“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it. Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television.Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society.” – Newton Minow, FCC Chairman, May 9,1961
In the days and weeks following the series finale of Breaking Bad, every writer with a keyboard and an internet connection weighed in on the brilliance of the writers and producers of the show. A few, however, took another tack, proudly announcing that they had never seen it, never would see it, and that those who had were simply seduced by all of the hype. By writing pieces like that, they had a huge influx of readers who either agreed with them, adding that they’d never watched Game of Thrones, The Sopranos or anything that hadn’t been written by Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, or argued that the writers didn’t know what they’d been missing. I fall into the second category, because not only do I think they’ve missed out on some great programming but because it’s a new form of snobbery and elitism, based on predetermined notions.
Minow was right, to a certain degree. Television, when it’s trying it’s hardest, produces the type of programming that rivals, if not bests, anything we read or see on Broadway. And when it’s bad, it’s just garbage. The exponential growth in networks since Minow’s speech has done nothing to change that. There are as many channels that air really terrible television shows and, if you took his advice, and watched only one of those channels for an entire day, you just might need rehab. The good side of that coin is that now that we have more choices, we’re able to see television at it’s finest. There are programs that fill the need for education and inspire social commentary. You need look no farther than HBO for bringing viewers things like the recent docudrama “The Normal Heart” to see just how far a network is willing to go to engage viewers in social issues.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, because other networks have provided viewers with scripted drams and comedies that also address the world we live in, and, in doing so, get people talking. In recent years, aside from Breaking Bad, we’ve enjoyed The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Scandal and so much more. This is water cooler television – the types of shows which have people gathering around at work or on social media to discuss every last detail of what they saw the night before. Sometimes, the discussions can get rather heated, with viewers debating whether there is too much violence on today’s television shows. My answer to that is that the world is violent today and much of what we see is a reflection on how society behaves in general. There is one thing that these shows do that society can’t is provide a lesson in morality, where the anti-hero gets his just desserts. In real life, the bad guys don’t always reap what they sow.
If viewers, and even non-viewers, are willing to look past the violence, they’ll find that there’s more to the stories on television than just a bunch of hooligans wreaking havoc on the world. These shows are, above all of that, studies of human nature and statements on the human condition. Protagonists and antagonists alike deal with the fallout and consequences of their acts. Families suffer or are rewarded for the behaviors of the main characters of these shows. This, just like a good book, is what keeps us coming back week after week. Without these back stories, and the promise of redemption or punishment, the only thing left would be cartoonish figures making big messes. That takes skill and intelligence and the ability to take a story from beginning to end, just like an author would. If the writers do it right, we want to see how it all plays out, while wishing it would it never end – just like we do as we approach those last few chapters of a really good book.
While those of us who write anything about reality TV grouse about how certain networks treat us like imbeciles, we always have the choice of turning the channel. We can find a lot to talk about by doing just that. In fact, it’s a reward of sorts to save an episode of True Detective or Fargo as a way of turning down the noise of reality TV. We can talk forever about why the Housewives come back, year after year, knowing full well that they’re going to be edited to look like raving lunatics – something most of them can accomplish on their own. To balance that out, though, we can always debate whether Shae really loved Tyrion, whether Olivia Pope can put her white hat back on and save the world, or whether Jax Teller will finally do the right thing for his sons and walk away from his Corleone-like family. But before you turn you nose up at any of them, give them a chance. Ignore the critics and the naysayers. Television can be very good – vast, but not always a wasteland.