Capitalism and the Chicken Little Perspective of Pop Culture

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I recently read a blog post where an older man wrote about how he doesn’t seem to find today’s comedy movies and television shows funny.  He referred to an NPR piece postulating that mid-century comedy was more intellectual, whereas current comedy seems to stick more to slapstick.

I won’t link to the man’s post or reblog it.  I was working on a comment on my phone, but it was coming across too harsh and I don’t want to directly attack this guy just because I don’t agree with his opinion.

I have a real problem with this way of thinking.  Journalists, bloggers, storytellers, and many other groups seem to enjoy using vague generalizations to paint a picture that everything used to be so much better before the relentless march of time drove any given facet of civilization or culture straight downward into the sewer.  Depending on the source, you can sub out “relentless march of time” with “kids these days,” because people inclined to use that term seem to love this worldview.

Today, I’m going to use a unique blend of Capitalism and Pop Culture observation to explain why I will never agree with these folks.

Part 1:  The Rise of Television Real Estate in America

The television landscape has changed over the past several decades.  Dramatically.  When TV sets first became a mainstay in American homes, there were only three channels.  Advertisers didn’t have to guess which of the three given programs airing at any particular time slot was the best.  They were guaranteed an enormous amount of eyeballs, even on the lowest performing shows.  A selective viewing of TV series from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s will show that while there were some quality programs on the air, there were also some turd sandwiches as well.

The conceit of this argument is that because television real estate was so scarce, it had higher value, but I argue that comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges (that is, programs of the same genre and depth across time) would show that this argument doesn’t hold water.  There were crappy network shows back then.  There are crappy network shows now.  There are great network shows now.  There were great network shows back then.  People arguing otherwise tend to compare the great classics of the era with the disposable garbage of the modern day as most of the best stuff currently on the air flies right over their head.  We know that Real Housewives of Atlanta is not as good as The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Find your remote and change the channel rather than using one bad show as your reason for writing off everything else on air right now.

Part 2:  Enormous Growth in Viewer Options

Efforts by major networks to establish high-production value shows with maximum pop culture impact further supports my position that when competition for viewers is high, content quality must also be high.  If the shows on the networks aren’t up to snuff, consumers now have a gazillion other options on cable, premium channels, free and paid on-demand features, Netflix, Hulu, and even home video (which wasn’t around during those days when TV was “so much better”).

Targeted marketing through cable programming sells for a higher cost per thousand impressions (CPM), allowing grand cinematic visions to hit the small screen in the form of shows like The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and actually just about anything currently on primetime AMC.

Purely by the numbers, I would argue that there are more excellent shows on air or available to viewers right now than there were in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s combined.  (And no, I’m not counting the fact that any teenager with an internet connection can now pull up an episode of Gilligan’s Island if he or she is so inclined when I say “available to viewers right now.”)

The converse of this, of course, is that there are many, many, many more horrible, vacuous, pooptastic shows on air right now as well.  And they manage to find an audience unfortunately, ensuring that we will continue to know about any and every little thing that a Kardashian ever does ever until we locate the people watching that show and cut off their cable.  (That’s a homework assignment, Society.)

Part 3:  The Search for the Lowest Common Denominator

I’ve done my best to acknowledge the counterargument to each point I’ve made so far, and this point especially will tip my hat to those who believe that television has seen better days.

Desperate major networks have adopted a popular Hollywood method of marketing:  find the lowest common denominator – that one thing that won’t put off any single viewer – and get as close to that topic, tone, theme, etc. as possible.

It’s the reason why paint-by-numbers crime procedural NCIS is the top rated show every year.  There’s nothing wrong with that show.  It isn’t awful.  It just doesn’t have any flavor.  It doesn’t go anywhere risky or do anything that might make you think.  It doesn’t surprise you in any way that might make you uncomfortable.  It is a safe, mind-numbing viewing experience;  the culmination of the perfect execution of this particular programming formula.

Same goes with the strangely popular Two and a Half Men (prior to Charlie Sheen’s departure).  Nielsen keeps telling us that millions and millions of people are watching each week, but it seems like nobody is talking about it.  It doesn’t generate buzz or spur conversation.  It isn’t a cultural phenomenon that will be remembered through the ages.  It’s just some stuff happening on a TV screen that millions of somebodies somewhere out there like to space out in front of.

Though by necessity this approach must have been the goal of the networks in the early days of television (with three stations micro marketing would have been suicidal), there was still an experimental aspect to shows back then.  With so many unknowns on a new frontier, strangeness managed to find its way into American family rooms because the suits hadn’t yet perfected their  formula for hollow success.

Part 4:  Comedy’s Evolution

The statement that comedy used to be more intellectual is a bit ridiculous to me.  To argue that humor used to reference elements of history, science, or pop culture; that a degree of knowledge used to be required to “get the joke” is totally wrong in its conjugation.  Change that past-tense to present tense, because it never stopped being true.

Turn on Family Guy for God’s sake.  They reference anything and everything and all the freaking time.  I once saw that show reference a Crest Toothpaste commercial from like the early 80’s.

These days even slapstick, screwball, and physical humor are used to wink at the viewers who have been paying attention.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the elaborate joke constructions, episode-spanning set ups and rapid fire third act pay offs of Modern Family.  Seriously, watch the recent episode titled, Las Vegas, and marvel at all of the complicated things that they pulled off in just 21 minutes of screen time.

If you’ve got even more time to kill, watch all four seasons of Arrested Development.  If that show wasn’t cancelled for being so far ahead of its time, some of its jokes would have made our heads explode a thousand times over by now.  Had those writers chosen different paths in life, their knack for off-the-wall concepts and flawless execution would have made them prime candidates to form an Ocean’s Eleven-like crime ring.

After you finish Arrested Development, check out How I Met Your Mother.  It’s an entire series structured as flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks telling one long elaborate tale that is just a prologue to the pivotal moment when a hopeless romantic meets the love of his life.  And it’s one of those shows that appeals to people who enjoy a good boob joke.

Actually, all four of those shows have goofy physical humor and crude sex laughs, but it doesn’t take a genius to appreciate the complexity of what those writers are trying to accomplish in the big picture.  Sure, there’s a lot of junk shows whoring their one dimensional characters out for easy laughs.  But there are also a ton of really ambitious, weird shows that make you appreciate the hand of the storytellers in weaving such an unconventional, detailed narrative.

Remember the moment in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when you realized that Harry stabbing the talking diary with the snake tooth in the weakest book in the series was actually an enormous part of the overall conflict that all seven books build to?  Even network sitcoms are doing stuff like that these days, so you should check out those four shows and try really watching them.

Part 5:  Conclusion

The irony of writing a long post that speaks in broad generalizations to uphold my criticism of people that write long diatribes speaking in broad generalizations to uphold opinions that I don’t agree with is not at all lost on me.  This was a natural, human reaction.  I was frustrated and I won’t pretend that I’m not a hypocrite for responding in this way.

That being said, I don’t truly believe that television back then pales in comparison to television today.  They were different times.  Society had different expectations of their pop culture, different values, a different sense of propriety when it comes to questioning any given widely held belief of the time.  It doesn’t mean that their stories have lost value over the years, even the ones featuring now irrelevant plots and conflicts.  I grew up watching Nick at Nite – I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, The Munsters, Happy Days, The Wonder Years.  I will always love these shows, but they do NOT represent some superior time period that we will never again live up to as creative people.

My problem is this:  When people state that art, society, civilization, pop culture, and everything else  has gotten unequivocally worse over the years, they write off a treasure trove of what the world today has to offer.  Quit lusting for the past so much and you just might find that the present is pretty awesome too.

I just might write up my similar take on movies someday to go along with this post, but it will probably only happen if someone gets me riled up on the topic again.

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18 thoughts on “Capitalism and the Chicken Little Perspective of Pop Culture

  1. underwaterraven

    This was a great post and I half agree with you (although to be honest I’ve never given the topic much thought, so I only “half agree” because I don’t know whether I fully disagree or agree.) I think in the past people thought comedy shows (including stage revues and radio shows) were “funnier” because they were groundbreaking.
    I don’t know anything about the history of American comedy so I’m just going to reference British comedy…in the 50s and 60s in Britain comedy was “revolutionised” by the radio show The Goon Show, the stage revue Beyond the Fringe and the TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. People loved those because their premise had never been done before, but I think these days there’s very little “new” stuff in comedy, so nothing’s as amazing or attention-grabbing. People then say that stuff these days isn’t as funny, but I think it’s just down to the fact that it’s been done before – there’s no new groundbreaking comedy format. I have to admit personally that I prefer the older stuff, but there’s some cracking comedy these days too (Modern Family and Michael McIntyre to name two)
    I agree with you in that I don’t think anyone’s justified in saying things are worse off these days. People should move with the times, you know? 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment! PinnickDerek pointed out that you need to branch out and find some of the awesome modern treasures that are just a few clicks away these days (he mentioned “Community” specifically).

      I can appreciate your love for the old stuff (but only because you referenced Monty Python – which is like 90% of what American’s understand British pop culture to be).

      However, I can’t accept the “It’s all been done before” mentality. It’s disrespectful to writers. Yeah we’ve been telling fart jokes since the advent of homo sapien communication, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t come up with new and creative ways of finding humor in our flatulence.

      It’s just the most frustrating to me when writers jump on this bandwagon. The post I was referring to was dancing with declaring the death of originality. Why would a writer, or anyone with a creative bone in their body ever succumb to such a negative outlook on art? How could you possibly sit down and try to tell a story if you firmly believed that it had already been told a hundred times before? It’s just the intellectual equivalent of kicking yourself in the nuts.

  2. Great post, I totally agree. Underwatterraven, you gotta branch out! It’s good to know where things come from, but there are LOTS of new things going on. In addition to some listed in the article, I’d suggest Community as a show that’s doing a lot of interesting things with sitcom format and television humor in general.

    • Community is sheer insanity. I watched the first two seasons before falling out of the habit of enjoying it each week. Donald Glover (Troy) sucked me in. He got his start in random viral YouTube videos (Google “Bro Rape” – you won’t be sorry) that I freaking loved in high school.

      I’ve been meaning to get back into the series. It’s on Netflix now. The show is a true freak of nature. I don’t see anything else like it on TV right now.

      Thanks for the awesome comment!

  3. Another amazing article. Thanks for the suggestions of shows (looking to check into Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother)

    Nice piece here.

    That movie recap wouldn’t be a bad move, either. (I think)

    “……Today’s movies are not like they were in the 80’s……” says the dude in the corner, over there —->.

    Hahaha.

    • Thanks! Both of those series are now over and done with, so it isn’t an indefinite commitment to check them out. Arrested Development was cancelled after 2 and a half completely insane seasons but was picked up like 10 years later by Netflix for an even more convoluted final season.

      How I Met Your Mother just ended recently. It can be a little low-brow with its humor, but the plot construction is extremely, extremely impressive.

      I really should have written the movie recap first. The particular post that set me off to begin with was referring to Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler movies (as if those two actors could act as a stand in for all modern comedy films). I hadn’t even graduated high school before I noticed Hollywood’s relentless type-casting of comedic actors. “Anchorman”‘s success was followed up by “Anchorman 2: NASCAR Edition” and “Anchorman 3: Minor League Basketball Edition.” Anytime an actor/actress does something right in a movie, the studio execs insist on repeating the performance verbatim, thinking that a change of scenery will suffice to make it a distinct film.

      • Haha, you truly have this down to a science. I enjoyed reading your television review, so the movie bit will be just as tight.

        Heyyyyy, come on now, you know the ol’ saying, ‘not broken? Don’t touch it’. Haha

  4. What a lot of people don’t realize is that “the good old days” didn’t necessarily happen. I think a lot of people’s opinions that television used to be better are influenced by layers and layers of nostalgia. Great post!

    • Thanks! I agree with that whole heartedly. HUB TV way the heck up there on cable began airing 90’s Nickelodeon TV shows past midnight each night. Though I couldn’t stay up that late to watch (due to the 9-5 life), I very enthusiastically DVRed the entire two-hour block each night. When I actually re-watched it, I found that “Dude Ranch” had less production value than the average community college student film. It’s crazy how memories can be so much rosier than reality.

  5. Oh Wow! What an excellent, meaty post. And I have to agree with you. That old man (I can say old man because he’s probably my age) probably pays $200 for cable and thinks YouTube is just a bunch of silly cat videos. He does not know what he’s talking about. How do I know this? Because I don’t know what I’m talking about! That much I know. In other words, most of us over a certain age haven’t even broken the surface of watching the great new stuff that’s out there today. I think TV is a 1000 times better and more creative than it ever was in the 3-channel era. And the old sitcoms weren’t funny so much as they were pleasant. I think we are living in a golden age of program brilliance and creativity. That old man is just going to die not knowing what he missed. Where as at least I”m going to die knowing what I missed! LOL!

    • All this talk of dying…it’s not too late! Netflix is like $9/month. Buy an Apple TV for $100 and set aside a weekend. Ask friends, family, blog followers, pets, anybody for some TV show recommendations and then just park it on the couch and watch episode after episode all in a row. Trust me, this is important stuff. Call in sick from work if you have to, just find 20-100 hours to take advantage of the plethora of amazing entertainment options at your disposal today!

  6. I’m thinking that whoever made those remarks to which you refer still has rabbit ears on his set. I am lots older than you and have seen the oldies but goodies, but viewing options today have never been better. I no longer have to watch anything with a laugh track if I don’t want to. I can watch an entire season or more in one sitting if I want to. Regarding comedy, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, Modern Family, and I am sure others will the next comedy classics.

  7. I suppose a lot of this can be applied to music as well, but a lot of it is nostalgia indeed. Case in point: when I saw “Vampire’s Kiss,” a Nick Cage vehicle, I thought it was brilliant. I also thought “Pulp Fiction” was great. Rewatching them, I can’t tolerate either one. Our brains are always evolving. One thing that is not arguable is the level of cuss words, sex, and drug references that are allowed. When I was young, “Married w/ Children” was edgy. Now anything on at 7pm on basic networks is going to talk about cocaine and blow jobs without blinking an eye. And I don’t think that’s healthy for kids to have to figure out what that crap is and jack their childhoods up. Then you wind up w/ everyone scared and homeschooling bc it’s a dark world out there.

    The one thing I did enjoy “back then” (70s and 80s) was getting on the school bus the next day and knowing almost everyone watched the same thing last night. When Michael Jackson moonwalked, we all saw it. No one was watching TBS that night. When a new MTV video was released or “Family Ties” had a very special episode about teen relations, we could all chitty chat about it the next day. Having so many channels (read choices) pleases the individual, but only serves to separate us from each other. I doubt many WordPressers are watching Adam Richman stuff his face on Man Vs. Food, like I am. And what a shame…

    • I definitely agree that something is being lost in terms of a universal pop culture experience with all of the consumer options today. Even a group watching the same show may be enjoying it at radically different paces (leading to spoilers that lie in wait like land mines for many viewers).

      I don’t want to unequivocally disagree with you regarding objectionable content on tv. The grittier, more profane, violent, or sexy shows tend to be my favorites and I believe that pushing boundaries is one of the prime objectives of artists.

      That being said, I don’t have kids, so I don’t have to deal with the extreme difficulty of sheltering them as they navigate today’s pop culture landscape.

      I see both sides, but I definitely have a strong bias in the opposite direction. I can’t help it. I love Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

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