Commentary: How Low Can TV Go?

by | November 3, 2009 at 9:24 AM | 42-Inch Television

The League (FX)

The League (FX)

A funny thing about the lowest common denominator: it keeps getting lower. So when Glenn Beck compares the Democratic efforts for health care reform to the attacks on 9/11, should that really surprise anyone? Or when David Letterman announces that he slept with various staff members during his tenure as ‘Late Show’ host, thus cheating on his wife, and this draws cheers from the audience, should we even bat an eyelash? On television in 2009—and honestly, throughout popular culture in general—this kind of questionable behavior passing as entertainment is just par for the course, and there seems to be a large faction of the audience that just eats it all up.

However, before you add ‘Idiocracy’ to your Netflix queue to see what the world will be like if we continue on down this path, remember that there is plenty of television—quality television, mind you—aimed at those of us hoping for a bit more substance and a bit less… well, whatever it is happens on VH1 on a nightly basis. This is why shows like ‘Mad Men’ and ‘30 Rock’ exist: not everyone wants to see Ray J find love for a second time.

Of course that shows like ‘For the Love of Ray J 2’ or ‘Flavor of Love’ (or any other show with “love” in the title) even exist is cause for much consternation among the literati, and occasionally this cultural wallowing in the mud makes them burst. The latest to go boom was New York Post television critic Linda Stasi. In her column on Friday, she claimed that television is a “big, smelly swamp of potty humor” perpetrated by “Hollywood Ivy League-types” to presumably create an army of Stepford Americans who only delight in poop jokes. In Stasi’s view, if something is rotten in the state of Denmark, it might be because someone defecated where he or she shouldn’t have.

The problem with this thinking, however, is that it doesn’t give either the programmers or viewers enough credit. Never mind that an occasional poop joke can make even the most stone-cold serious person laugh like a fifth grader (highfalutin ’30 Rock’ had plenty of these just last week)—with what seems like an infinite number of channels there is plenty of room for both the scandalous and the erudite on the television spectrum.

So, yeah, some of the shows take the gross-out/idiot factor too far—apparently the latest is FX’s fantasy football comedy, ‘The League,’ whose pilot may or may not have featured a sex act that is by its very name, dirty—but there are just as many that stay out of the bathroom; for reference, take a quick glance at the top-ten shows in the 18-49 ratings. Painting all television as a Godless fount for scatological references and sexual depravity feels a bit disingenuous.

But programmers aside, in the end, it’s we the viewers who have the ultimate tool of power to decide what we watch. If something is gross or silly or offensive or some glorious mix of all three, do what people have been doing since the days of ‘I Love Lucy:’ change the channel.

Television might be infected with a case of the stupids, but always remember that you are the one holding the vaccine.

Three More Inches

Remember how last week I was super-excited for the new season of ’24?’ Oh well. The news that Gregory Itzin is returning to the series in season eight to once again play disgraced and crazy President Charles Logan is disconcerting. Despite an Emmy-nod, Itzin always seemed like a less-interesting Michael Emerson, while President Logan served as nothing other than an annoying roadblock for Jack Bauer. Are fans really excited about something this contrived?

Spoiler alert? That Naveen Andrews is going to guest star on an episode of ‘Law & Order: SVU’ should set off alarm bells if you’re a fan of ‘Lost.’ The ABC series has filmed just six of the eighteen episodes planned for the final season and Andrews is already taking a “break?” Something tells me to bet heavily on Sayid in the death pool.

And finally… I’ll say it: Mindy Kaling and Ellie Kemper (better known as Kelly and Erin on ‘The Office,’ or, if you’re a big fan, ‘Subtle Sexuality’) should have their own series. They are too hilarious for words.