Are These TV Programs Really Destroying Society? Five Vilified Shows Critics Have Got Wrong
Everybody knows television rots your brain. But does it actually destroy society? As programming has been increasingly debauched—and our culture has gotten increasingly conservative—critics are louder and louder about “trashy” TV destroying our society, cannibalizing our morals and turning the social contract into worm food. While there’s certainly a lot of vapid, damaging, stereotype-perpetrating television out there—for a good overview, check out Reality Bites Back—lots of the critiques come from an equally dunderheaded place. Here are five of the most reviled television shows running, and why their critics are wrong.
1. Jersey Shore
MTV’s booze-and-dramathon "Jersey Shore" is, by and large, the television show most cited as evidence America is about to incinerate into a blazing Babylon. It has been criticized for irresponsible alcoholism and wanton sluttiness; blamed for the dumbing-down of culture; and, last but not least, lambasted for painting a demeaning portrait of Italian-Americans everywhere.
And yet, the culture can’t get enough of the poofed-out, fake-tanned antics of wee Snooki, six-packed the Situation and company. Season four of the reality show debuted August 4 to MTV’s highest ratings ever, with a record eight million viewers, the fourth largest non-sports opening in 2011. Snooki in particular has become a major celebrity, amassing tens of thousands of dollars for party and college appearances. (In one particularly controversial moment, Snooki was paid $34,000 to advise graduating students of Rutgers University to “work hard... party harder.”) And while the criticisms continue, its popularity shows no signs of flagging. It is, frankly, immensely watchable and incredibly addictive—debauchery be damned. And thus far, none of the criticisms the reality behemoth has weathered have stuck.
One of the most interesting recent darts thrown was from preppy clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. In what has got to be the first-ever anti-placement fee, the company has offered “substantial payment” to the cast of "Jersey Shore"—specifically, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino—to avoid wearing its clothing on-air. The reason, via a statement: "We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans. We have also extended this offer to other members of the cast, and are urgently waiting a response."
Key words: “aspirational nature of our brand.” Perhaps Abercrombie means to invoke unhindered dream-following, but the word “aspirational” brings finances to mind, and unintentionally illuminates the problem with all the sky-is-falling freakouts around "Jersey Shore"—they are, for the most part, inherently classist. The cast—which hails mostly from Jersey and Long Island—is explicitly working- or middle-class, toting their hometowns’ thick accents. While some of them are, in fact, pretty smart (J-Woww) or kind (Snooki), they aren’t textbook intellectuals, and the redeeming qualities of their characters tend to be overshadowed in critiques by their “bangin’ beach bods” (J-Woww works out constantly and has implants, while Snooki’s recent weight loss stayed in tabloid headlines for weeks).
So inevitably, some who enjoy the show do so with a sort of haughtier-than-thou attitude, watching the "Jersey Shore" cast’s clubbing and boozing from a position of superiority. The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley said last week that “the show has remained popular despite its elitist cachet, partly by staying true to its artificiality,” citing an academic conference about "Jersey Shore" at the University of Chicago and a speech in which Obama namedropped Snooki. But Stanley also pointed out that “by the second season it was co-opted by the would-be hip, those viewers who revel less in the show itself than in the heady superiority of being in the know.” Perhaps she was talking about her coworker Cathy Horyn, whose criticism I normally adore, but whose profile of Snooki last year had a snobby, condescending bent to it, and who epitomized the high-class observer of "Jersey Shore," who seems to revel in the destruction of the “lower” classes.
Meanwhile, the most succinct analysis yet came from another television show, this one fiction. In a 2010 episode of “Bones,” the slightly Asperger’s-afflicted forensic anthropologist Dr. Bones Brennan, speaking in her typical hyper-literal, detached, completely un-condescending interpretation: “I stumbled across a compelling documentary... the anthropologist in me was fascinated. I’ve been studying their language and customs!” Maybe people like "Jersey Shore" because, even if we don’t behave like them, they are acting out human impulses at their most raw.
Second in the “we’re all gonna die” scare factor is a show so close to my heart: "Skins," the British-born show depicting Bristol teens in a mostly realistic fashion—which means they have sex, do drugs, curse, get their hearts broken, go a little crazy, have fights and do more drugs, in general. The UK wasn’t generally too out of control when the series debuted, and now five seasons in it’s as popular as ever. When MTV decided to translate it to American audiences, the controversy was raging before an episode emerged; we do not, apparently, like to see real teens doing real things (unless they’re on reality shows!), and after it aired, some conservative groups even investigated whether the show violated child pornography laws for the realistic teen sex on the show.
Those critics were quite wrong—the real travesty wasn’t the content, it was the terrible acting and the stereotyping of Americans. That apparently registered with MTV, which canceled the American remake after one season, citing its disconnect with American audiences. That said, watch the original! It’s amazing! Season six of "Skins" UK debuts on British station E4 in 2012. (For a full breakdown of MTV vs. UK "Skins" check out my piece, “Conservatives Freak Out Over MTV’s Skins.”)
3. South Park
Unlike "The Simpsons," which has mostly made its progressive viewpoints known, Matt Parker and Trey Stone—the hapless creators of the sometimes-vulgar spoof cartoon "South Park"—do not reveal their political proclivities, which makes the content of the show sometimes ambiguous. Generally, they tend to ride the line between super-left and super-right, leaving you wondering what exactly they’re mocking; as a rule, nothing at all is sacred (as evidenced by their recent Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon). This doesn’t sit well with the hysterically conservative Parent’s Television Council, though, which has called "South Park" “vile trash,” and with many Christian groups, which freak out every season, it seems, over some portrayal or another of Jesus Christ (a frequent guest star) or the Judeo-Christian god.
But here’s the great part about "South Park," and why it’s certainly not bringing down society: it's an equal-opportunity blasphemer, ribbing everyone with subtle, often super-on-point critiques. The show has targeted Islam, Scientology (famously), Catholicism, Hinduism and probably every other religion on earth. Of course, the religious cultural gatekeepers are always going to defend their gods, but the more they buck, the stronger "South Park" strikes. And in an age of Internet censorship, the show’s willingness to test the bounds of the First Amendment is admirable, whether or not they’re libertarians.
4. My Super Sweet 16
MTV’s neverending font of fairly exploitative reality shows doesn’t get more materialistic than “My Super Sweet 16,” in which scores of teens with well-to-do parents get to throw sumptuous parties, pay tens of thousands (or a million) dollars for their favorite celebrity musicians, and generally get first cars of the Lexus/Range Rover luxury variety. The opulence is insane, particularly when you consider MTV’s knack for locating the least grateful, most demanding 16-year-olds in the country. It normalizes grotesque capitalism for the young people in its target demographic, and gives rich kids an even higher social standing (which, if you’ve ever been a poor kid at a public school, is already out of control). The parents are often the worst kind of conservatives, and seem to spoil their kids rotten in order to avoid actually having to guide them through life. It’s gross.
That said, most of the critique surrounding the show has had undertones (or overtones) of blatant misogyny. Most of the 16th birthday-havers are girls, and a large part of the show is spent following them as they find the perfect dress, fixate on their makeup, fret over which friends to invite and which are fighting. It’s a gender-normative princess fantasy, to be sure, but beneath the scathing indictments of the show is the idea that these girls are somehow more trivial because of their gender. Oh, and when they cry because they don’t get what they want? Maybe it’s because they could use some guidance that isn’t purchased. Just throwing that out there.
On the surface, “Californication” is the no-responsibility, 40-something, misogynist mantasy to the extreme: dashing David Duchovny plays Hank Moody, a nihilistic, black Porsche-driving novelist whose only talent more adroit than his writing is his ability to bed scores of women. He’s an American myth, to be sure, one developed in the early days of Kerouac, fleshed out in the 1990s, and matured in these salad days of older men dating way younger women. A kind of literary James Bond, he fucks everything in sight with ease, and barely anyone refuses him—including the horny 16-year-old girl who seduces him before he can ask her age.
When it first came out in 2007, it was reviled as softcore porn (the pilot alone had four separate sex scenes in a span of 40 minutes) that painted women as bone-hungry sex bunnies who couldn’t resist this mysterious bad boy they knew would never commit to them. Moody had a really cool, smart daughter, sure, whose mother was the one who got away, but their presence on the show seemed only to reinforce the Hank character, to give him depth and show why he was complicated, ultimately as a vehicle for him to get more punani. It also didn’t help that the pilot featured Moody praying in a church while getting a blow job from a nun: it seemed the show was another masculinized, gender-normative fantasy that trivialized females as either madonnas or whores.
For some reason Australian Christian groups had the strongest reaction to "Californication" at first, with two separate advertiser boycotts and a public response from politicos like the Australian Christian Lobbyists’ Glynis Quinlan: "What we're seeing is more and more programs put on TV that push the boundaries further and further,” she said, “with the idea obviously to get the ratings by shock tactics.'' Meanwhile, critics across the spectrum, from Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times have decried its misogyny—with (once again) Alessandra Stanley writing, “Mostly the series comes off as male payback for 'Sex and the City,' a series that often belittled men and treated them as sex objects.”
That was season one. Somehow, over the course of four years, "Californication" has managed to redeem its early problems and evolve into a show with some of the most interesting, complex, strong women characters on television. (Spoilers ahead.) Karen, the mother of Hank’s daughter, found out about his 16-year-old lover and has finally rid herself of Hank's philandering ways once and for all, with a new boyfriend who’s much kinder to her than Hank was. His daughter, Becka, is a self-sufficient teenager who finds his behavior disgusting, and takes out her frustrations by playing guitar in an all-girl band.
And all that sex and misanthrope Hank was throwing around at the beginning of the series? It’s all coming home to roost, with Hank’s life in shambles and his dating landscape a typical shitshow. So while it took them four seasons to get there, it’s nice to see that the writers realized audiences didn’t necessarily want to see Hank get away with his poor behavior, particularly for a man in his 40s, when said behavior is a grody look. Let this vilified show be a redemption tale; it is possible for bad programming to become good programming.