Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Best and Worst: Television Shows

Olmec, from the glory days
I will preface this post by saying that I am far from being an avid watcher of television shows. Not since the glory days of elementary and middle school - the glory days of Reboot, DBZ, Legends of the Hidden Temple, etc - have I sat and watched television for more than a couple of hours per week. Nowadays I usually only turn on the TV for news and sports. This past summer, however, I happened to be in possession of a significant amount of free time which at first I was helplessly unsure of what to do with. Then, of course, it occurred to me: what better way to burn through free time at an alarming rate than to sit and watch TV shows? And that is exactly what I did - The Office, The Sopranos, House, The Wire, and even Jersey Shore received fair amounts of my attention. I want to particularly share my views on the latter two, because they, in my very humble opinion (as mentioned, I am in no way a television aficionado), are quite representative of today's Best and Worst of what is available on the telly.

Here is where I throw you a curve ball: I highly recommend that you watch both The Wire and Jersey Shore, given that you can afford the time, despite knowing with fair certainty that watching an entire season of the latter will fry your brain. Wait, what? A good friend, or even a stranger from the internet, would not wholeheartedly recommend something that they know to be hazardous to your health, would they? Unless they were a devious bastard. Well, I'm here to tell you that I am not a devious bastard, and that in fact you should watch Jersey Shore, not because it is good TV, but for reasons that I cannot quite express. Maybe because it is representative of many things that are wrong with society and we can use it as a learning tool. Maybe it is so horrendously bad that it circularly wraps around to becoming awesomely good. Or perhaps it's just freaking hilarious to watch. Okay, I'm going to go with the last one.

Mike "The Situation", quintessential Guido
Might as well start with the bad. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a show that is worse, in any reasonable metric, than MTV's Jersey Shore. But as I've suggested, that is possibly part of what makes it, like a train wreck, so hard to turn away from. It is a "reality" TV show - we are expected to glean entertainment from watching the relatively day-to-day lives of the eight members of the Shore House. Doesn't sound exciting? Well, if you were to cut a cross-section of America and randomly select eight people to do this sort of thing, you would indeed probably end up with a pretty boring and uneventful show. These eight, however, are proud, flag-bearing members of the "Guido" subculture (pronounced 'Gwee-doh'). The term was originally used to demean lower-class Italian Americans. Nowadays it is popularly used to describe members of the flourishing subculture that exists in Jersey as well as elsewhere, who: are usually of Italian descent, use steroids to get jacked, stay perpetually orange with spray-on tans, "fist-pump" to house music, and spend a little too much time on their hair. I've just described a male Guido; the female counterparts call themselves "Guidettes" - they are the ones, I suppose, who find these qualities in a male attractive.

Now that I've introduced you to the (somewhat ridiculous) terminology, perhaps you might now be able to see how such a show can be successfully entertaining. Quite simply, the first-time viewer is usually completely incredulous as they watch the Jersey Shore cast go about their lives. Mike "The Situation" popularized the term "GTL" - Gym Tan Laundry - that describes the daily routine that you must follow in order to stay fresh. Remember: "If your shirt looks bad it makes the whole product look bad." Hmm...right. I'm not really sure if any of the cast is college-educated, or what they will do with their lives once they outgrow their Guido phases and realize that there is more to life than GTL, fist-pumping and creating unnecessary drama. Existential crises? I suppose only time will tell.

Your knee-jerk reaction to the show may very well be to immediately stop watching before irreparable harm is done to your brain. You might ask, do these sorts of people actually exist? Well, yes, amazingly. Is the show a self-parody? Is the cast "in on the joke"? Yes, it's obvious that the show is doing the most to capitalize on the ridiculous aspects of the subculture, and the members of the cast probably do try to play-up the Guido stereotypes when they can. But it is also a matter of fact that these are real people, that Guidos are a real phenomenon, and that all of this can be really hilarious. Certainly it is bad television that has no redeeming qualities and plenty of mind-numbing effects, but honestly, where are you going to find better entertainment?

Phew, now on with the good. The Wire is a show that premiered in 2002 but is surprisingly unknown to most. It is a crime-based drama centered on the city of Baltimore, but try not to think CSI or even Law and Order. In contrast, The Wire is (almost) uncompromisingly realistic and un-formulaic. Pfft, reality? Real life is boring, you might say. Who wants real life when you can have impressively unrealistic crime labs, stunningly unnecessary CGI scenes, and a guy (*cough* David Caruso *cough*) who, at the exact moment before the opening credits, removes his shades and makes a remarkably cheesy pun? Well, contrary to what you might expect, realistic drama can be just as interesting and exciting as the aforementioned fantasies, especially if it is as multifaceted as The Wire - the show explores the lives of drug dealers, corrupt union leaders and politicians, homicide detectives and government bureaucrats, all with equal attention and little or no bias.

An example of good television
Unlike current popular TV shows of similar genre, most things that happen in The Wire are plausible events. Rarely do I find myself having to suspend my disbelief while watching, whereas with others such suspension of disbelief is simply an expected precondition of the viewer. It is a widely-encompassing exploration of the Baltimore drug scene that is, by television standards, actually somewhat educational in nature. I didn't expect it, but I find that I became more knowledgeable about the subject matter while watching The Wire. Though House provides plenty of entertaining drama and character development, it's reasonable to say that you probably won't learn much about medical science by watching it. In comparison, you probably will learn a thing or two about detective work and drug dealers from The Wire in addition to being entertained by the drama and the characters (I'm not at all bashing House, just trying to make a point). Some might not have the patience to sit through a show as realistic and devoid of instant gratification - for those people, there are plenty of shows that shun reality, some of which I've already mentioned. But for the others, I believe that watching The Wire can be quite a satisfying and entertaining experience.

An example of a badass
Well, there you have it. Two shows from opposite sides of the spectrum, both of which I believe are worth watching. Certainly there are probably shows that are "worse" than Jersey Shore, and ones that are "better" than The Wire, but these are the ones that have left indelible impressions in my limited experience. I do not believe that all such bad shows should be removed entirely, nor should all similarly good shows dominate television. Both have their place, and both can be very entertaining. Feel free to comment!