Monday, October 30, 2006

Jellied Brains

Television has done much for psychiatry by spreading information about it, as well as contributing to the need for it. ~Alfred Hitchcock

When I was a kid, some parents worried that TV would turn our minds to jelly. It appears that they were right. I've seen a number of articles lately saying that there is an autism epidemic. Since autism does not appear to some sort of viral condition that would be contagious, increasing numbers of autistic children would seem to be mysterious. Could it be Bin Ladin at work with some bio-psycho-nucleo-weapon? Might it be due to global warming or cosmic rays? Perhaps all that fluoridation that the American Dental Association has foisted on us is creeping out of youthful teeth into youthful brains?

Nope. It's television. I saw an article the other day that said that it appeared that excessive TV viewing could be causing all this extra autism we're being told is abounding. I can believe that, although I think video games could be included as a factor. I'm not one of those who thinks all video games are evil and should be banned, but I do think that anything that reduces the need for one to use one's imagination is going to limit mental development.

At least video games, though, provide some sort of visceral stimulation. I mean, there you are, walking through barely lit hallways when some gruesome creature jumps out, determined to rip your virtual head off, and you mange to reduce it to a pile of goo with a chain gun. If that doesn't get your heart started, nothing will. And don't give me that stuff about violence. Before video games, kids played cops and robbers, cowboys and Native Americans, or soldiers, all of which involved bloodily dispatching each other with glee. And they did that long before you could buy a toy ivory-handled Colt .45 with quick-draw action.

We're just a very violent species.

No, it's TV that is really scary, because it's essentially mind-numbing. For all the paens offered by programmers to the idea of original programming, imitation still remains the sincerest (and most profitable) form of flattery. Currently, no network can do without reality shows because the shows are cheap to produce and provide something that everyone seems to love: People being humiliated. If you add some sort of talent component, you apparently have gold. If American Idol wasn't bad enough (and it was), we've had fashion designer faceoffs, model challenges, and, a current up-and-comer, chef competitions.

Of course, none of this is new, even the humiliation concept. Years ago, it was done in quiz-show format, like Beat the Clock, which involved people having to perform stunts in a set time (usually 1 to 2 minutes) that involved getting wet or having cream pies tossed in their faces. Or there was Truth or Consequences, where bad things could happen if you didn't answer the question correctly.

Over the years, trends came and trends went ... and often came and went again. For example:
  • Variety shows. Once the staple of the networks, all of them had a similar format. Opening musical number with the star (or, if the star was a comic, opening monologue, followed by a musical number by the show's chorus line); introduce the guest star; guest star number; skits; musical number with star and guest star; skits; humble closing by star. Some big-time shows could afford a couple of guest stars, which really took the pressure off the star.
  • Quiz shows. Just like now, quiz shows were cheap to produce and drew huge numbers of viewers. Champions would return week after week, and people actually would begin to root for or against certain contestants. Unfortunately, the Charles Van Doren scandal brought the whole house down, relegating quiz shows to a minor niche until that Regis Philbin millionaire thing, and, of course, Wheel of Fortune.
  • Westerns. Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger, and on and on. For years, westerns were such a staple that, some seasons, there was practically nothing but westerns and variety shows. The proliferation of cowboys, saloons, dance hall girls, and gunfights was one of the reasons that Newton Minnow, one time head of the FCC referred to TV as “a vast wasteland.” I think he had the Ponderosa in mind.
  • ”Professional” shows. Doctors and lawyers took over after the westerns. Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare led the field, although Medic was the pioneer. And of course, there was Marcus Welby, a sort of Doctor Knows Best. For the lawyers, we had Perry Mason, The Defenders, and Arrest and Trial (a predecessor to Law and Order, where they showed the crime, the pinch, and the trial, only it took 90 minutes for Arrest and Trial).
  • Primetime soaps. Peyton Place started it, but soon there was Dynasty and Falconcrest. Interestingly, Dynasty and its clones always seemed more like westerns, sort of Bonanza with drugs, money, and Joan Collins.
But there are two formats that were there at the start and have never gone away: Sitcoms and cop shows. Except for a short time during the ascendancy of the westerns (when there was virtually nothing else on), sitcoms and cop shows have always been the mainstay. And, frankly, if you've seen one sitcom or cop show, you've seen them all.

It's not that there haven't been some very good television programs over the years. There have been, but there haven't been hours and hours and hours of them every week. In any given year, if there's more than two or three really fine shows (either very entertaining or very thought-provoking), that's a banner season. Most of what was (and is) on is repetitive, commercial-riddled, and insulting to the intelligence.

Worse, the well-intentioned attempt to offer some education to kids turned into television-as-baby-sitter. Parents were more than happy to plunk the kids down in front of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and whatever else PBS was showing during the afternoon. The trouble is that they just left them there for the evening. So kids that grew up watching hours of TV became parents who were more than happy to let their own kids watch even more of the mindless fare. It's gotten to the horrific point of a baby channel, a cable channel aimed at infants, so parents don't have to sing lullabies. For slightly older kids, PBS Kids Sprout relieves parents of reading bedtime stories. Then, there's Teletubbies, which is just plain disturbing.

And we're wondering where all the autistic kids are coming from?

Amazingly, an argument for letting kids watch all the TV they want is that they won't be able to talk about what was on last night with their similarly brain-stunted friends. Even adults seem to feel that they might be ostracized if they didn't watch CSI:Podunk last night; they won't be able to bond with their co-workers around the water cooler.

I haven't watched a network (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox (ugh), or even UPN) program in years. I've mentioned before that my viewing axis is science, history, sports (less and less all the time), and very old movies (if it's newer than 1949, bleah). However, I've never felt out of place when people start talking about their TV viewing because all you have to say is that you've never seen some top-rated show and stand back. I don't have to watch Law and Order:Weirdos Unit because people will tell me all about the show --and everything else that's on – at the drop of a hat.

Of course, they will, at some point, insist that they really don't watch much TV, and they certainly don't let their kids watch much.

Yeah, right. And, I got my excessive girth by eating nothing but carrots.

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