June 4, 2009
Based on some very approximate and lazy calculations which don’t account for holidays, reruns, the US Open, or episode length compression caused by time shifting through commercials, so far this this year, I’ve watched 102 hours of the daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless, which if you’re as slow at math as I am adds up to over two full weeks of constant television viewing, and, let me tell you, I would not trade all of this for anything in the world except maybe having a life or whatever, but seriously, it is the best televisual experience I know and it gets better every day and if in some ridiculous hypothetical situation someone (zombie Adorno?) was holding a gun to my head and told me that I could only watch one TV show for the rest of my life, I have no doubt that I would immediately choose The Young and the Restless as that show, would not even hesitate, that’s how much I enjoy it, and what you have to understand is that the The Young and the Restless is not good, okay, I mean, I’m not an idiot, I can recognize that, I do recognize it, every day as I watch, I am hit in the face with how not good it is and I yell at the screen about how not good it is, what stupid thing is happening now and what stupid character is saying what stupid saying and there are so many stupid things, like just for example on today’s episode, this character who during the last couple of months committed a string of bank robberies wearing a giant silver chipmunk mask because being abused as a child had left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which caused him, when triggered by certain gestures, to return to a childlike state and succumb to the whims of an evil con man who pretend to be his father, this character was really depressed about people writing all these negative things about him on Internet forums and so, in order to try to “change his image,” he called in to a sports radio talk show hosted by baseball legend Tommy Lasorda (in a bizarre cameo) and vented about his “feelings,” all of this happening over the course of several poorly blocked segments involving the character talking into a prop cell phone and the disembodied voice of Mr. Lasorda very, very slowly helping him “deal with his issues” and the character eventually “coming to his senses” in the last segment just in time for Tommy to plug his Tommy Lasorda Chianti Classico and I mean, like, HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH YET?! but still, I watched it and I enjoyed it, genuinely, because the thing is that The Young and the Restless could be much, much worse than it is and I would still enjoy it because at this point, I’ve watched so much of it and am so invested in the characters and stories that even if tommorow all the characters started wearing hot pink singlets and floppy straw hats and speaking exclusively in Pig Latin, I would probably continue to watch, and this is the crazy, addictive power of the serial narrative, it’s kind of like when you hear about people getting a DVD box set of Lost or The Wire and putting in the first disc and then losing all sense of time and space, surrendering to the glow of the screen, and after hours or day have gone by without sleeping or exercise or productive living, they emerge unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed from the darkness, yawning and rubbing their eyes, and like, part of that is because Lost and The Wire are really good shows, but it also has to do with the formal qualities of the medium, the immersion that these “big shows” create, how all of these doses of narrative and character development are doled out from episode to episode in order to connect us to the characters and make us care what will happen in the story (and this serial addiction is not some evil invention of network executives in a boardroom somewhere, of course, but part of an artistic lineage that includes Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov and Dickens and etc.) and all of this is the reason why it’s so smart of NBC to air I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here four nights a week, four nights in a row, because even if the show is not particularly interesting or good (the idiotic hosts make me yearn for Jeff Probst, which is, you know, disturbing) and even though the celebrities are not really “celebrities,” if the producers can manage through all this extratextual drama about Heidi and Spencer (and Daniel Baldwin?) to keep their audience hooked through the first week and keep the show in the gossip news cycle, which they seem to be doing pretty well, they may be able to lock their viewers in for the duration of the show regardless of the its quality simply because watching it will become part of the audience’s daily routine, a summer idyll, and because of this routine watching, the alternate reality of the show will become a familiar, if not pleasant, place to return to again and again, just like Terra (snob allusion) or Middle Earth (loser allusion), and then all of a sudden all of these regular, sane Americans will find themselves waiting to check in on Lou Diamond Phillips or wondering if Janice Dickinson got a good night’s sleep, all of us just serial killed by the power of the form, sort of like how if you’re reading my writing for the first time right now, you might think that this is rambling and weird and not very good (and you would be in some sense right!), but if you’d read the posts I’ve done the last two days in the same style, you would be more ready to accept this big post I’m writing now because at this point you would have devoted enough time to be involved in my character and interested what my character has to tell you, which, you know, hopefully you are.
(Tangent: The biggest drama on Y & R recently has actually been off screen, something I read on Perez Hilton, which is that apparently the actor Chris Engen, who played the evil long-lost son of one of the show’s patriarchs, recently walked off set and broke his contract because he didn’t want his character to become gay, and while obviously if he was actually leaving the show because he didn’t want to “kiss a dude,” bro, it would be ridiculous, the truth is that the character he was playing was absolutely absurd even by soap opera standards — his motivations and plots seemed to change almost daily for no apparent reason and his antics were more madcap and ridiculous than in a Marlowe play or episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle (this is a character who was injecting Botox into his eyes so that he could pretend to be blind!). It could also be true that it was homophobia in some sense, that he didn’t want his character to become gay because he’s not gay and, in an inversion of the serial narrative thing I was talking about above, I think soap opera actors tend to be weirdly connected with their characters simply by virtue of how long they play them — for example, the central character of Katherine Chancellor on Y & R has been played by the same actress for 36 years — like, in the theater the equivalent of this would be playing Lady Macbeth five nights a week for your entire life, which I think would kind of fuck with anyone’s head.)
After I watched The Young and The Restless yesterday, I walked the dog, and as I walked the dog, I listened to the Slate Culture Gabfest Podcast because seemingly I can do no activity without taking in some form of media, because I am a person who is sick, because I always need to be entertained, and so on this week’s podcast, the three regular hosts along with their guest Troy Patterson were talking about the premiere of Jon and Kate Plus 8, which, you know, little late, guys, but anyway, I was really disappointed because as you can hear in the clip above, Slate’s deputy editor Julia Turner completely trashed the intertextuality and Kmart Target realism of JAK+8 and that was disappointing to me personally because I’ve been listening to that podcast for like a year now probably and because of that time investment, I feel “familiar” with the hosts similarly to how I feel familiar with characters on The Young and the Restless, I am “invested” in and “committed” to them, and Julia Turner is my favorite host since she’s the one most likely to defend manifestations of contemporary pop culture as opposed to cohost Stephen Metcalf, who repeatedly quotes William James on his Twitter (!) and uses words like “Götterdämmerung” in casual conversation, and film critic Dana Stevens, who during a recent discussion of Eminem said, “I really at this point mainly listen to, like, Baroque music,” but anyway, I completely disagree with Julia Turner about JAK+8 because the thing is, it was a popular and successful and well-liked show before the tabloid rumors, but, because of the intertextuality and minimalism of this season, it’s only become better both in terms of art and commerce. This is why I think so:
Let me describe serial narratives like The Wire or Big Love, which, in the cliched comparison we hear over and over again are like “novels on TV,” let me describe them as being vertical shows, which is to say that their meaning comes entirely from their source, the piling on of episode after episode by the show’s creators to create this massive, towering narrative emanating from a single point. These author-driven shows are hermetically sealed — they may offer “an insightful commentary on contemporary society” but their narratives don’t actually interact with the real wold in any way and any integration that their marketing departments try to create with the world is tangential and insignificant (character blogs and et cetera). On the other hand, shows like The Hills or this season of Jon and Kate Plus 8 are what I would call horizontal shows (am I stealing this shit from The World Is Flat or something?), which is to say that instead of relying on the main text of the show to create their meaning, they depend on connections between all the different media in order to exist, and the main text of the show is just one manifestation of its aura. This is a model that I (and others) would argue was created by the third season of The Hills, when, in the summer before the show, tabloid rumors spread about the release of a Lauren Conrad sex tape, building anticipation for the season premiere. When the season premiere aired (to a huge audience), Heidi and Lauren had this big, screaming fight about the sex tape without ever actually explicitly mentioning it, just Lauren screaming, over and over,”You know what you did,” at Heidi, but never actually saying what that thing she did was. All of this was what catapulted The Hills from being a relatively popular MTV show into this huge zeitgeist phenomenon and now the same thing has happened here to drive Jon and Kate Plus 8 to TLC’s highest ever ratings– these extratextual tabloid rumors fueling intense public interest in a main text which refuses to directly acknowledge those rumors.
While I have no problem with vertical shows (The Wire and Big Love are both excellent, classic television), I think that the horizontal show is a better form for now, a more contemporary television experience. This is because, first of all, in our fragmented media environment, horizontal shows are a rare example of a symbiotic relationship between different forms of media, the television shows whose stars reveal new things in the tabloids or on the gossip websites which sells the tabloids or drives clicks to the gossip websites which thus provide free advertising for the television shows, which gives people a reason to buy the tabloids and click on the gossip websites and so on and et cetera, all of this making money (?) and creating content for everybody. Artistically, though, I also think they’re more interesting. For all the talk of how “smart” and “deep” it is, a show like The Wire doesn’t really require you, the audience member, to actually think at all — you just, to quote Homer Simpson, “strap yourself in and feel the G’s,” submit yourself to David Simon’s vision and allow him to give you your carefully timed injections of narrative and character and excitement. Horizontal shows, on the other hand, require thought and interpretation and research to watch and understand and even just to follow, because, the thing is, the shows are never giving you the whole truth or the whole meaning, if that truth or meaning even exists, they’re constantly requiring you to interpret and make connections to try to get at this truth, and in doing so, they create this huge audience experience that doesn’t have to be contained within the hour that the show is on every week or the television that you watch it on, that is spread through the culture and the internet and is generated by press outlets and bloggers and Twitterers as well as the show’s producers, that is constantly changing and developing hour by hour and requiring your attention and thought, that instead of allowing you to forget about the characters until you tune in next week is always pinging your headspace (and your email, and your favorite blog) with micro plot developments and extra details and feints and falsehoods that you have to keep in your mind to judge against what you’ve seen on TV, assaulting your consciousness with its presence, and, like, I think Shakespeare has some quote about “infinite jest” or something like that but right now I really have to go check Harvey Levin’s Twitter feed to see if Spencer called him again from Costa Rica and I’m just so tired.