Sunday, April 27, 2008

My So-Called Problem With TV Today

As I was walking home from the gym today I had my second run-in in a month with Claire Danes, most notably (in my book) of My So-Called Life fame. She had deep bags beneath her eyes and wasn't wearing makeup. I was reminded why I'm so in love with her, and with that show.

MSCL came out too early for me to appreciate it in its prime. I was too young to comprehend the darling drama of it all. It premiered in 1994, when I was 6, in a time when MTV was far headier than it is now. They still played music back then. They knew their audience. And their audience was drawn to shows whose messages were deeper than those portrayed on network favorites like Saved by the Bell.

Admittedly I'm new to the MSCL phenomenon, having watched my first episode last year. But the intensity and grace with which the writers navigated teenage life was not lost on me, despite having already graduated high school. There is a self-consciousness in teen shows today like Gossip Girl and in reality shows like The Hills that causes writers and actors to steer away from honesty. I'm not sure whether it's television that has changed, or the audience. Gossip Girl avoids the anxieties that MSCL confronts head on. Theirs is an unrealistic world where problems stem from money; very few teenagers can personally relate to that, but they are drawn in by the desire to have Serena and Blair's problems instead of their own. Reality shows don't even come close to portraying reality; Lauren Conrad hasn't shown an honest scrap of emotion in her entire TV-broadcasted life. What MSCL did, which, I argue, other recent shows have yet to do again, was show life exactly how it is. Fuck glamor. Give me honesty.

Because there was no one in the world more honest than Angela Chase. She captures perfectly the suburban existential crisis, the perils of being unjustly nestled between adulthood and childhood. She spoke so articulately about adult emotions, while still acting brazenly as a child. It was the perfect synthesis of plot driven drama and real life debacle. Because Angela Chase was just so damn sincere. You got the feeling that everything she did and felt on the show, Claire Danes did and felt in real life. I honestly thought the series was lifted directly from my high school diaries. It was that natural.

But do audiences these days even want natural? It seems the shows that are popular in the teenage and young adult demographics are those that captivate us by their whimsy, not their honesty. We want to see the rich kids getting drunk and getting into fights. We want to see the beautiful people dicking each other over and using money as a band-aid. Not to go all Marx on you, but it's kind of a comment on consumer culture today. We like watching the lives of people with money: There's Gossip Girl and The Hills, but there's also The Real Housewives of New York/Orange County, Cribs, My Super Sweet Sixteen, even Arrested Development.

Has our obsession with celebrity culture and capitalism completely erased honesty from television? Do we even want to remember, or recognize, that those things we felt in high school are supremely universal? It seems today instead of desiring a relatable honesty from our television programs, we want instead to entertain grass is greener fantasies in an attempt to live the lives of others, not understand our own.

I leave you with the collected wisdoms of Angela Chase:



Marshall said...

I agree wholeheartedly, but it's a shame that this may be taken as a slight against SAVED BY THE BELL. I mean even if just by accident, it's very unfortunate haha.

Jess and Josh said...

Not to get caught up on a detail, but I'd argue that Arrested Development is as much a critique of modern capitalism and what happens when money is placed into the wrong hands as any Marxist text.

Marshall said...

I really hope that is Jess talking to herself; or: I Heart Josh

Joseph Coscarelli said...

I have to second the comment on AD. But more importantly, I want to say I love that you wrote this almost as much as I love Angela Chase/Sookie Sapperstein/Claire Danes. I want to scream it from a mountain top.

Jess and Josh said...

Sorry guys, wasn't trying to hate on AD. You know it's one of my favs.

Joe, you just referenced Igby Goes Down, my favorite movie of all time. We like have to get married now.

ash kash said...

As far as being real, TV today is actually the best it has ever been. Thanks to channels like HBO that do not have to rely on their advertisers for profits, they do not have to compromise their content. Their successes like SFU and AD have contributed in shaping shows that are more natural on network television, since they already took the risk in finding out that this is what the people want. However, you're still not going to find the same grittiness that you find on showtime and hbo on network television b/c advertisers and the networks themselves that have more of a family image do not want to be associated with that. Also, as much as people want real tv they also want gossip girl-esque shows b/c tv serves as a form of escape first and foremost. You need to remember that MSCL was only on the air for ONE season, which doesn't really say much about audiences then vs. now.

shloo said...

also saved by the bell was on at like 11am. I don't think i could handle anything more than screech being shoved in a locker at that time.

Bianca Reagan said...

You should watch HGTV. It's natural and good.

I agree with the perceived slights against Saved by the Bell and Arrested Development. Don't hate. Those are good shows. Plus, Saved by the Bell is still on the air. Those 4-5 seasons of cheese have serious staying power.

Ooh! Degrassi. It goes there. So does South of Nowhere. Watch them on The N before they disappear.