Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor viewers are responsible for quality.
Consuming irony is like consuming a bony fish; it’s healthy, but it asks for basic effort from the consumer to keep stupid things out of their mouth.
It’s long been a view associated with old, desperately traditional conservatives that television would lead to the moral collapse of western society. As a young person, the notion never seemed to warrant a response. I would say that today I still agree with what David Foster Wallace wrote in his epic dissection of television culture and its cyclical relationship with literary fiction, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, in which he dismisses “moral paranoia” or “malignancy” while acknowledging that the vast fraction of time an average human spends watching television, combined with its near-total demand for cognitive attention, certainly has the potential to affect the ways we see reality, language, and story. As Wallace argues in his main thesis, the possibility that many people hear more words from a television set than from organic dialogue in real life forms a risk of conflating where the ultimate cultural source of an assumption lies, and is particularly dangerous to fiction writers.
Television has changed a lot since 1993, when Wallace wrote his piece. The message difference lies in the postmodern obsessions with anti-heroes in drama and cutting satire in comedy. Anti-heroes dominate practically all the most critically acclaimed dramas of the last decade: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Americans, House of Cards, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, etc. Among popular dramas, Lost may be a rare standout in terms of its cultivation of characters with a level of morality we’d be comfortable with in real life.
During the nineties, most Emmy-winning dramas were either about doctors or unambiguously heroic law enforcement. ER, NYPD Blue, Law and Order, The Practice, and L.A. Law is almost the complete list for the decade. These law enforcement shows are different from The Wire in terms of the moral questionability of the major characters.
The change on the comedy side is even more stark. In the eighties and nineties, sitcom writers were still abiding by the template set forth at the start of the Cold War: a sitcom is family-oriented, very “American,” and in retrospect, almost disgustingly moralizing. On the very early end of television comedy, this is all pretty obvious and well-known: Leave it to Beaver and other fifties sitcoms set such a strict model of traditional family living that they seem like parodic mockeries of Cold War propaganda by today’s standard. And even in the nineties, Seinfeld stands alone as a program that had no real moral agenda, and that lack of an agenda was so blatant that it basically became the program’s agenda. Full House followed the Cold War template — someone makes a mistake, they get yelled at, and in the end, Bob Saget gives them a hug and the studio audience coos in sympathy. In Home Improvement, there might have been a little more subversiveness, but in the end, Tim Taylor learned a lesson based on some kind of esoteric ritual from a faraway land explained by Wilson Wilson. The moralizing was only tempered by Tim’s inability to ever understand or properly explain the lesson to his wife later, usually landing on a comedic malapropism to end the third act. Or put another way, it kept a safe distance from what could be seen as nasty intellectualism. Yes, Home Improvement is probably the most formulaic sitcom ever to exist, so not every program can be explained in such abstract terms. However, The Cosby Show, also popular in previous decades, was also extremely family-centric and moralizing. (A lot of these shows also rely on a formulaic construction where an intelligent, stern wife controls the husband with leverage built out of sex, a model that might have been “progressive” in the 1950’s, but also helps illustrate the contrast with similar contemporary shows like Modern Family. Especially in the case of Home improvement, there’s also an enhanced preoccupation with expectations of uber-masculinity by the men, which is usually rationalized away by making those men really dumb. Just think of Tim Taylor and his character foil Al Borland) We could add Roseanne, or pretty much as many family sitcoms as we want. It’s worth noting for fairness that Will & Grace and Sex and the City also had moral agendas of a kind, being on the cutting edge of LGBT awareness and female liberation, respectively, relative to other TV programs of the time. But the moralizing involved in that situation is the opposite of the Cold War model; it challenges traditional views, rather than reinforcing them.
All of this changed on the comedy side with the nudge from Seinfeld that sitcom doesn’t have to be propaganda, or even have a moral of the story. Seinfeld and Larry David really just wanted to get laughs.
Around the same time, writers for The Simpsons and South Park were finding networks more and more receptive to subversive satire, probably because of its huge popularity and profitability. Family Guy, of course, carries on the tradition of subversive humor, along with plenty of other cartoon comedies. However, Bob’s Burgers seems to stand out as a uniquely contemporary cartoon comedy that doesn’t seek out subversive jokes at all, instead combining what seems like an old fashioned degree of self-restraint with a mainstream-palatable disregard for many conservative norms on gender, family, and other social constructs that keeps it a relevant program without building comedy out of subversiveness for its own sake.
Still, even as a subversive show, the level of complexity and wit in The Simpsons earned it plenty of mainstream respect, even while the conservative fear of subversive programming hit a fever pitch. George H.W. Bush said “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” Maybe Bush didn’t understand parody, or simply the human condition, but regardless, his statement perfectly embodies the Cold War moralism that was expected of television comedy in such an unapologetically preachy way.
The next step for live-action television comedy came from Arrested Development, which moralized only in a postmodern way by portraying a family so laden with greed, laziness, and over-the-top dishonesty that the flawed characters become the main targets of the jokes. Much of the style Arrested Development brought to live action comedy was already around in cartoons like The Simpsons, but not with as high a level of narrative sophistication. The effect of Arrested Development’s serial, self-referencing comedy that drew such high accolades from industry insiders (despite its struggle to build a fanbase) was to fuel the next generation of network comedies. Based on my knowledge and taste, I usually associate that with the old Thursday night NBC lineup, with The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community. I think it’s fair to say that they all have strong elements of “social commentary,” but as with Will & Grace and other “progressively moral” programs, that social commentary was pushing for change, not enforcement of tradition. You could almost view the changes in television over the last twenty years as a sort of shift from cultural conservatism to cultural liberalism, maybe reflecting the target audiences that evolved out of the DVD and eventually digital distribution models that favor young adults as opposed to families with children watching prime time live TV.
Finally, there’s what is probably the most toxic addition to mainstream television consumption, especially at the education level Trump targets: the reality TV built around extremely shallow, vaguely amusing people who would be horrible “role models” in any sense of the phrase. There’s neither a moral to these stories nor a source of insightful cultural commentary; only a new problem for other cultural commentators to deal with later. The presentation of such programs as “real” likely adds to the mental impact on routine viewers, and the subject of their ideological framing spans the gamut of life experience, from seeking a mate, to being hunted by a clownish bounty hunter, to trading your Rolex for a gun at a pawn shop. When media theorists discuss the impact of excessive television consumption, these programs are probably at the forefront of their unease. Let’s not forget that without this TV genre Trump himself would probably lack the name recognition to run for President. He is, in a very literal way, the warning sign of a pending cultural decay borne from reality television.
All of this is bringing me to the question of whether any of this matters, and if it does, can it help us explain why so much of western culture does seem to have a complete disregard for moral critical thinking? Are the Donald Trump fans all secretly waiting for Don Draper to make his life Great Again when they watch Mad Men? I can’t think of a better way to describe the trends led by Donald Trump and Brexit than as a symptom of some nascent moral rupture in the cultural fabric of the capitalist world. Obviously that’s a presumptuous and unscientific claim on its face, but there are ways of drawing connections from television to the kind of social frustration that pervades recent political shifts with empiricism, if not causality. For instance, a study found that people who are “dissatisfied” with their personal lives usually spend 30 percent more time watching television than those who are “satisfied.” And life dissatisfaction has at least been seriously suggested to have a relationship with the seismic radical shift in political views embodied by The Age of Trump.
Unfortunately, most research on television from a psychological perspective has focused either on its impact on early childhood brain development as a result of the medium itself, the “surrogate” theory that television can ease loneliness by providing an artifice of human presence, and debates about the impact of violence in television and film on childhood development and young adulthood, or the impact of sexuality in television and film on body image. These are all important issues, obviously, but the answers remain pretty political in terms of how relevant the possible effects are, and those particular areas of study don’t focus on the impact of television narrative on moral worldviews.
There is, of course, a wide consensus on the ability of television to provide a powerful medium for propaganda, but studying that propaganda effect usually involves investigating news media, advertising, and explicitly political messaging, whereas the shift I wonder about here is in the unintentional impacts on personal outlook derived from content programming based on the moral framework of the program’s narrative.
Unfortunately for you, if you read all this, I definitely haven’t found a good answer to the question. According to a study by TiVo, apart from cable news choices, there isn’t significant variation in viewing habits of Trump or Clinton supporters. That doesn’t mean that Trump supporters aren’t embracing morally reprehensible worldviews based on TV exposure more so than Clinton supporters, but that embrace would have to have its own cause rooted in personality or belief.
According to this study and probably others, it’s been shown that exposure to minority groups, like Muslim or Arab individuals, on television can cause a statistically significant reduction in bigoted attitudes, but that’s only a possible prescription for the future, not a conclusion about modern TV viewing.
The Family Research Council regularly attempts to keep shows that embrace cultural diversity away from primetime, including but not limited to Will & Grace, which suggests that even their own data scientists are aware of the risk that people may lose their bigoted attitudes based on what they see on television.
Regardless, I wouldn’t want to draw the conclusion that we need moralizing television shows to regulate the national temperature on ethnic tolerance, even though, as discussed earlier, it was standard practice from the end of World War II to the 1990’s. I think we can only hope that people with disoriented moral compasses can be pressured to adopt altered attitudes with a significant saturation of pro-acceptance ideology in the citizenry, but that goal probably belongs on a long-run list.
Discussions about moral identification with peers is even more complicated in the social media world, since, unlike in 1993 when DFW analyzed TV viewing wordcount versus real-life listening, conversation about social issues has become more and more relegated to facebook posts, where pushy ideological trendsetters can decide how much they want to promote their agenda in print, and people who disagree can just as easily decide how much they won’t pay attention.
In any case, it’s not too late for media and psychology researchers to increase their investigations on the impact of ideological messaging in fictional TV content, and I’m comfortable for now to let them handle that job while I continue to enjoy the TV Golden Age aftershocks guilt-free.
If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and read DFW’s essay here: https://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf