There’s no getting around it: America is divided. We’ve become more polarized, less tolerant of one another’s ideas and points of view. Less likely to reach across the divide of discourse, less likely to see the ironies of, seek alternatives to or break the paradigms of our own thoughts, less likely to live outside the echo chamber where we repeat the thoughts of our family and friends without thinking for ourselves, where we can’t synthesize seemingly incompatible political ideas. We’ve moved farther apart than ever, refusing to discuss things in a way that might bring us together.
Of course, I’m talking about the tragedy of last night’s Emmy Awards.
Oh sure, Jimmy Fallon was funny wandering the hall like a minstrel and breaking the proscenium stage to sing with Julianna Margulies and Stephen Colbert. Yes, a lot of quality shows were justly rewarded. You don’t even care that they are still calling January Jones a leading lady when she has gotten less air time on Mad Men this year than some of the extras.
But TV has, like America, become polarized, and when you look past the opulence of this gala event, all you see is cleavage … a wider gap than ever between quality and crap on television. The Emmys now have a category for best reality TV show. For those of you who enjoy oxymorons (or just morons)–here is your category. It must be embarrassing for wordsmiths in a writer’s medium to watch the Vandals, Saracens and Goths with their vulgar, vomiting beasts of burden ride across the red carpet and leave horse turds everywhere.
What used to be called television is today called “scripted television.” These are the things that stir our spirit, fire our imaginations. You might now call them paintings, and reality TV, contrariwise, is a mirror. Is a mirror on society interesting? I guess it depends on how interesting the people in them are. Mostly, I see people on reality TV picking their noses. And when it comes to, say, the Jersey Shore, I find the stuff in my own nose more interesting.
Emmy night lays bare this cleavage (sorry, couldn’t resist), where the best of our artists, like Matthew Weiner, who has tickled our fancy with Mad Men, sit cheek by jowl with Kim Kardashian, who tickles just ass men. Where Tina Fey, who writes so many jokes on every page of 30 Rock that she makes the paper turn black, competes against the likes of Snooki, who, inside and out, is just turning black.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics suggests all systems are in a constant state of flux moving toward disorder. If you’ve read the work of Ilya Prigogine, the great Nobel laureate winning chemist, you realize that once these chaotic systems reach a level of polarization, they seek a quick, violent means of finding order again. Volatile chemical states reach disorder and strange things take place. Geopolitical disorder also allows weird things to take place. Imagine the Spanish Civil War. First, the political center disappeared in Spain, and pretty soon you had a breakdown in representative government in which each side refused to recognize the other. Then you had skirmishes, three years of conflict and discord and violence, and eventually a return to stasis and conformity in the form of a 40 year fascist dictatorship. Sometimes, amid discord, strange things emerge (like the paradox of an “anarchist government” in Barcelona).
But I like to think Prigogine could also have been talking about television. In a state of disorder, broadcast viewers flee to cable. Cable viewers flee to TiVo. TiVo viewers flee to the Internet and handheld devices. There is no conformity of quality or censorship. We live in a wild west, where a medium that used to be strictly regulated for the family now features regular nudity and sexual situations because the money people have become desperate. We now hear the word “shit” a lot. JWoww will show you her tits. Desperation can lead to phenomenal art (as it did when Hollywood movies underwent similar change in the 1960s). But it can also lead to people breaking the law to get on television. Sooner or later, the system will seek stasis and one side will win. The exhibition or the exhibitionists.
My fear is that people who want to watch something that aspires to be good are going to seek it elsewhere outside of television. Which is sad, because good television can be seriously great (like it is on Mad Men, 30 Rock, the Sopranos, etc.) When the good shows start to disappear from regular TV, the people who stay behind will turn it into a 24-hour spy camera. The Sony Masturbation Helper.
It’s great to see Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Lost win so many awards for their quality, but the Emmys remind you of this disorder between us–that the good shows aren’t the ones getting the ratings. Most regular people find it comforting for some reason to watch people threaten each other on Hell’s Kitchen, beat each other on Jerry Springer, or screw up their big moment on American Idol rather than try to work out that obscure Dorian Gray reference on Mad Men (Note to Weiner: nicely played!). It’s the same reason that high school gossip is so compelling–it allows you to live vicariously rather than live. It allows you to validate yourself and measure your own worth by the failure of others. It asks you to judge everything and do nothing. Which is very, very, very attractive.
I like to think of this as using TV to live outside of your body. It’s one of the themes of a song I wrote called “TV Head.” Technology is changing our brains, doing the organizing for us so that we can do the intuitive work of life ourselves. But it’s also allowing mankind to follow a spiritual impulse he’s had since he wandered out of the African savannas–to not be himself. When he cannot reconcile the substance that is spirit with the substance that is flesh (and when he can’t see how, as some have argued, that the two are biologically interrelated), he seeks to escape and live inside Jonah’s whale. He becomes obsessed with ghosts. With the idea demonic possession. He seeks heaven, as if there he will find answers as an angel he can’t find now in the encyclopedia. Rather than seeking heroes, he will seek Ryan Seacrest.
So the cleavage is not just within Christina Hendricks’ generous embonpoint. The rift in the Emmys is within us. Life is short and none of us wants to say we spent the entire journey watching Kim Kardashian achieve our dreams for us when she has no discernible skills or talents. The thing I like about a show like Mad Men, for instance, is that it’s so smart it makes me do the work. It makes me live in my head. It forces me to do something other than just sit there. And, unlike most of the other manifestly awful things on television, it reminds me that sitting is exactly what I’m doing. I have to ask myself, “Could I be more interesting than Don Draper if I tried?”
Ask yourself. What’s in your nose?
You can listen to my song “TV Head” here: TV Head