Why we need to take a critical look at how we tell people what they should watch on TV.
Breaking Bad reached its deliriously anticipated conclusion last week while I was out of the country, drinking Bordeaux in Paris and not hearing a word about what would be roughly translated as Brisement Mauvais. But it wasn’t translated, of course, because, unlike Americans, Parisians were not planning their entire weekends around their ability to both witness the fate of Walter White and Tweet the living hell out of it.
I did not purposely time my trip this way, but, gosh, it was a nice coincidence. You see, even though I write about television for a living, have covered the industry throughout its illustrious rise to a New Golden Age, and have written two TV-related books … I must make an unpopular confession: I have never watched Breaking Bad.
This is a monstrous problem, as it turns out, when it comes to interacting with other human beings stateside. I can see on people’s faces the dramatic turn from disbelief to confusion to disdain as I explain that no, I do not watch Breaking Bad, and I have no plans to in the near future. It’s not just, “Oh, that’s too bad, you should check it out sometime.” It’s “Don’t talk to me about TV ever again until you watch Breaking Bad.” It’s “You don’t watch Breaking Bad and you call yourself a TV writer?” Good lord, now my entire life’s work is in jeopardy?
They say these things as if they’re joking, but there’s a menacing hint of derision in their voices that I’ve come to call “recommendation aggression.” There’s a fine line between passionate suggestions and the kind of demand that makes you wonder if your friend will kidnap you and deposit you into one of those gizmos from A Clockwork Orange that will pry your eyes open and force you to watch this show that they like.
There is something darker and larger than watercooler chatter afoot here: As we take our television more seriously as art form, the judgments and classifications we subject it to take on genuine significance. The culture we consume as fans now telegraphs to others who we are—whether we are, in their view, worth relating to. Those who consider themselves the hippest and most sophisticated among us have used cultural tastes as calling cards since the dawn of modern society: your appreciation for an obscure Brahms sonata, your unique reading of classic Salinger, your early fandom of the indie rock band that will suddenly be uncool the minute the rest of the country hears about them. Surely social media has exacerbated this effect, between the constant calls to list our “favorites” on profile pages and to discuss pop culture trends as they happen.
Now, with TV raising the bar to literary heights—while also lending itself better than any other medium to instantaneous commentary—it’s become the new standard for judgments at both real-life cocktail parties and in virtual gathering places. You’ve never watched Mad Men? Ugh, excuse me, I think I need to refill my drink/unfriend you. (Could this be why TV watchers have been proven less content than book readers in one recent study?) And often between friends, this can become downright hostile: “I don’t think I can talk to you again until you watch Downton Abbey.” As always, they smile afterwards to tell you they know they should be joking. But they also won’t stop asking you in increasingly disgusted tones, every time you see them, whether you’ve finally watched the damn show or not. In the worst cases, this can become an irritant to a relationship, even a poison.
Take, for example, one exchange I witnessed on Facebook as I quietly enjoyed my baguette from afar, in which someone suggested that Breaking Bad would be remembered for the ages, whereas that silly Girls show would flit away like the feather-light program it is. I know this guy didn’t have any intentions beyond some playfully provocative TV talk. But it struck me as recommendation aggression turned truly ugly, a little personal, and a lot sexist. It’s exactly the kind of thing we need to watch out for as we start to build a sort of “television canon” that takes the art form as seriously as it deserves but doesn’t repeat the (white, sexist, hetero-normative) mistakes of the literary canon. Just because a show isn’t about a troubled white straight guy, as so many of our “great” shows of the past decade happen to be, doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of the same acclaim. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum recently made just such a case for Sex and the City versus the Sopranos and Mad Mens of the world. It seems we’re bracing for the same battle over chick shows that we’ve been waging for the last decade or two over “chick lit.” Programming featuring minorities, the disabled, and the over-50 faces even bigger hurdles in being recognized, since there’s barely any even made.
The fact is, even deciding what’s “worthy” poses more problems than seem apparent on the cocktail-chatter surface. This conflict calls to mind Carl Wilson’s book about Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. In it, Wilson, a self-professed music snob with a Celine aversion, sets out to uncover why the hell so many people like Dion so much. He concludes that taste, while seen as a clue to a person’s intelligence, is woven far more deeply into our economic structure and life circumstances. Wilson writes: “[Sociologist Pierre] Bourdieu’s interpretation was that tastes were serving as strategic tools. While working-class tastes seemed mainly a default (serving at best to express group belongingness and solidarity), for everyone else taste was not only a product of economic and educational background but, as it developed through life, a force mobilized as part of their quest for social status (or what Bourdieu called symbolic power). What we have agreed to call tastes, he said, is an array of symbolic associations we use to set ourselves apart from those whose social ranking is beneath us, and to take aim at the status we think we deserve. Taste is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others, the pursuit of distinction. And its end product is to perpetuate and reproduce the class structure.”
TV chatter translation: If you say that the televisual equivalent of Celine Dion is your favorite show—say, Castle or Law & Order or Two and a Half Men—nobody’s going to think you’re cool. And they’re going to think even less of you because you don’t even seem to know it’s not cool. I’ve been as guilty of passing such judgments, and then offering corrective recommendations, as anyone. (See: me, proselytizing about Mad Men or Orange Is the New Black.) But this, my friends, shows us how easily we can slide from light pop culture banter to gross snobbery.
Ever since HBO hit us with their “It’s not TV—it’s HBO” slogan, we’ve gotten perhaps a tad too attached to the idea that TV—regular old fun sitcoms and soapy dramas—is “bad.” Those who sniff that Breaking Bad is the only reason they have a television are just as insufferable as those who sniff that they don’t have a TV at all because they’re too busy and important for such nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the fact that we can have our share of high and low on television now, and I’m the first to praise the true art I’ve seen on the small screen throughout its history. But I also think it’s genuinely important to leave room for the stuff that isn’t necessarily known for its novelistic nuance and important themes. Hot in Cleveland isn’t the defining program of our time, but it’s keeping Betty White and Wendie Malick in my life while making people happy—what’s so wrong with that?
After all, it’s not real life. It’s just TV.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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