Stupidity in Television (and Popular Arts)
by E. John Winner
In the discussion following a recent essay by David Ottlinger, concerning the evolution of aesthetics in television, I commented that television as a medium has no aesthetic. That is all I wished to say on that matter. But I also said in passing that television viewers were rather doomed to discuss individual shows rather than the medium itself. That includes me.
For some time, I have wondered just what are the characteristics of some television shows that make them irritating or problematic – in a word, bad. My conclusion is that what marks a bad television show is the level of stupidity the show’s makers display themselves or are willing to pander to in their audience.
I was browsing YouTube, when I bumped into the only completed season of ABC’s Flash Forward (2009). The story of the series is that the Earth’s population blacks out one day. Everyone’s consciousness is projected into their bodies six months hence and then brought back to their bodies in the current moment, so they wake up with memoires of the future. An FBI team is tasked with discovering why. (1) Reading the initial premise, I was intrigued enough to watch the second episode all the way through. No point in starting with the first, since it would simply be set-up, with “disaster movie” footage of people passing out, then waking up wondering “what happened?” I already had serious questions about the premise, so I wanted to see if they could make it work. They couldn’t, and it was clear that they weren’t even going to try. Rather, the premise served merely to ensure that several well-worn television genres could be slapped together – police procedural, hospital drama, soap-opera involving a dissolving relationship, angst-drama about “what is this all about if I’m going to be dead tomorrow?” That sort of thing. But I still wondered if they could make any sense of it, so I skipped to the last episode, with its pseudo-touching romances and its spectacular action sequence end-pieces and decided that, no, they hadn’t. Rather than struggling through the series for the purpose of this critique, then, I fast-forwarded through it instead.
There’s an art to fast-forwarding through a television series, but anyone who has watched a lot of television can do it with ease. That’s because the pacing and structure of a television show is determined by its length and its commercial interruptions, and remains the same from show to show within the relevant genre. It’s actually very easy to determine when in a dramatic episode the conflict will be initiated, when dramatic confrontation will occur, when reveals will appear, and the like.
My favorite instance of this is Columbo. I quite like it, but it is formulaic and predictable (probably one reason I like it). Over some 30 years, Columbo used a formula that almost never varied. The episode would open with a soap-opera premise – cheating spouse, greedy spouse, professional about to be revealed as fraud or criminal, etc. – that would lead one character to murder another, in the manner of a “perfect crime.” Enter Columbo, who would notice a tiny bit of evidence at the crime scene that would lead him to begin his investigation. I never had any interest in the soap-operatic drama leading to the murder, but as I soon figured out, watching on DVD, I could skip to about the 15 – 20 minute mark, and there Columbo would be, walking through the door into the crime scene – entirely predictable.
Fast-forwarding has oft proven indispensable in watching TV shows and even some films.
I want to return to the sci-fi/ thriller series, Flash Forward. But my discussion hinges on how much we are willing to accept the given premises of a television show, provided we know what those premises actually are. So we’ll begin with a classic example from the “Golden Age” of television.
Everyone over the age of 30 knows the purported premise of The Beverly Hillbillies. (2) It was repeated week after week in the song used to open the show – “Let me tell ya’ the story of a man named Jed…” Jed Clampett, a mid-south hillbilly (i.e. a backwoodsman on a small farm, living below the poverty line, uneducated, unsophisticated, and suspicious of anyone outside his community), while shooting at game, misses, and his shot burrows into a well of oil that turns magically into a gusher and turns him into a millionaire. He decides to use the money to live the high-life in a mansion in Beverly Hills, CA. However, he and his family can’t quite get what living in the 1960’s is all about, nor can they give up their 19th century “down-home” backwoods lifestyle. So every week we share their struggle to use modern appliances as if they were 19th century conveniences – like trying to burn wood in the electric range, so Granny can use the fire to heat the electric iron she doesn’t know how to turn on. (Ha ha.)
I say that’s the purported premise of the show, but it doesn’t really help to explain why anybody would watch it, so we must look elsewhere. Perhaps something like the following is the show’s real premise: “white trash hicks are so stupid, they can’t learn how to live in a new environment even after nine years.” (The length of original series broadcast.) This goes some way to make sense the psychology of Beverly Hillbillies viewers who faithfully watched the program. Who wouldn’t feel superior to the Clampett family? Even “white trash hicks” would feel themselves safe from class identification with those dolts! And they would have an added incentive – the Clampetts were morally pure as the fresh-fallen snow, as Jed’s two children remained virginally asexual many years beyond puberty. So, if any audience members approached self-recognition watching the Clampetts, they could soothe themselves with the reminder that though perhaps intellectually inferior, they remained morally superior to the corrupt world dominated by those who were better off. The premise also had connected with an Old-World bias many in the middle class still held in those days, namely that class was largely a matter of character-inheritance and that character was pretty much set for life.
But how believable is this premise, really? Not at all. Humans are animals. As such they adapt to their environment – indeed, human intelligence is largely an adaptation device – an adaptation for the purpose of even further adaptation – with a far greater capacity for it than any other animal has ever exhibited. Some suggest that whales may have a form of intelligence greater than our own, but a beached whale is a fish out of water. We can not only walk, drive, fly planes and ski, but easily learn to swim.
When people are transposed from one livable environment to another, they do change – not only because they must, but because they can. Indeed, when they find themselves in an unlivable environment, they immediately set out making it livable, and are frequently successful doing so. The exact nature of the adaptive behavior we find is not wholly predictable; it occurs within a range of alternatives, rather than following a set path. So, if you take a poor family and introduce them to sudden wealth, they may squander it all; or they seek advice and learn to invest that wealth; or they may decide that the wealth gives them the opportunity to educate their children and direct them to higher aspirations in life. And so on. The alternatives are dependent on prior social acculturation, which means that while they may not be infinite, they are varied.
The Clampetts are utterly incapable of adapting to their new cultural environs in any way whatsoever. This is supposed to give them their “charm.” For me, it just means they are impossibly stupid because, as a matter of fact, any person this lacking in basic intelligence would not be stupid, but rather diagnostically disabled. Which makes laughing at their antics borderline cruel; except, of course, the Clampetts are fictional characters, in which case the last laugh is on the audience.
What this means is that the premise of the series is itself stupid – indeed, almost as stupid as it wants us to believe the Clampetts are. Yet it survived for nine. Oh, the humanity!
With the Beverly Hillbillies, we saw how the very premise of a television show could be, stupid, leading to stupidity in every other aspect of the program, and raising questions concerning audience motivation. We’ll try to make this matter more precise by returning to ABC’s Flash Forward.
There are four layers of stupidity identifiable in the popular arts, although they arise in more sophisticated arts as well, and are frequently found in politics and economics. Taking Flash Forward as our example:
Local stupidity – usually revealed in dialogue, pertaining to the experience or inadequacy of a single character, small group of characters, or situation. In one scene from Flash Forward, FBI Agent Noh admits to his fiancé Zoey that he has slept with his lesbian colleague Janis in order to impregnate her, because in her flash forward she was pregnant. This is probably among the stupidest excuses for a one night stand one can give to one’s supposed beloved – and it’s not clear why anyone would be stupid enough to have such a one night stand (beyond desperation, which is not Noh’s problem); nor why anyone would be stupid enough to admit such an affair to one’s fiancé if an admission was not needed. I suppose this is what passes for “responsible sex” in Hollywood.
Regional stupidity – pertaining to technical misjudgments, raising questions concerning the competency of the production crew or the actors or of the characters in the narrative itself. Inane plot devices are the most glaring example of this. My favorite example of this in Flash Forward is when the hero, Benford, is interrogating a villain, and the bad guy tells him that having lived through this encounter in numerous Flash Forwards, he knows that after continued interrogation, Benford will simply lose control and start beating him up, causing him to lose his job and everything he loves. Presumably, Benford is interested in changing the future, so we can suppose what he might do to prevent the realization of this prophecy – but this being a stupid television show, we know what really happens next. We could have written it ourselves – in our sleep.
And then there’s the big gaping hole in reasonable expectations: in Flash Forward, we’re supposed to accept that a super-secret organization, with apparently unlimited funds (from sources unknown) could build bizarre relay towers (6 stories high) – to amplify energy generated in a super-collider (huh?) – across the globe, with absolutely no governmental or journalistic suspicions being raised. We used to say, “inquiring minds want to know;” but apparently no such thing exists in the world of Flash Forward until catastrophe happens.
Global stupidity – manifested in basic problems of plotting in the stories themselves, either in the per-episode narrative or in the story-arcs linking through the episodes. Critical complaints against Flash Forward have largely brought to the surface two prime instances of global stupidity: too many characters and too many side-stories. In one episode, a preacher chats up his Flash Forward in religious terms. Nothing much comes of his appearance, and I don’t believe he appears in any later episode. So, why include him? Because somebody in the production team probably remarked, “Well, we need to address the religious angle at some point, so let’s get it done and over with.” Of course, in a science fiction story, you don’t have to address any “religious angle,” so all you’ve done is fill up time with insufferable twaddle.
Another story arc that loops throughout the show involves a surgeon (Bryce) who – Flash Forward – sees himself meeting a beautiful Japanese female (Keiko). He becomes obsessed with her, so of course we have to have her back-story as well, and in the last episode, they do finally meet, whereupon (all too predictably), romance blooms.
Except that Bryce is a vacuous character with no charm. Keiko is charming, but her back-story is implausible and occasionally silly. Indeed, the whole story-line reeks of psychopathology, and anyway, what does any of it have to do with the search for the cause of the Flash Forward?
All of this has to do with whether or not the telling of the story is effective. There remains the question of whether the story should be told at all.
Meta-stupidity – involving problems in the very concept of a narrative or dramatic entertainment or in the assumptions underlying that concept. (The concept is how one briefly describes the plot to reveal its themes, without direct reference to the characters of the story. So: “son avenges father on murderous uncle married to widowed mother,” is a reasonable facsimile of the concept that Shakespeare works through in Hamlet, which also suggests that the thematics of the play concern vengeance, family relationships, and a young man’s struggle to accept his responsibilities.)
We can now turn to the fundamental premise of Flash Forward to consider just how stupid a concept for a fictional story can be.
The purported premise of Flash Forward opens with a catastrophe, presented in a title (read voice-over) that began 20 of its 22 episodes: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future.” That is, 7 billion people were struck unconscious, wherever they were (which led to 20 million deaths in the US, per the show), and when the survivors woke up, they had a memory of events they would experience six months from then. This is not the complete premise, since there is no reference yet to any characters engaged in action, so we’ll flesh it out as it unravels in the first two episodes and thereby sets the real story (or, rather, stories) into motion: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future. Now only a handful of FBI agents can determine the cause and prevent it from happening again (while their friends and families try to come to terms with how to live with the future they saw). Meanwhile, 7 billion people talk about it sometimes, and go about their daily business, while governments hold committee meetings to decide who’s responsible.”
Here’s the mind-numbing stupidity of it: A planetary catastrophe happens (and yet the only deaths mentioned are those in the US), and there is no emergency response from any government or charitable agency; the international community of scientists engage in no research into possible causes or solutions; there are no riots or mass migrations; no new political or religious movements are engendered; psychotic breaks are limited to those who can be pursued by the heroic FBI team. There are occasional news casts and a speech by the President, and the head of the CIA suspects the Chinese are involved with it (because “they slept through it” – a stupid claim to make about a billion Chinese, that they could both terrorize the world and sleep through it all). But really, it all comes down to that team of FBI agents.
Well, almost. Because as the series goes on, the premise begins accumulating clutter. Although the scientific community makes little appearance in the series, there are two scientists who are revealed to have invented the gadgets that may have caused the event, and one of them just happens to be in for a possible romantic relationship with the wife of the FBI agent who concerns us most, and the other just happens to be involved with the secret organization that did cause the event; said organization that happens to have two FBI agents on its payroll (albeit one’s a double agent) and happens to have connections with a gang of terrorists, not to mention another gang of terrorists in Afghanistan that may be covertly funded by the US. (Got that?) A lot of people get shot, and things explode, and there are sex scenes, and endangered children, and, well, stuff. If you’ve watched enough television, you’ll have a pretty good guess what.
The basic premise is not only stupid, it is very thin. For instance, it doesn’t suggest any thematic of the plot; by itself, it could never sustain a weekly television program for more than, say, three episodes. So what the writers have done is to layer concept over concept in order to generate supposed “dramatic moments,” even when these do not add up to any real drama. This is one reason why so many characters, irrelevant to the main narrative, can drift in for an episode or two and then disappear. One such added-in concept is: “FBI agent lives with lesbian lover but desperately wants a child.” This gives us a few scenes with the lover, who disappears after a couple episodes. Meanwhile the agent herself is used to flesh out another add-in: “Fatalistic FBI agent has affair with lesbian colleague, because he believes he will die soon, and his fiancé is not around” (his fiancé being a lawyer who just happens to represent the suspected terrorists).
Do we see what’s happening here? The show-runners, confronted with the evident weakness of the original concept, rather than finding ways to flesh it out in a manner at least suggestive of reality, just tossed in other concepts, all equally unbelievable (because dependent on Hollywood stereotypes), all paper thin (because never fully realized), and all equally stupid.
Finally, one must really comment on the science here, since this becomes another layer of concept by the series’ mid-point. A super-collider supposedly generates enough energy to send 7 billion consciousnesses into the future and bring them back. This assumes, not only that super-colliders do anything like this (they don’t), but that we have “a consciousness” – an entity detachable from our bodies, that can be moved temporally by some form of energy, and returned to our bodies whole. This also suggests that the future happens deterministically, so variance should be doubtful. However, this would moot any possible action by the characters. So by episode seven, it is at last revealed that the future can be changed, when an FBI agent, who knows that he will be responsible for somebody’s death in the future, commits suicide. This is where the theme of the program finally reveals itself, and it’s not some argument for free will. Rather, by the last two or three episodes, it becomes clear that even if you know the future and can change it, you shouldn’t do that, because of the “balance of energies in the universe,” which will realize itself whether we want it or not. (The person the FBI agent thought would survive once he’s killed himself does herself get killed in a completely unrelated accident.) So the series that didn’t need to address religion but did so anyway sneaks “spirituality” in through the back-door, by way of pantheism. But a particularly muddled, banal, feel-good variety of it.
Having suffered for this essay, I’m glad I’ll never have to watch Flash Forward again.
While the Beverly Hillbillies ran for 9 seasons, Flash Forward only ran for a single season, ending this run with a cliffhanger, which the world will never see resolved – thank heavens. Perhaps this indicates that audiences are getting sharper since the ‘60s and developing an increased discernment. Or it may be just that Flash Forward’s particular brand of stupidity was just a little too stupid.