Television: in Memorium


Published: September 27, 2007

Television is dead; or, at least, it’s comatose. Not like the novel—that whole premature obituary was weak and unfunny; it really threw Walter Benjamin for a loop. In fact, if you have not done so yet, please make sure to tell the novel, next time you see it, that things are alright—that it never was and is not in the throes of danger.

TV, on the other hand, must fear for its life. If it listens closely enough, the TV can hear, in the applause of every audience laugh track, the euphemistic, empty resonance of a monopoly ending.

Unlike the novel, the film or even the synthesized studio recording, the television has been surpassed in every area by every other media art form, except in its stupidity. Perhaps it would make us feel better to say the only reason we’ve kept it around this long, even after something as jejune as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” is because we felt sorry for it. After all, it would not be the first time inexplicit badness remained mighty in this country years beyond its initial election. But for such disappointments, we have been almost ingratiatingly hospitable. Why?

Television’s thoroughgoing moribundity would be considerably more tolerable, and perhaps worth supporting, if only it had some redeeming qualities. If only all the worthwhile shows weren’t also available on iTunes, and the presidential campaigns weren’t mouse clicks away; if only the broadcast journalists quaffing coffee weren’t so crunchy and insipid, perhaps we could bother gathering a hardy defense for the telly. But the fact is, we have already missed so much life sitting on the couch contending with its rubbish. And now our butts hurt.

The reason TV’s final death is, presently speaking, imminent, is because it has been content to remain in the basement of human emotion while its competition moved loudly past it—first to the second floor, then to the penthouse and finally, television’s adversaries blew right out of the neighborhood. The novels, the indie flicks and even the large geometric steel works of so many art gallery showrooms all possess a certain spontaneity, toughness and freedom the television simply cannot contend with. Literally, the word “television” means “far sight.” No wonder it is so happy to hang to the side.

The reason TV once did so well is because before the world was neck-deep in detached communications, it provided us with a syndicated system of artificial human togetherness during a historical period of domestic mourning. After the war, T.V. outdid itself to inform, educate and entertain viewers in a sonorously joyful way. It was still overrun with product placement, but even the ads brought people together. They were informative and entertaining. Announcers played the guitar and sang songs, told jokes. Whatever they said or did, they seemed to mean it.

Now the most reliable means of being informed, educated and entertained have reverted back to what they were before, what they have always been—without the inauthenticity of a screen. That’s because the traditional methods—literature and face-to-face interactions—have been unexcelled by hybrids of transmitted motion and audio. In the same way, human robots, no matter how powerful and sophisticated they may get, will never be “quite human enough” to successfully appropriate the planet.       It’s true that people may still sit down more than once a week to watch “The Simpsons” or some new lip-glossed blonde behave like an imbecile, but they only do it without thinking.  While it would require a whole separate column to determine which art form is forever, it seems safe to infer that no primetime comedian or trust fund baby could withstand the examined life, where the way things looked and seemed could only be unraveled from the inside, in a place no public could observe.

Perhaps, like human nature, the truly infinite art form must ebb and flow in order to reach any moment of fulfilled expression. But as for television, its time of great discovery has undoubtedly expired, and in the ebb it has become broken, unusable—a quotidian thing that is now conspicuous, obtrusive, obstinate. And yet, without the television’s demise, we could not have known what went wrong.