My family did not own a television until I was 9 years old because there was no television available in South Australia until that time. Before that I had seen it once in England at my grandparents’ house in England, and watched for about 2 minutes. In Australia I got hooked on children’s shows, stuff from the U.S., and, especially, Dr Who. When the family moved to England a television was essential and turned on all the time that we were at home. I had to be selective because I had a lot of schoolwork and other things to do; but I had my favorite shows. Then when I went off to university I had no interest in television. My college at Oxford had a television in a special room and that was it. We all crammed in for Monty Python and Match of the Day (Saturday evening football), and that was it.
After university I did not have a television, and didn’t get one when I moved to the U.S. Not interested. I managed to live in the U.S. from 1975 to 1999 without a television. I would have continued were it not for my son. He came home from school one day when he was 8 years old and pleaded for us to buy a television. Without one he felt isolated from his classmates whose conversations were dominated by the latest shows. Well, I’m a good dad. I caved. I was not a helicopter parent either. He could watch whatever he wanted as long as it did not interfere with other things. I didn’t have to control his television habits anyway. I’m not a dictatorial parent. I discuss issues with my son rather than making blanket demands. He was always smart and selective in what he watched. I turned him on to Dr Who and that was the one show we watched together.
When my son left for university and I moved to Buenos Aires television went out the window. I had a television with over 100 cable channels but rarely turned on the set. I got involved in the Rugby World Cup at one point because Argentina has a great rugby team, and I occasionally watched the news or cooking shows. Both were informative in different ways. Living in China and then Italy, I have had televisions in my apartments, but I never watch anything. Never.
It’s not just that vast tracts of television shows are mind-numbingly stupid, that’s bad enough. One of the great current hits, The Big Bang Theory, supposedly gives us a view of super-smart people, yet panders to ridiculous stereotypes, and, more problematically, is riddled with factual errors which, I imagine, few people catch or care about. What is more problematic to me is that shows, whether they are supposed to be serious or comedic, give a hopelessly inaccurate picture of life as it is actually lived. With comedy this situation is excusable to a degree, but why does drama have to be fake too? In that case I can suspend belief, also to a degree.
Where I am really troubled is when it comes to shows that purport to be about real life. Recently I posted this on Facebook about Anthony Bourdain:
This guy is a poster child for all that is wrong with media images, celebrity, and hype in general. I used to be a fan until I saw what he did with a tour of Argentina. Then I thought more deeply about his shows and their ilk. He missed out on the home cooking which is fundamental to Argentine culture, insisted that they were cooking the beef all wrong in Patagonia, and produced a segment on empanadas in Buenos Aires that was a travesty (among a host of other gaffes). Yet he is lauded as a great savant of world cuisine. Let’s face it. He travels with a large crew, has his local arrangements done for him, has researchers do advanced study of the places he visits, knows nothing about anthropology, and yet comes across, via skillfully edited shows, as a mighty traveler. Nonsense. He’s a self-aggrandizing charlatan and hypocrite. His “documentaries,” and numerous shows like them, are no more “real life” than sitcoms and the like — monumentally scripted and set up to appear real to the unsuspecting. All television, including the “news” is fiction.
That’s the heart of the matter. I dislike Bourdain in particular only because I’ve seen some of his shows. But now others in the same vein I treat with equal disdain. They don’t have anything to do with life as it is lived. With drama you can suspend disbelief, but travel shows etc. give the illusion of reality – which is simply not the case. In fact, the idea of “reality TV” is just plain laughable. What is remotely real about it?
The sad part is that so many people measure their lives by the images they see on television, and find their own lives wanting. I do like the movie Pleasantville for this very reason. The television world is fake. Get used to it. Even what purports to be real is fake. Watch at your peril.