Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Why I'm less than entertained by contemporary entertainment

I have a sister. When she was a teenager, she occasionally would bring home magazines like Seventeen and Teen. I wasn't exactly compelled to pick them up when she was done, but occasionally she'd point out an article, or a quiz, or something, that might make me chuckle.

When I was in college, I had a summer job where I basically went camping all the time. Sometimes I'd be staying alone or with small groups at rustic campsites with nothing but a tent or the promise of warm, dry weather for shelter, and other times I'd be staying at staffed camps that had interactive local history programs.

When I was visiting one of the latter camps, I was informed about a latrine that was supposed to have the best selection of reading material in the entire region. Since I do at times have to use a latrine or plumbed toilet, I thought I'd see what they had to offer.

In the reading rack, amongst other things, was a copy of Vogue. Never having read a bona fide women's magazine before, I thumbed through it.

I'm not sure it should be called disappointment or dismay, but I was mightily unimpressed to learn that American women everywhere were taking as a lifestyle standard a magazine that was no different from what American teenage girls everywhere were taking as a lifestyle standard, except for the fact that articles were about sex instead of prom and quizzes were about men instead of boys.

Yes, it sounded a little more sophisticated; add sex and career to a discussion on makeup and relationships and you've easily doubled its complexity, and even immature adults will develop or appear to develop more mature attitudes through observation and repetition. Children play house. College students drink and make merry with all the gluttony they can muster. In between, we have kids making biological jokes of increasing sophistication as they age (if we can speak of sophisticated jokes about poop or sex at all).

What I don't see much of these days is a graduation beyond obscene material in today's television shows and whatnot. I'm not talking about slapstick comedies or other gross-out shows like Blue Collar TV or America's Funniest whatever. Some of those shows, while crass, are not vulgar or prurient. I'm talking about the ones that pretend to be above it all, and so think they're not subject to the usual guidelines for good taste. After all, a documentary can discuss and display bodily functions, so why can't an entertainment program if it's equally frank and clinical?

For one thing, it's entertainment, so it's supposed to stir up subjective feelings rather than coldly convey knowledge. Whether these two can be safely divorced but remain in the same program is something I don't care to get into at this time.

Maybe they just can't; I was originally only going to answer "why not" with "I don't know, maybe it could, but it hasn't worked so far." Apparently Sex and the City, which seemed to focus on the prurient experiences and preferences of four urban women as much as it did on their careers, on their shoes, and on their actual fulfillment as human beings, appeals to someone. Apparently Grey's Anatomy, which has doctors getting more STDs than a college freshman and also focuses on how, in a nutshell, emotionally dysfunctional the physical relationships (to which I can only say "Duh!"), which the doctors are having with each other, always seem to do so.

Fine, fine, harmony makes for bad drama. So does stupidity. The show Going to Extremes went off the air precisely because the main characters were intolerably angsty and whiny. Angst can be funny with the right wit behind the pen and with an actor with the right sensibilities, but usually it just looks like a Generation X high school melodrama. Maybe Going to Extremes was just badly timed, people having appreciated but tired of thirtysomething but not yet having recovered enough to appreciate, well, the stuff that's put out today.

I'm not saying we should sweep tawdry and sensitive stuff under the rug, pretend it's not there. If we learned one good thing from Free Love, it's that abject fear and superstition about the Physical is not the same thing as healthy respect for it, even if healthy respect requires some comprehension of the sacredness of the Physical, the special reservation with which it should be handled. Not that it absolves would-be factual shows from the same lurid ratings hooks. Important things do deserve to be treated frankly, if the only alternative is tentative vagueness, but it's not the same thing as being casual.

What I am saying is that we're not proving our enlightened maturity by just doing things we weren't allowed to do as children. "Hey, I'm an adult, it's time for me to put away childish things, like Not Smoking and Not Talking About Genitalia." So many of us, when we were young, tried so hard to seem mature beyond their years. How many actually grew up?

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