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Idiot boxing

Blogging about popular television on is, admittedly, a dicey business. When compared to most Americans, PBS viewers are a discriminating bunch. Shows like “Nova,” “Frontline andNeed to Know” are, for many, TV shows for non-TV watchers. The vast majority of cable households that watch PBS don’t watch Bravo, Discovery, A&E or CNN during primetime. PBS is a peculiar place where highbrow content is transmitted through the most infamously lowbrow of media — the idiot box. Public broadcasting is, for many of its viewers, the lone nutritive morsel in a buffet of junk food.  HBO’s tagline would perhaps be better applied to public broadcasting:  It’s not TV, it’s PBS.

BroadcastinatingPBS is a Snooki-free zone, a place where we eschew the swish transition, the jump-cut, the appearance of frivolity. Even our roadshows are about antiques!  It’s indeed a rare oasis, where serious people can detach themselves from the hyperactive shitstorm of barking punditry and lowest-common denominator commercialism which inhabits the other 1,217 channels on their dial.  That’s why I’m a fan of what PBS is, and it’s probably why you are too. Unfortunately, it’s also why I’m getting nervous.

Creating a blog here about mainstream TV may prove to be a treacherous experiment, and I’m bracing for an assault from outraged viewers (frequently self-identified as “donors” when sufficiently miffed). Let’s face it: Popular culture critiques have a nasty tendency to lapse into a swirling toxic cycle of nonsense breeding nonsense, at the end of which we’re left scratching our heads, trying to remind ourselves why we ever cared about the Kardashians in the first place.

I’m sympathetic to that view, but I think television is more than that too. Of course, TV is a mirror of who we are, but it also reflects our nation’s wishes and needs.  It reflects who we want to be, and what we’re afraid to become.  We need to take it seriously, because it’s the one piece of furniture we have that talks back to us.  Lamentable or not, television’s ubiquity may make it the single most influential mode of human expression in the modern era. While we can (and should) take issues with its content and agenda, it’s undeniable that our televisions are educating us.

Although I’m more than a little tempted to darken the pixels on your monitor with a defense of the television medium (and by extension, this blog), I won’t. I won’t cite Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good For You,” as required reading for the appreciation of this space.  I also won’t spend any time trying to convince you that “lowbrow” and “highbrow” are meaningless signifiers, or shaming you with charges of fogeyism or sticklerishness. Most of all, I won’t insult you with arguments about the merits of “guilty pleasures.” From here on out, I’ll say only that I love television and my columns will never ever ever be even slightly defensive.

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  • Colin

    There’s so many types of TV blogs from recapping, to parody, to critique.

    The Stranger in Seattle had a really great short column on loving lowbrow TV called “I <3 Television" (don't know if it still runs) that could be fun. Also a lot of really great TV flies under the radar, with the recent cancellation of Party Down being a great example. There's stuff to write about but I'm still kinda clueless on what you'll be covering from this introduction.

  • Andrew Siff

    I don’t watch much television, and reading this, after watching the poorly named ‘Need to Know” this evening, is ample evidence that ‘nutritive morsel’ must be some kind of code for self pleasure of an intellectual nature.

  • Mary Flanagan Taylor

    Good stuff. I think I found my people; at least one of them, anyway.
    I write along the same lines. If I may, I’ll plug my own blog
    If you see anything of quality I could use the traffic! Thanks for posting. I’ll share this!

  • synedoche

    tv is utter garbage, everything pushes the consumer agenda

    pbs is the only tv you need, watch and you might actually learn something and be more informed – amazing concept

  • Catcon

    I love TV. I’ll admit it. Sometimes I need that mindless, hynoptic drone to lull me into a good night’s sleep. If I’ve had a particularly difficult day, I can have a pretty good laugh watching a silly sitcom. Granted, there is a LOT of crap in popular TV, but there are a few hidden gems here and there–hope you’ll dig them up for us so we don’t have to sift through it all. But PBS is still tops on my list!

  • Jerome Potts

    Yeah, and C-SPAN. And the local Public Access channels. And the local education channels (one of’em broadcasts the Classic Arts Showcase once a week).

    Bravo was top during the nineties, then at the turn of the decade it turned trashy. The only thing i watch on there is House re-runs on Saturday evenings (or is it on Sundays ?).
    As Catcon said, there’s some good stuff scattered elsewhere : i enjoyed the Raising The Bar series, kinda-sortof NCIS, the same for In Plain Sight ; True Blood on HBO (and i’d previously hated everything with vampires !), Big Love on HBO (close, but not quite) ; some excellent occasional documentaries on HBO BTW. Rescue Me, on FX (Callie Thorne is incredible, check out episode 17 of season 5, and Denis Leary is fun) ; Select Futurama episodes on TBS ; same for Family Guy ; some Robot Chicken on Adult Swim at night on the Cartoon Network (in these last two, you have to put up with a lot to get the hilarious moments, but they’re there).
    I gave up on Burn Notice (USA), and on Justified (FX), and on Damages (FX). Did i say that i HATE Breaking Bad, and Mad Men ? (both on AMC, and both annoyingly immoral)

    Ahem, i’ve fallen behind on my reading. Badly so.

    Back to PBS, i like Frontline on social issues, but not so much on political ones, and on foreign policy. That’s when they’re trying to cram an opinion down my throat, à la 60 Minutes.

    I never got to express my gratitude to Bill Moyers, and my condolences to the NOW team ; let me do so here. The very last day it occurred to me that they’ve been showing all this time when everyone is off to the weekly Happy Hour ; rats, i wish i’d pointed that out years ago ! (May that be a hint to you.)

    Blog all you want about commercial TV, as long as you do it the PBS way. I leave it to you to figure this one out.
    Thanks, and best wishes.

  • Jerome Potts

    Following the “TV” tag you’ve applied to this article, we see that y’all have covered TV some already :
    in addition to

    I’m not sure about the need to know, come to think of it.