Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spotlight: Mark Harris' EW Columns

The back page of Entertainment Weekly is currently split between two columnists: Stephen King and Mark Harris. Obviously, Stephen King gets all the press, the accolades, but he generally just lists stuff that he likes and dislikes and tries to tie it to something else. He’s usually somewhat removed from current popular entertainment, especially regarding music, and I end up disregarding most of his opinions because of this.

But I want to shine a light on the far superior but lesser-known Mark Harris:

His two recent columns, “Unpopular Demand” (Indiana Jones cover/March 14 issue) and “I Love You, Now Change” (Tyra Banks/February 22) were both spot-on. “Unpopular Demand” finally puts into words a concept I’ve danced around a lot recently, noticing how my own television habits have changed: that there are two types of television, Eye TV and Ear TV.

Basically, Eye TV are the shows you sit down for, and when you do, everyone SHUTS. UP. These are the shows you obsessively go online for, to rewatch favorite moments to make sure you accurately caught the right inflection of a command in a pivotal scene, to disassemble plot points, to stridently analyze character motives, to make sure your new favorite quote is letter-perfect. Ear TV is American Idol, or really any reality show: the shows you flip during, catch whenever, and generally watch when you’re in the mood for television.

Most of us have always delineated our television shows by this model unconsciously. Things like news and sports, music videos and reruns are often automatically in this category, but it’s only now with all the different media and entertainment options out there, not to mention the strike, that have really changed how we perceive television and the way we make it fit into our lives.

The truth is, much as we love our Eye TV, due to its intensity and inherent awesomeness it’s hard to have more than a handful of shows that we can dedicate ourselves to. When a show burns us, or falls below our expectations (aka sucks/becomes boring), it can be downgraded to Ear TV, and those are sad days, when we understand that the love has faded and it’s not working out. Ear TV is useful for catching up on things, having a conversation topic, but it’s not very fulfilling; there’s a reason us TV fans live and die by our favorite shows. It’s a catch-22: rare is the person who has the time to full-on devote a good portion of their life to several shows passionately, and frankly, even I find it unbelievable and a little loserish when I come across people like that, but we all want good programming, and we want it consistently.

“I Love You, Now Change” is the rare EW piece that shines a light on national politics, and not just on a show that satirizes national politics. It’s another pro-Obama article, but that’s not what’s important. He highlights a speech Obama gave in Los Angeles on January 31, during the last Democratic debate before, as he terms it, “Superconfusing Tuesday” (heh), where he addresses the ever-pertinent entertainment query of censorship versus artistic freedom, and just who is responsible for what. Like so much of what Obama says, he manages to sound reasonable, bringing both sides together in a way that just feels so natural. He talks from being a parent, facing the choices in monitoring what his children watch, but also places the blame on Hollywood for putting inappropriate advertisements in family programs and settings:

I do think that it is important for us to make sure that we are giving parents the tools that they need in order to monitor what their children are watching…not just what’s coming over the airwaves, but what’s coming over the Internet. […] It is important for those in the industry to show some thought about who they are marketing some of these programs to…”

As Harris so beautifully puts it, “There are rare moments in the political life of an issue when somebody suddenly redefines the center by articulating a position that sounds so much like a commonsense consensus that it becomes very hard for anyone to argue the point, either to the right or to the left.”

Harris continues, Obama “effectively killed the subject of the ‘culture wars’” by being so reasonable, finally saying what we all believe. I would like for such evenhandedness to continue, letting me enjoy my programs in peace at appropriate hours and not be horrified coming across racy material when it's family time.

I like many programs that would theoretically be labeled “adult entertainment” (minus the porn), but I’ve definitely noticed a steady decline in what can’t be said and shown on not just television, but the radio. It boggles my mind that Z100 will edit out words like “asshole” and “drugs” while PLJ, which has just as many young listeners thanks to their parents, does not. Compare early Friends to late Friends and see the difference in their conversational topics, and how risqué (yet how blasé) discussing sex becomes. It’s not because all those young viewers in 1994 grew up; it’s that by 2004 the culture demanded that the only way to make the characters credible was to have them talk dirtier. Friends wasn’t real in any other context, but somehow this change had to happen. Was it to catch up to the rest of the shows on television? To the viewers they were losing? To remain popular? Whatever it is, entertainment and American culture today is much, much coarser than it ever was. Even teen and child stars and programs aren’t immune to this; it can be argued they accelerated the decline. These issues never reached critical mass until preteens had their own culture, until Britney Spears hit the market.

The truth is that it’s probably just going to either plateau, or more likely, get worse. We’re not going to go back to Leave It to Beaver, unless it’s done ironically and Beaver is changed to something less…perverted. Preventing or masquerading the illicit entertainment is hard and inevitable going to fail, but the blame, like most things, is both a societal one and an individual one. We need to be discerning with what we choose to watch, especially in front of young audiences, but we also need to not be paranoid that every children’s show is featuring a teen girl who has a scandalous personal life.

And please, for the love of God, don’t put a television or a computer in your child’s bedroom.


John said...

Regarding your opening, "He’s usually somewhat removed from current popular entertainment, especially regarding music, and I end up disregarding most of his opinions because of this." I haven't read King's columns, but now I am intrigued. The reason I cancelled my subscription to Blender was because their musical tastes were diametrically opposed to mine. They were all about the Next Big Thing and hated anything that wasn't revolutionary or genre-bending. I think that if an album is enjoyable, it should get a good review regardless of how "new" its sound is. But then, you already know all that.

John said...

"Eye TV" and "Ear TV." I've never heard of such an analogy before, but I'm on board. What's the secret to the Eye TV problem? A trend that's beginning to grow in popularity with OnDemand and internet broadcasting. Soon TV shows will be released direct to download and DVD, the way some are in other countries (a format known in the anime world as the OVA)and all will be right with the world. It'll be a fantastic avenue for storytelling, since "seasons" won't have to structure themselves so that they can run forever, yet end effectively if canceled on short notice. Hopefully this will be the future of Eye TV.

John said...

Sure, it might help to deny your child a bedroom TV. But what about TV on the web? Are you going to block that as well?

I really hope that "sex" stops "selling" eventually. Until we start voting with our dollars in this country, we'll just degenerate further. Kids today are both far more and far less grown up than in decades past. They're more jaded and exposed to far more debauchery, but they're less responsible and FAR less intelligent (or perhaps they're just trained to hide their intelligence at all costs.) Though our fifth graders are apparently smart as whips, if "Are You Smarter..." is to be believed.