Friday, August 24, 2007

One Step Closer to The Most Dangerous Game Reality Series

A few years ago, around the time the reality TV template shifted from "put a group of random assholes in a contrived location" (The Real Word, Survivor, Big Brother) to "put a group of random assholes in a contrived location and physically and psychologically torture them" (The Swan, The Biggest Loser) I half-jokingly predicted that it was only a matter of time before we saw a reality version of The Most Dangerous Game. Well, we haven't got there quite yet, but we are getting closer. That's right, Lord of the Flies: The Reality Show. We have already had reality versions of The Great Gatsby (Joe Millionaire), every Jane Austen novel (The Bachelorette) and Othello (The O.J. trial), so they will get to The Most Dangerous Game sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Stanley Fish Goes to Starbucks

In his piece in Slate yesterday, Ron Rosenbaum called attention to Stanley Fish's latest senile ramblings in the Times (here's the link, but you need to be a TimeSelect member). Rosenbaum does a pretty good job of eviscerating it, but I just felt the need to add a few thoughts of my own.

If this had simply been another case of an elderly, sheltered intellectual rambling, Grampa Simpson-style, about the confusions of the modern world, it would have made for good comedy. However, what takes it from comedy to ire-inducing insult are the last few paragraphs, in which Fish complains about having to pour his own cream and sugar: "And worst of all, what you're paying for is the privilege of doing the work that should be done by those who take your money."

This would be offensive enough if it were coming from any run-of-the-mill septuagenarian with a six-figure salary. But it has special resonance coming from Fish, who famously chaired the Duke English department during its heady rise to the forefront of Theory. Duke perfected gameplan of the Theory department: hiring highly-paid "star" professors, letting them do whatever the hell they want, and shifting the burden of dirty jobs like actually teaching to low-paid TAs. In other words, having the bourgeoisie espouse Marxism while exploiting the proletariat.

So, to summarize: Fish, public face for a group of academics who refuse to do the jobs they get paid to do, is complaining about Starbucks baristas making him stir his own sugar. Of course, if Fish ever bothered to teach an undergraduate class at whatever university is employing him this week, he would most likely recognize those baristas as his students, and realize that they are working at one of the most demanding service industry jobs available (you have to memorize a recipe book roughly the size of Paradise Lost-remember that book Stanley?-and be almost sickeningly chipper and energetic 8 hours a day) in order to keep from being buried in student loans for the rest of their adult lives. And where does that student loan money go? To Stanley Fish, who, instead of doing his job and teaching, is busy complaining about them in the pages of the New York Times.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Medium Inferiority Complex

I just finished watching the first season of The Wire and so far it has lived up to the great reviews. It is a smart reinvention of the well-worn police procedural infused with authenticity brought to it by creator David Simon's years as a Baltimore Sun reporter and his collaborator Ed Burns' experience as a Baltimore homicide detective.

I was throughly impressed with the show, but then I made the mistake of listening to Simon's commentary track on the DVD. The commentary is half great insight and half self-congratulatory pretension in which he talks, without irony, about "deconstructing the mythology of the police procedural" and congratulates himself on challenging the audience by making them pay attention to small details in order to understand the story. He uses the classic argument of the creator of the low-rated critically-acclaimed show that they are victims of the Pavlovian lowered expectations of the TV viewer.

Simon does not seem to be aware of other serial dramas such as Lost and their HBO mate The Sopranos, which have attracted large audiences while demanding that the viewers pay attention. Now that TiVo and DVD can allow us to watch TV the way we would read a book, picking it up whenever we want and not having to be home every week at a specific time, we finally can dedicate ourselves to more complicated stories.

But I digress. The point I am coming to here is that, in his self-praise, Simon compares the show to a novel, in order to separate it from "mere" TV, which must be wrapped up neatly in an hour. This goes to the heart of an idea that I have been kicking around since the finale of The Sopranos and which finally crystallized itself while watching The Simpsons Movie a few weeks ago.

During the run of The Sopranos, critics often praised it by comparing it novels and films, once again to save it from the epithetic designation "TV show". The problem is that, somewhere around the show's fourth season, David Chase began buying his own hype and set out to create something that would not just be a great TV show but would be the 21st-century version of the Great American Novel.

And that is the exact moment the show went off the rails. Why? Because The Sopranos cannot be a great American Novel anymore than The Great Gatsby can be a great work of Elizabethan theatre or Hamlet can be a great work of epic poetry. In other words, Chase was suffering Medium Inferiority Complex. Just like the novel and the theatre did before it, TV is still fighting the stigma of being a deliverer of mindless entertainment as opposed to true art. He wanted his work to be associated with more respectable forms, so he emulated them.

However, a work cannot be truly great unless it fully understands and embraces its medium. Elizabethan playwrights tried to emulate epic poetry, and we got Troilus and Cressida. Hamlet stands as the masterpiece of theatrical art because it can be nothing but theatre. It is both a philosophical examination of the nature of man and a bloody good revenge tragedy (which, of course, subverts the conventions of the revenge tragedy). The Great Gatsby works in a similar way. It can be nothing but a novel.

Which is why The Sopranos will go down as a great experiment, but not the masterpiece of the television medium. No, for now that title still belongs to The Simpsons. The Simpsons not only understands its medium, it seems to have digested the entire of history of television and the 20th-century pop culture to which it is inextricably linked. The Simpsons Movie solidified this impression. It is an enjoyable celebration for the fans, but would not be a great movie without the 18 years of history we have with these characters. That is because The Simpsons has embraced TV's greatest asset - the ability to create complex characters that we get to know like our own family - and taken it to new heights, making us care about a group of crude, yellow-skinned drawings. It succeeds as a TV show while subverting everything we know about TV shows.