Big stuff happened in television in 2009: venerable silver-screen icons dropped like flies, grandma’s bunny ears became officially obsolete, and table flips were heard 'round the world. Guiding Light, the longest-running show in broadcast history, died after 72 years. And during the Superbowl, a semi-reptilian Alec Baldwinin a character almost unmistakable from 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghyintroduced America to Hulu. These developments are truly unsettling, but one man is not afraid. Troy Patterson dares guide us as we tread into a brave new world of home "entertainment."
"Let there be no doubt that refinements in measuring viewer demographics will spur many advances in the art of pandering."
As TV Critic at Slate, Pattersonwho also contributes to Spin and NPRdeftly dissects what’s happening on the small screen today. And whether he’s commenting on the late John Updike’s obsession with female areolae* or on Shaq’s elegant Twitter prose, Patterson can always be relied upon to bring his outsized knowledge of pop culture to bear on his analyses.
In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Gelf spoke with the Brooklyn resident about steamy teen dramas, crappy reality programming that we can’t seem to get enough of, and where TV might go from here.
Gelf Magazine: According to Nielsen, the average American watches more than four hours of TV a day, 28 hours a week, two months a year. How much TV do you watch? How much of it do you regret watching?
Troy Patterson: If you discount the hours I spend in front of Turner Classic Movies, then I'm somewhat below average. The secret to working as a television critic without losing one's mind is not to watch too much television. I harbor no deep regrets. There are nights when I dip into cable news just to take its temperature and emerge slightly dumber, and every now and then I sink into the quicksand of a My Super Sweet 16 marathon, but that's life.
Gelf Magazine: About Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, you wrote in Slate, "In these days of pseudo-celebrity and rampant vapidity, of self-objectification and professional narcissism, of commodified sex and degraded love on every channelin these days of what a friend terms the death of cultureit is healthy every now and then to cry uncle, sit back, and appreciate the mindless pleasures that the apocalypse has to offer." I agree: so much of what I watch is bottom of the barrel, and I'm not (entirely) ashamed. But how did television reach this point, and when was the tipping point? The American public has always enjoyed tabloidy, voyeuristic crap, so why only now, in the last decade or so, did this crap come to rule TV?Troy Patterson: How did we reach this point? No roundup of suspects would be complete without Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns Fox, and Mike Darnell, the evil genius in charge of Fox's reality programming. A trash pioneer, that network brought us the grimy true-crime of Cops and the pace-setting skeeviness of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, that notorious two-hour special where 50 women competed to marry a supposed big shot before the closing credits rolled. Let's say they broke the barrier to the reality-TV subbasement fairly early on in the history of the genre.
When was the tipping point? The year 2000 is a nice round number. (And Generation Ya group quite at home with tabloid voyeurismis also known the Millennial Generation.) Multi-Millionaire aired that February, and the first season of Survivor began filming that March, the same month that the biweekly pop-culture magazine US changed frequency, format, and brow height, becoming the celebrity-tabloid Us Weekly. Paris Hilton had successfully foisted herself upon us before the year was out.
Gelf Magazine: You say "a friend" terms it the death of culture. What would you call it?
Troy Patterson: Actually, I turned that down a notch for the piece; he terms it "THE DEATH OF CULTURE." I'm not an all-caps kind of guy, but one premise of my TV column is that the cultural apocalypse has already happened.
Gelf Magazine: Are we inching toward a Mike Judge-inspired future?
Troy Patterson: "Inching?" In some respects, we might be yardingleaguing, even. But there's still some fundamental decency to go around. Kourtney and Khloe are silly little things, but they're not all bad, you know. Most episodes of their show find them heading in the general direction of self-knowledge, tottering toward humanistic values in their five-inch heels. And where would you prefer to live: Crass 21st-century America or genteel 18th-century England, where families packed picnics for hangings and bear-baiting was a spectator sport?
Gelf Magazine: If it's not the death of culture, it's definitely the death of decency, according to the Parents Television Council (PTC). Last summer, the billboards for the new season of Gossip Girlfeaturing a shirtless Chace Crawfordbrazenly advertised a blurb from the PTC: "Mind-blowingly inappropriate." That was a good laugh. But seriously, does the PTC have a point, especially since the CW is on public airwaves?
"This ambition [to restore decency to the entertainment industry] strikes me as delusional. It would be easier to restore the chastity of a harlot."Troy Patterson: Gossip Girl is just "garden-variety inappropriate." "Mind-blowingly inappropriate" is something more like A Double Shot at Love, the degrading MTV dating show starring bisexual identical twins. To be clear: I do not object to bisexuality, nor to monozygosity. I object to degradation. I don't see any good reason to object to Gossip Girl, saucy though it is, being on network television. Check back with me on that last point after I've had kids.
Gelf Magazine: The PTC's mission, according to its website, is deceptively understandable. Its FAQ section anticipates objections regarding the First Amendment, censorship, the responsibility of parents, etc. But its bigotry is unveiled when it condemns an innocent kiss between two gay characters in Mad Men. Are broadcasters and advertisers still taking these people seriously? Are we reaching an era when groups like the PTC are taken less seriously?
Troy Patterson: The website also says that PTC's mission is "to promote and restore responsibility and decency to the entertainment industry." This ambition strikes me as delusional. It would be easier to restore the chastity of a harlot. The genie is out of the bottle.
I was not aware that the PTC is taken seriously by anyone beyond its ranks. I may well be mistaken, but my impression is that the organization exists to draft indignant form letters. People outraged by "filth" that they may or may not have seen can forward these letters to advertisers and the FCC, where, as a general rule, the concerns they express will be politely ignored. Another PTC function is to send its representatives on talk shows, where they decry racy TV content in between clips of it.
Gelf Magazine: Do you watch a lot of television online? Do you think the evolution happening in television will ultimately be better for the viewing public?
Troy Patterson: I only watch the slightest bit of television onlinemostly episodes and clips I need to catch up with for work, plus maybe the occasional Shakira video on YouTube or Facts of Life episode on Hulu. Anyone who finds it efficient to entertain herself by watching TV on her laptop has my blessing. But this person is missing the pleasure of TV as a shared experiencethe fun of gathering with friends in the living room and with millions of strangers across the Republic.
Gelf Magazine: You write, "the notion of Leno running some combination of pop-culture confessional booth and prime-time torture chamber has some real appeal." Will Leno survive this move?
Troy Patterson: To be clear, I was referring specifically to Kanye West's squirming appearance on The Jay Leno Show in the wake of his VMA buffoonery. In general, Jay Leno before the local news is just as dull as Jay Leno after the local news, but I would absolutely watch his show if were a nightly arena for celebrity self-flagellation. Maybe NBC, striking up a product-placement with Dole, could provide the studio audience with rotten fruit to throw while Jay shames his guests.
Gelf Magazine: Advancements in digital and online viewership measurements help the advertisers and networks develop programming that they think the viewing public will want to watch. But does the viewing public always know what it wants to watch? Can greater data help develop shows like Mad Men, Weeds, or [insert favorite scripted drama here]?
Troy Patterson: I can't imagine that it does the creators of an artistically successful drama any good whatsoever to know who their audience is. Mad Men and Weeds are what they are because of their integrity and their idiosyncrasies. On the other hand, greater data will allow advertisers to reach consumers more efficiently, which might work to the commercial benefit of some niche programming. And let there be no doubt that refinements in measuring viewer demographics will spur many advances in the art of pandering.
*See also, John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists? aka Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think by David Foster Wallace in the New York Observer in 1997.
Front-page image of A Double Shot at Love stars Rikki and Vikki courtesy of realitywanted.com