Over the past few years, television shows, especially sitcoms, have become increasingly self-referential, increasingly willing to poke fun at and highlight their own generic conventions, pretensions, and limitations. While some programs, such as NYPD Blue, strive to transcend the medium by being "serious," "gritty," and "true-to-life," more and more shows seem willing to consciously play with TV's history and forms, borrow widely from a variety of high-brow and low-brow sources, and create new clichés while referring to old ones.
This is a roundabout way of saying that TV is becoming–or perhaps has already become–postmodern. And, despite the many negative connotations of that troublesome term, that's not such a bad thing. Consider a few distinctive features of today's vast wasteland:
• Comedy Central's most original and most popular first-run show is the delightful Mystery Science Theater 3000, now in its sixth season. MST3K is a rather odd spectatorial experience: It revolves around watching other people–actually, two robots and a human being–watching such indescribably bad movies as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Robot Monster. The characters shout widely allusive wisecracks at the screen; somehow, that act of critical viewing makes horrible films incredible fun to watch.
• Virtually every episode of Fox's The Simpsons comments on the act of watching television itself or on shop-worn conceits endlessly recycled by movies and TV shows. For example, in the most recent Halloween special, which parodies The Shining (pronounced "shin-ing," one character notes, to avoid copyright infringement hassles) Homer goes berserk after being denied the symbiotic pleasures of watching TV and drinking beer. Mere seconds away from killing his family, Homer picks up a small, hand-held TV set in the snow. "Urge to kill fading," intones a soothed Homer. "Come, family, sit in the snow with Daddy and let us all bask in television's warm glowing warming glow," says Homer. The last shot is the family, literally frozen in front of the TV, unable to move or even close their eyes, screaming in horror as the TV announces the next program: "Live from Broadway, it's the Tony Awards, with your hosts Tyne Daly and Hal Linden!"
In another episode, Bart and Lisa tour the studios where their favorite cartoon, Itchy & Scratchy, is made. As the show's producer is explaining to them that the animators save time and money by reusing the same background footage over and over again, we see them walking by the same woman mopping the floor over and over again. And although Montgomery Burns, the evil owner of Springfield's nuclear power plant (and Homer's employer), meets the Simpson family in virtually every other episode (indeed, he even legally adopts Bart in one), he must constantly be reintroduced to them.
• ABC's Roseanne, a top-rated sitcom often hailed (or decried, depending on the critic) as "realistic," is filled with absurd moments that play with the forms of the TV medium. Last season, for instance, the episode that introduced a new actress in the role of Becky Connor ended with the family watching a rerun of the 1960s sitcom Bewitched. One by one, the characters note how much more they prefer Dick York in the role of Darren to his replacement, Dick Sargent. When it's Becky's turn, however, she looks at the camera and professes a fondness for the successor.
• In what is surely one of the most inspired comic moments in television history, the final episode of Newhart, which ran during the late '80s and early '90s, unveils the entire series as a nightmare dreamed by Dr. Bob Hartley, the main character of Bob Newhart's previous sitcom (aptly titled The Bob Newhart Show), which ran from 1972 to 1978. Newhart apparently ends with Newhart's character, Dick, being struck in the head by a golf ball and falling unconscious–possibly dead–to the floor. Then the scene switches to the darkened bedroom of Bob and Emily Hartley, with Bob waking up, turning on the light, and waking his wife–the traditional final scene of each episode in the original Bob Newhart Show.
Similar antics can be found on any number of other current TV shows ranging from Beavis and Butt-head to Northern Exposure, The Larry Sanders Show to Late Night with David Letterman, Seinfeld to Sisters; defunct shows such as Second City TV, Moonlighting, Police Squad, Get a Life!, and The Jackie Thomas Show provide examples of the trend as well. Self-consciousness and parody, of course, are hardly new to TV. I Love Lucy, for example, paraded guest stars lampooning themselves (including George Reeves/Superman) and The Dick Van Dyke Show featured The Alan Brady Show, a show-within-a-show.
Today's postmodern shows, however, are different, not only because they are the rule and not the exception. More so than in the past, they relentlessly disrupt audience expectations by breaking with established forms and assuming that viewers are conversant with a broad range of cultural references. Because TV is at the very center of our common culture, this shift is of no small significance.
Interestingly, a rejection of postmodernist aesthetics is a unifying theme for rightists and leftists, who often smear each other as witting or unwitting boosters of postmodernism. Conservative culture critics tend to see postmodernism as an exercise in nihilism, the inevitable consequence of moral and cultural relativism in whose name all truths are rechristened as equally untrue fictions. The result is a kind of decadent, ironic ennui. For instance, The American Spectator's movie critic, James Bowman, has decried "the armies of postmodernism…[that]…have conquered and occupied dear old Hollywood": "Perhaps…they are so jaded and tired of the conventions of their art that they send them up, just to relieve the boredom of too many fictions."
The left's response is more complicated but even more damning. It equates postmodernism's aggressive recycling of old forms and subjects with what it sees as consumer capitalism's inexhaustible appetite for new and expanded markets. Just as capitalism is able to commodify any thought or behavior–including resistance to capitalism–goes this line of thinking, so too does TV (in the service of selling things) incorporate all non-TV-based culture into itself. This thesis is neatly expressed in the title of Duke University Professor Frederic Jameson's 1991 book, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
For Jameson, postmodern culture is an "infernal machine" that chews up everything it encounters, spits it out, and chews it up again. Because postmodernism indiscriminately borrows from different periods and genres, it dehistoricizes and trivializes whatever it touches, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, to know whether what we are seeing is important or trivial. We respond, says Jameson, with "a strange compensatory decorative exhilaration" that is very much like schizophrenia.
For the left, television, with its endless succession of de- and recontextualized images, of sales pitches seguing into programs, is the ultimate wily triumph of the capitalistic juggernaut. It amuses people while bombarding them with propaganda for consumer culture. If everything can be turned into a (profitable) self-effacing joke, after all, it is virtually impossible to mount meaningful political, economic, and cultural resistance.
But there's another explanation for the postmodern boom in TV shows, one that avoids apocalyptic rhetoric and actually makes sense of the multi-layered, thoughtful enjoyment viewers experience. What we are witnessing is an artistic medium coming into its own. Of course, because TV has always been characterized as a crass, vulgar medium, it is understandably difficult to think of it as a possessing an aesthetic dimension. (In 1947, before broadcast television had even really taken off, H.L. Mencken opined, "I can only imagine very stupid people looking at it.") But in fact, TV is beginning to draw intricate connections between its present and its past. It is also drawing connections between itself and other art forms.
That same process characterizes all of the arts, especially in the developing stages. Literature, for instance, is filled with great works that refer to and comment on other writings. Cervantes's Don Quixote de la Mancha is in part a parody of the conceits and morals of chivalric romances that were still popular in the 16th century. Flaubert's masterpiece, Madame Bovary, is a novel essentially about the baleful effects of reading novels. Walker Percy's 1960 novel, The Moviegoer, draws on film as a source, something more-contemporary writers continue to do.
This isn't to claim equal artistic status for Don Quixote and Coach, or Madame Bovary and Blossom. But the similarities are worth noting. It's also worthwhile to divine the latent pedagogical functions of postmodernist TV. Because its meaning relies on understanding allusions and references to other media, viewers must be capable of making any number of associations–in a sense, they must be well-educated to fully enjoy themselves.
More consequential perhaps is the way that the postmodern elements, by underscoring and commenting on the various rhetorical gestures and stylistic devices employed by TV and other media, help create a critical viewership. Since television is both the site and creator of our contemporary common culture, it is particularly important that we learn how to "read" TV analytically, to evaluate its assorted ways of presenting–and distorting–information. It is impossible to watch The Simpsons and not gain a keener appreciation for and resistance to methods of mass marketing and manipulation. In a world full of competing options and possibilities, that is knowledge worth possessing.