I’m not your average millionaire, but I can’t tell you who got thrown off the island last night, either. Since “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” (ironic, no?), erupted onto the TV landscape in the late 1990s, I have found my intelligence increasingly insulted by television. Reality TV shows have elbowed their way into TV-land domination, clouding, blurring, and damning a large component of culture into mediocrity and the shameless kow-tow to the lowest common freaking denominator. And the quality of society has dovetailed right along with it.
That doesn’t mean I don’t watch TV, but it does mean that I’m selective to the point of snobby about my TV shows, insisting that they at least have a script, and by that, I don’t mean the scripting and staging that goes on behind the scenes of today’s “reality” show.
Nope, I may not be able to tell you who got thrown off the island last night, or who blew the answer to the 64,000-dollar question, or even how many dead rats there were in the hoarder’s house by the time intervention came through. But I am able to tell you what Dr. House’s diagnosis was or what near death experiences Walt and Jesse (on Breaking Bad) or Mulder and Scully got themselves into in Season 4 (of The X-Files). Like it or not, TV has shaped all of us. Although our influence over the air/cable-waves is debatable, we do have some say in the matter when deciding what to watch and how that influences who we are or what we become. And contrary to our elders’ beliefs, we certainly can learn a few things by watching television, and yes, this goes beyond Sesame Street.
Sesame Street – did not teach me how to count or spell (Mom had nailed that already), but it did expose me to my first 1970s ‘fros donned by little kids. It also taught me about the magic of pinball, and gave me comfort in that someone else (The Count) loved peanut butter sandwiches as much as I did.
The Simpson’s – taught me that intelligence often alienates (think Lisa). Homer is my hero. When Maddie (our fur-daughter) was alive, she often grunted like Marge.
Beverly Hills 90210 – I’m not ashamed; I like the show and will likely always. It gave me a glimpse into how the beautiful people live, bonus points if you’re also financially well-endowed and socially-connected, albeit a Hollywood-manufactured glimpse. It showed me that rich, pretty people have problems, too.
Beavis & Butthead – exposed me to some eclectic music (and its accompanying videos) and reminded me never to have unprotected sex with carnies, or play in construction sites. The movie taught me a little about peyote, though. And for the love of God(dess), look away when Beavis looks at you straight-on…you thought Butthead was ugly. You’ve been warned.
Daria – a Beavis & Butthead spinoff, this is probably one of the coolest, most unconventional shows of that mainstream-trying-to-be-alternative era. If Lisa Simpson’s straight-and-narrow intelligence cast her into Nerd Territory without many friends, Daria’s twisted intelligence showed us that you can be smart and cool–and you may even have friends. I imagine that Daria is what Lisa might’ve turned into, given exposure to the right people and concepts. Daria’s sarcasm doesn’t miss a beat.
My So-Called Life – taught me how attempting to be something you’re not often backfires and makes you look like a douche. I really could’ve used that information years ago, when my life generally consisted of doing exactly that, but hindsight is 20/20 and all that. And admit it–AJ Langer (as Rae Anne Graf) is hot.
King of the Hill – an eerily realistic view of All Things Texas, right down to the specific look of the average housing-tract (excuse me, “development”) alley and the typical goings-on in such a venue. Complete with red-state character development (the long-haired Jesus-loving skateboarder, the conservative Methodist, and the fundamentalists who denounce Halloween as a devil’s holiday and counteract with a church-based shindig of their own) and pickup trucks (you can even tell it’s a small Ford Ranger, extended cab), you could totally make a Texas References Drinking Game. And hey–you heard about it here first.
South Park – This show is the original televised limbo test (“how low can you go?”) It draws on contempo culture of the time–Saddam Hussein sleeps with the Devil and aliens give Cartman an anal probe a la “X-Files”, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Cartman cusses, his mother makes lesbian and bestiality references, and who could forget Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo?
House, MD – House is my hero. His cognition clocks lightning speed, and his wit and caustic verbal dodgeball to match. He purposefully says what people don’t want to hear, especially if it’s what they need to hear. In this society of coddling and ass-kissing, House is a welcome inhalation of fresh air. The impressive part about the show (besides, oh, everything) is that the medical information is accurate. Somebody did their homework. I learned a lot from this show: general medical information, what happens when horses look like zebras, what happens when it really is a zebra, what a painkiller-seeking patient looks like, what a malingerer looks like, how to deal with those who think they know it all (“who needs med school when you’ve got wi-fi?”), what an abuse victim looks like, and how to spot and steer clear of someone who is a litigious landmine.
Family Guy – If South Park pushed the envelope, Family Guy doused it with gasoline and burned it to a crisp. Screw recycling. Rarely an episode passeth during which I don’t say, “Holy shit. They did not just do/say that.” I mean, I’m not exactly the most politically correct longhorn on the ranch, but these guys push every button there is (no, it doesn’t offend me) and somehow, it does not result in a blue screen of death. In fact, it just keeps getting better and better. Nothing is sacred. Sure, some of it is a little wrong. But hey–deep down, I think we like it that way. Family Guy taught me that you can make quick snide jabs at the most rabid of groups and still live to see another day, popular as ever. But unlike AJ Langer, Conway Twitty is not hot.
Jericho – If the Fit Hits the Shan, this is how the scenario might play out. Originally a CBS property, the production isn’t as smooth as it could’ve been, but regardless, it was well done. The show doesn’t disappoint–you get to see everything from the mayhem, the black markets, the underground, the dog-eat-dog, the violence, the chaos, the looting, the defense efforts, the weapons, the technology, the banding together, the martial law, the priorities (the bar remained open when most other places were closed), the paramilitary, the militias, the covert ops, the coup that attempted to strong-arm their way into power, and the grassroots resistance. You get to see the rations, the bartering, the back-door deals, the lies and deceit, and it gets you thinking about who your true friends would really be in such a situation.
Breaking Bad – Probably one of the best shows ever freaking made. The ingredients all came together in a perfect, spicy, hearty stew: the plot (probably one of the most original ever written), the setting (New Mexico is perfect and scenic), the characters (Walt is hands-down bad-ass and Jesse is both hysterical and tragic), the videography (time lapses and color/tint filters were well-utilized), music selection (perfect for each moment), and just the right timing of twists and turns and suspense. The best part about this show is that even as it grew, multiplied, and metamorphosed into an overwhelming and dead-end situation beyond all hope or control, it didn’t “get stupid”. The threading from one theme or time period to the next is smooth and seamless, without any weak spots. Another admirable trait is that the show was objective, showing all of the possibilities of the drug-scene reality: the ultimate highs, the devastating lows, and the incalculable risks of being part of the underworld. It does not attempt to preach, nor does it embellish one side while glossing over the other. There is no agenda. It just is.
X-Files – While hopelessly out of order (in case you suspected, there was a loose chronological theme), I have to list it here because for me, X-Files is my newest love. I know that I’m 21 years late to the party, but hey–better late than never. (For the record, I didn’t get into House, MD until its 5th season and I didn’t start watching Breaking Bad until it was in the throes of its final season, so yeah, this is a tad tardy, even for me.) But it has definitely been worth the wait. Although its slight datedness is showing (limits of technology and production and all), I have to give it credit for its intelligent use of the effects available at the time, as well as its refusal to wrap each episode neatly with a little bow at the end; nope, it was one of the few shows of its time to leave a few loose threads dangling, leaving the door cracked open for later possibilities. I’m also glad that like Breaking Bad, its transitions and evolution are also smooth and gradual. This show is teaching me just how deep down–and high up–the rabbit hole may go. When there are cover-ups to obscure cover-ups (i.e. layers upon layers of deception), Something’s Up.
There may be more. (Walking Dead, perhaps?) Then again, there may not. As usual, time does the telling.