I've been noticing, lately, that I seem to have gotten away from film and TV reviews, especially film crit, and cultural criticism more generally. I've especially noticed it because I walk out of films thinking "I should write a review" - most recently, Machete and Easy A - and then coming home and deciding "why bother."
I'm planning to rectify that... but there's something I wanted to share, more generally, about the state of entertainment, that I think might be relevant.
The past few days, I've been having a pair of fascinating conversations - and one non-conversation - with friends about the new television season. Slowly, and somewhat selectively, I've been finding new and returning shows to watch, getting up to speed on new storylines and characters. It's been, well, entertaining... and it was, actually, thinking that I should, finally, get around to reviewing Glee that got me thinking about my own struggles to keep up with critical writing.
But in sharing some of my early impressions with my pals, I got some interesting, even bewildering feedback, which I think may be a general trend: people aren't watching TV like they used to, not the way they used to, and not in the numbers they used to. There's been some general discussion about changing viewing habits and the rise of "reality television", but I'm not sure anyone has placed all the latest changes in viewing in a context that seems relevant: the effect of the economic downturn, and a sense, I think, that entertainment is a luxury many of us can't afford and maybe even shouldn't have.
This is especially related to television, since TV watching, since its inception, has been an American pastime of mass taste and mass cultural appeal. From the early days, when everyone - and we do mean pretty much all Americans with TVs - used to watch Milton Berle or Ed Sullivan. Even well into the seventies, American TV was characterized by massive events where everyone tuned in to see them. The Super Bowls that used to get 70+% of homes watching, The Oscars as well.
Since the eighties, that sense of mass culture attached to TV has broken down, for a number of reasons. Cable TV, most obviously, splintered the viewing public into ever smaller pieces of the viewing public, and with it came the potential to attract larger niche audiences with specifically tailored programs - whether you think of that in terms of say, Top Chef attracting people interested in food and cooking, or BET and Logo, designed to appeal to minority audiences who have not seen themselves widely reflected in network programming.
Lately, all of that has been further complicated by these intertubes; with YouTube and other options to see video on computers, fewer people need to be tied to a box at home or a specific time to watch. "Have you seen...?" now becomes a question we use to share content with one another, rather than an assumption that we all have, already, been exposed to the same pieces of cultural significance.
All of this, I think, has affected our ideas about what it is to be entertained, what we expect from entertainment, and how we seek out what we value. Few people, really, commit themselves to a weekly routine of television watching at a specific time to see the newest installment of a favorite program; it can be recorded, or watched online, or watched on DVD at a later date. Timeliness means less (this, oddly, is actually more true of reality television than many suspect: the heavily edited programs are often fully assembled as a series before any of them air, meaning that the events that seem "new" can in fact be months, even up to a year, old).
I'm not sure it's surprising then, that changes in viewing habits and interests have dealt something close to a body blow to scripted television. The half hour sitcom of my youth - two and three camera affairs shot in TV studios before audiences... are all but totally dead. NBC's damaging bet on The Jay Leno show, wiping out a week's worth of dramas at 10pm may have been disastrous... but nearly everyone in the business admitted that, in many ways, there was a logic to it that couldn't be denied. Series television is expensive, and not many shows produce the results needed to be worthwhile.
Still, I think the last year or two has seen an even bigger shift in viewing, driven by eonomics: as people see entertainment not reflecting their own realities, there is becoming less reason to watch.
TV has always struggled to reflect the lives of people who are not upper middle class: the programming field is filled with lawyers, doctors, and other educated professionals, well off families in suburban idylls whose main problem amounts to who junior will take to prom. The idea of struggling to get by, of how to meet a mortgage and car payment, of kids working to cover their own necessities... these things don't happen, much, on TV. Up until the recent downturn, even in previous recessions, I'm not sure it mattered. People remained hopeful, generally, that things would improve, and that we could, in time, continue to achieve the American Dream, especially as it was reflected back to us on the screen in our living room.
In these hard times, I think it can seem like these fantasies of good lives and easy money are nothing short of inappropriate; they're not real, they're not how we live, now. And at a time when people are worrying about how to pay bills and meet basic needs, the idea even of taking time out to be entertained may seem frivolous, extreme. The programs ought to do something more: educate us, inform us, challenge us. Entertainment simply for the sake of being entertained... that, I suspect, is becoming a luxury item. And I think that may explain, both in programming and advertising, why TV shows can seem especially out of touch to all but the well off.
Both of my friends, oddly, brought up Mad Men, in slightly different contexts. In many ways, I think the phenomenon of Mad Men - how seriously it is regarded, how "classy" it seems - reflects this growing cultural divide between the leisure class and the working one. Mad Men, in fact, isn't actually that much fun: it's a fairly depressing show that undercuts the notions of "good life" pursuits of the Greatest Generation, for an audience of their kids and grandkids, who now see suburbia, and alcohol fueled debauchery as depressing, sinful and worse. Mad Men distills lives that used to be called "glamorous" and "sophisticated" and points to their flaws, their unglamorous realities, their painful, hidden sufferings. And for a select audience... that's often just what they want to hear and see.
In the end, what Mad Men provides on an upscale plane, is not so far removed from those who follow the travails of the Real Housewives or Jersey Shore - shows that punish those whose lives involve pleasure seeking, which allow viewers to sit in casual judgment of the lives and choices of others. We live, right now, in a mean, ugly time in so many ways. Is it any wonder that the most successful entertainments take a surprising amount of pleasure in almost unabashed cruelty?
If nothing else, I stand for the proposition that we are, all, entitled to moments of relaxation and joy. That life doesn't have to be hard. That we can, and should, allow ourselves the moment to relax, and rest... and be entertained. I'm going to work a bit harder to find and share those things that entertain, that bring joy... because we deserve it. Everybody's free, to feel good. These are hard times. That doesn't mean we deserve to be punished.