PopCultCrit

Karl Marx visits Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

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The frightening thing about receiving the bound galleys of a large trade paperback called thirtysomething Stories, a selection of scripts from the show's four-year history, was not just the fact of its existence (frightening enough in itself) but the knowledge that it will almost certainly become source material—le texte, if you will—for somebody's doctoral thesis at one of America's great institutions of higher learning. Something like, "Hope and Michael: Diffrence and the Politics of Patriarchy," or "If Gary Did Not Exist, Would it Have Been Necessary to Invent Him?"

That a breed of "TeeVee Intellectuals," eggheads writing about television the way they once did about Melville, has flourished in the ivory tower over the last couple of decades should come as no surprise. Far less worthy subjects have come under academic scrutiny. What is surprising is when this stuff trickles down into the mainstream—the op-ed pages of newspapers and sandwiched between the Guess? jeans ads and lifestyle advice in glossy magazines. Popcult, and popcult criticism (popcultcrit?), was packaged and hyped like everything else in the '80s. Pantheon launched a line of books subtitled "A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture." Pantheon contributor/editor Mark Crispin Miller, a youngish and exceedingly clever Johns Hopkins professor, for a brief shining moment actually had a column in Esquire.

Mr. Crispin Miller and his West Coast counterpart, Todd Gitlin of Berkeley, are the de facto ringleaders of the TeeVee Intellectual crowd. They write op-ed pieces for the New York Times. They take turns editing the Pantheon guides. They cite each other in footnotes. Miller's book Boxed In (1988) is a collection of pieces written for The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, The Nation, and more purely scholarly publications like The Georgia Review. The best of these essays are his frame-by-frame analyses of TV commercials: ads for Jamaican tourism and deodorant soap. Miller was trained as a Renaissance poetry man, schooled in the art of the close reading. His argument, made in the foreword to Boxed In, is that the same techniques of close reading, frame-by-frame rather than line-by line, can and should be applied to that most pervasive popular art form, television. The ad men who make these pitches, after all, are intensely aware of the power of images and words. They know what they're doing. It is therefore legitimate, necessary, and at the very least interesting to subject their video-encoded messages to critical scrutiny.

Miller parses the imagery in a Jamaican tourism ad made at a time when the country was perceived as a savage land of anti-white resentment and dangerously stoned Rastafarians, noting its comforting shots of nonthreatening old black men and smiling peasant children. He observes the symbolic emasculation of a man hysterically fearful of showering without his Shield deodorant soap (the first shot is of the man, naked from the waist up, leaning out a window over a box of geraniums). Miller freeze frames with wicked intensity; you can feel his big brain absorbing every detail of the material and spitting out interpretations with crisp (his middle name was well-chosen) and caustic irony.

So damning was the Shield piece that it provoked a defensive response from the industry in the form of a column in Advertising Age titled "The Professor Prunes a Television Trifle." Miller's analyses at least engage the reality of what appears on our television screens in a given day. And he can write.

The same cannot be said of many of his comrades. In Watching Television, a collection of TV-intellectual ruminations edited by Todd Gitlin, Michael Sorkin writes: "At the simplest level, the form of my Tuesday evening's prime-time pleasure is structured by a dialectic of elision and rift among the various windows (scheduling, programming, 'news') through which images enter the broadcast and are combined as television."

Witness Monsieur Sorkin deconstructing Mr. T, "whose 'real' name has decomposed before his initial penetration of general consciousness."

Gee, and most of us thought he was just a big, scary guy with a mohawk.

Sorkin is the worst offender in the pretentious semiotician category. The blinkers through which most of the other writers in Watching Television see TV are political. Children of the '60s for the most part, they bring considerable ideological baggage to their "readings" of television. In Watching Television Ronald Reagan's name is mentioned on average every two-and-a-half pages—not favorably. 

Gitlin complains that television shows have adopted the visual techniques of the advertisements that support them. An evil trend, as he sees it. TV programs are, by this definition, equated with commercials; they are one and the same, all part of the general brainwashing of the viewer/consumer by corporate America. Miller elaborated on this theme in a long cover story for The Atlantic on product placement in the movies: John Candy offering Jim Belushi a Coke in "Who's Harry Crumb?" and other Göebbels-like manipulations of the American psyche.

This kind of paranoid throwback thinking naturally finds a haven in academe and in the pages of The Nation, where many of these writers can also be found. Nation contributor and occasional TeeVee Intellectual Pat Aufderheide attacks MTV for its sexist, reactionary tendencies as "the authentic expressions of a populist industrial society." The concept of irony, as vital a component to MTV as Madonna videos, is unknown to her.

True to their structuralist/deconstructionist pretensions, the TeeVee Intellectuals never stoop to qualitative judgments. Asserting that "The Simpsons" is actually better than "Who's the Boss?" would be beside the point, insufficiently cognizant of the big picture. Value judgments, to those who accuse TV of gross debasement of values, are apparently irrelevant.

What's interesting about all these writers is their generational bias. It could be argued that even though they grew up in the age of television, they are not really children of television, in the way that those of us twentysomething on down are. Baby Boomers grew up watching what the Big Three networks told them to watch. The concept of meaningful choice did not exist, much less the 50-channel zappability afforded by cable. Movies for all of them are unquestionably the higher art form.

Now, as someone who watches TV for a living and goes to an awful lot of movies for "pleasure," I can safely say that there is as much good television as there are good movies. Only because of the volume of production is there more bad television than movies. I can even accept the TeeVee Intellectuals' premise that such value-judgmental comparisons are irrelevant to a McLuhanesque analysis of the TV medium and its message. But television has developed a consciousness of itself that did not exist in the days of Ozzie and Harriet. David Letterman. "SCTV." MTV and its sister network, the TV-nostalgia archive "Nick at Nite." All of these are examples of television that winks at viewers, rather than brainwashing them.

Miller's Marxist cynicism would compel him to argue that TV has "co-opted" irony, that it's just another way of making the sale. Which is true in part. Television in America is a commercial vehicle. But it's obnoxious Berkeley elitism to assume that the only citizens of modern culture capable of not responding in the most Pavlovian way to a Diet Pepsi commercial are tenured professors of communications theory.

Richard Marin is the television critic for the Washington Times.

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