that idea isn't that far fetched in a society when the media tells us who we are supposed to be both expressly- in Miller commercials that tell us what men are allowed to do (evidently men are supposedly to live in constant fear of accidentally acting like a homosexual)- and subtly by demonstrating how idealized men and women act on television. A generation of people raised by the television would naturally have role models on the silver screen and even as we laugh along with the laugh track, we learn how to behave. The guys get laughs for being dumb animals who only know about sports and hate all things feminine, including art, literature, or education (examples: Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor and Dan Conner). The women, meanwhile, are either domestic foils or portrayed as crazy or baby obsessed for laughs (Lucille Ball is the archetype, while shows like "I Dream of Genie" or "Bewitched" just reduce the women to cartoons). Obviously there are many exceptions, but those shows are the successful exceptions that prove the rule. A deeply flawed show like "Sex and the City" became a huge hit just by showing women as rational, self-sufficient adults unafraid of their own sexuality. A show like "the Real World" is the next logical step in the other direction: true life role models demonstrating how to be a young, hot, sexually active alpha male or female. Unfortunately, those role models are picked for being emotional unstable and filling out a tank top or wife beater and have about as much credibility as role models as the average professional athlete.

All that said, MTV is incredibly watchable, at least in small doses. One of my friends theorizes that the producers' of MTV programs make them with the express intention of appealing to two audiences, the very dumb, who can only appreciate it at face value, and the people who ironically appreciate how ridiculous everything is. I don't believe that MTV producers make shows like "My Super Sweet 16" with the express intent of exploiting the brainless greed of teenagers, and if they do, that is worse than just making a show about quarter of a million dollar birthday parties. I choose to believe that most MTV shows are well crafted junk TV, the equivalent of a microwave dinner from Jean-Georges, delicious but ultimately unsatisfying.

So, why do I watch MTV? First, because I have watched it for a long time and I will keep doing something I don't like for a long time, but I won't start doing something unless it is immediately compelling. It is a lot easier to quit smoking if you never start. Second, the shows are always on and I sell my free time cheap. Even if MTV is evil, its shows are more entertaining than anything that has ever graced the screen of 80% of my basic cable channels. Shows like “True Life: The Jersey Shore”, are so unbelievably funny that they have to be seen to be believed. Serious or not, exploitive or very, very exploitive, when MTV nails it the results are stunning and some people just deserve to be made fun of. Third, and most importantly, MTV is a reflection of what is going on in mainstream youth culture and sometimes I need to look in the mirror and realize how far I haven't come. I, and my like-minded compatriots, create a distance between the caricatures on MTV and ourselves based on an assumption of mental superiority. Sure, I am smarter than the Tommy, the meathead looking for love in the clubs of the Jersey Shore, but am I doing anything better with my life? Just watching a show like that begs the question, if I’m really so smart then why do I spend all my time watching him on MTV?

1 comment:

Rhinal Fissure said...

This was fantastic. More!