The Gilded Age of Television


The television landscape may be doing some pretty great forms of entertainment, but the severe lack of diversity has been more problematic than critics seem willing to admit. Why?

I feel bad for Lena Dunham. The creator and showrunner for HBO’s Girls has gotten a lot of flack for the lack of racial, social and/or sexual diversity in her critically-lauded show, and it’s not really her fault. She has no responsibility to speak for an American society that now has more minority babies than Caucasian ones, or for the scores of homosexual people concerned over the future of marriage. The onus is really on the executives to greenlight and schedule shows that involve minorities, as well as promote them with the same rigor that they would their flagship shows. Girls have been receiving the backlash primarily on two fronts: 1) its very premise and characters make it impossible to deal with the real – and complex – issues plaguing the modern twenty-something, and 2) its pedigree have been exalted so much by both creators and critics that they seem unwilling or incapable of criticizing the very problem that the so-called Golden Age of Television represents. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that borderlines on conspiratorial; critics praising shows of a singular and narrow vision for their jobs encourage creators to create shows of a singular and narrow vision for critics to praise, and so on. This problem has extended from the AV Club to even our beloved Hulk.

Points 1) and 2) are noticeable in the promo photograph for Girls:

Girls Promo Photo

(Check out the parody here, which touches upon the larger point, even though I don’t quite agree with it.)

Look at it. Just look at it. Not a single person of color or minority – and this show takes place in New York, so no one will deal with the pressures of casual racism. Not one of them is gay, so they’ll never deal with the issue of coming out (or “passing”). Hell, not one of them is geeky or fat or even different in anyway, which are all real issues twenty-somethings deal with. This photo alone showcases such a strange and narrow vision of expectations, and the show, from what I’ve heard, only confirms it. Please don’t get me wrong. Denham has no responsibility to “speak” for those outside her singular vision (although this is a serious problem with auteur theory that critics fail to address – more on this later). But everything that is endemic about TV today is encapsulated right there.

We’re not in a Golden Age of Television. We’re in a Gilded Age of Television, an era that professes a greatness that masks the numerous issues that are facing the TV landscape. There is great television out there – from Mad Men and Breaking Bad, to Community and Happy Endings, to even shows like My Little Pony and Adventure Time and Regular Show. It’s stuff I truly enjoy watching, but even with this sample we can see how the “macronarratives” lean towards the heterosexual, WASP vision of the world.  (Yes, even MLP – Take a look at the comments section on Youtube for any showing of the episode “Over a Barrel.” And I know that a Youtube comment section is the seventh level of hell, but I still recommend looking because it did foster a debate worth having.)

The issue, as I see it, has always been concerning auteur theory, an ideal but extremely flawed method of thinking about collaborative forms of art that ties distinctive styles and techniques to a singular person. In the broadest form, it’s a fine way of thinking about film or TV, but over the years the inherent flaws of auteur theory – the danger of discounting those “other people” who worked on the film; the limits of tying inherently “free” techniques to one (often straight, male, white, and American) person; disparaging different forms, styles, ideas, and media as having intellectual merit over others – completely fell by the wayside. Critics were careful to note these problems at the beginning of auteur theory formulation; now, it’s as if these dangers were mere trifles. There are those creators that are defined “great” and those that aren’t, and it’s odd that those “great” people are mostly, well, similar to their physical and sexual traits, defined within intellectual paradigms.

Nothing represents that most distinctly then Roger Ebert’s takedown (and subsequent non-apology) of video games as art. It’s not that I agree or disagree with him, but it’s sad, borderline embarrassing, how Ebert frames his argument, then follows all that up with some arbitrary poll when his readers can vote whether they would rather play a game or read Huckleberry Finn. As if this whole thing amuses him, the masses of people with their over-the-top and implied-uneducated-and-therefore-unworthy opinions, because of course he’d never actual, maybe, sort of, kind of, think about the issue a little. This is the modern form of criticism. It’s no longer informative, debatable, self-aware, and cautious; it’s direct, declarative, non-ironic, and bold.

And even in regards to Murray’s misappropriated essay from above, after the general disappointment and backlash against it late in the comments section, you would think there would be some sort of re-thinking of the approach the issue of “micronarrative” representation over at the AVClub and in criticism in general. But in a recent Girls review, head editor Todd VanDerWerff posts the following comment in response to the continuing Girls backslash:

“People seem completely unwilling to extend this show even an inch of intellectual/critical charity, as if every minor deviation from their own reality on the part of the show’s reality is somehow a huge failure. It’s just fucking wearying.”

Which threw that idea out the window. (Which goes doubly so for this screed on a recent Girls review, at least the second half of it.)

I know Todd and met him a few times in New York and in Los Angeles. He is a very nice person and definitely has a solid head on his shoulders. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to come off glib or dismissive, but hearing “it’s just fucking wearying” is irritating. As if we’re supposed to, once again, follow that auteur theory road that Dunham is a part of, and play their game of television art and be satisfied, because those who don’t or refuse to or even have legit reasons for their dislike is “wearying”. Poor Todd and critics like him, forced to think maybe other people have a point.

This, I believe, is the inherent reason to the internet’s backlash to people like Ebert or to shows like Girls or to places like Cartoon Brew. They simply do not, or in many cases will not, acknowledge the flaws in their criticisms or attempt to explore, legitimately, the criticisms of other places. They will not participate in those debates in any meaningful fashion; not to say they need to at every single occasion, but it’s that they don’t even bother. I have my issues with people like Jim Sterling at Destructoid or Penny Arcade’s Tycho Brahe (aka Jerry Holkins) or Kevin Smith, but their willingness to mix it up with the average person and willingness to explore ideas garners more points from me (and most of the internet) than most critics these days.

If more critics fall to honestly explore the problems with modern television (well, in entertainment across the board), then this Gilded Age will only grow worse, these opinions will become “rules,” and criticism will no longer be the critical thinking/exploration method like the days of old, but the biased preference of “universal” rigidity of today – which is really, really male, straight, and white.

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