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Television is our new literature. This decade’s writing, acting, and cinematographic arts have all outdone themselves. With every possibly genre represented in force, the best thing about the current TV paradigm is that it presents to us an astoundingly diverse library.
No longer are our voyeuristic intentions stifled by Procter & Gamble. Thanks to the myriad internet and satellite-based networks who surf the brilliant wake of HBO, we can choose to rent, buy, or nick whatever stories we like, no matter how shocking, maudlin, irritating, or disgusting they are. Heck, I remember my mom telling me Capote’s In Cold Blood was heretic; the film was barely creepy. (She didn’t live to read or see the Hunger Games, but at this point it wouldn’t have disturbed her anyway.) To survive, humans must continually increase their tolerances, and TV is way ahead of us.
Independently produced miniseries are blowing the old-school network shows away in quality and numbers. I am personally addicted to at least 4, and I can honestly say my love affair with the tube began when we ditched cable for Netflix; in fact, I enjoyed almost no network TV before that. Now, I’m a confirmed binge watcher. During the lag between seasons I have time to consider the content I've been ingesting, and its audacity rattles my conscience more profoundly than just the eyeball-popping graphics.
Conversation regarding the new shows revolves around “pushing the envelope.” It’s the flexibility of that “envelope” that’s really shocking. An envelope is meant to safely contain whatever its contents. In this context, the envelope acts as a social contract; a tacitly agreed moral limit to publicly displayed creative expression. Yet it is, or has become, strictly a matter of one-upmanship.
Testing the integrity of that container’s bone-creased edge is what draws viewers, and I’m practically cutting my tongue licking the flap of it. Still, within my lifetime, the most controversial television images have gone from the first televised inter-racial kiss (Star Trek, “Plato’s Stepchildren” 1968), to deliberately graphic sex and dismemberment (Your Choice of Any Episode of the Top Grossing Show this Week).
That’s quite the visceral leap in just 30 years. Corporate sponsorship is completely onboard; I’m not sure if that’s encouraging, or if it means we’ve lost our touchstone. Sponsors forced their puppet network to nix the Trek episode–banned it for nearly 15 years, both here and in the U.K., which seems ridiculous by today’s social perspective. But look whose name appears proudly juxtaposed over the almost (note: I said almost) unwatchable gore this week? Snickers. AT&T. Joe’s Crab Shack. Living-room denizens triumphed, it seems, over censorship; we are now allowed whatever visceral levels we are comfy with. And once that envelope’s cracked, you can’t re-stick it.
So many important debates might be developed or re-hashed here, but it all goes back to the “chicken or the egg” paradox; do we watch cannibalism because we’re ready for it, or because it’s being fed to us?
Why dwell on philosophy when there is so much fabulous entertainment out there? I’m just happy to have the choice between wings or omelets, and I’m so pleased that viewers, and not soap companies, are choosing what fills our shelves and vending machines.
Orange is the New Black (Laura Prepon as "Alex"), Jenji Kohan/Piper Kerman, Netflix, 2013.
Game of Thrones (Emilia Clarke as "Daenerys"), Alan Taylor, HBO, 2011.
Star Trek (Shatner and Nichols), Roddenberry, Desilu Productions, NBC, 1966
American Horror Story (Kathy Bates as Delphine LaLaurie), FX, 2013
The Walking Dead (Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes), AMC, 2010.