Media

Should Liberals Watch More TV?

Vanessa Richmond's article about progressives watching television stirred some furious debate. Here are the highlights.

In a piecerecently published on AlterNet, Vanessa Richmond urged progressives to put down their Nabokov novels and flip on the television. TV is back, Richmond argued, and its content is better and more challenging than ever.

"Whether you’re watching an hour of Mad Men on your laptop in bed, getting into a couch-coma on a Sunday with a rented series on DVD, or tuning into Letterman or Colbert at night while checking your email," Richmond wrote, "TV can be a rejuvenating, stimulating, and rewarding experience."

But as Richmond pointed out, progressives have long had a fraught relationship with television. As Michael Moore put it almost a decade ago, "Do you know what's wrong with the Left? They don’t watch TV." According to Richmond, many on the left continue to associate television with poor quality and even worse politics -- "the Right and the average."

As she tells friends who claim to loathe television, "Culture includes all sorts of things, but TV is the baseline, (yes, sometimes it’s base, but that’s part of the point) which means not watching it makes you as uninformed as someone who doesn’t read the news. And I know you all do that. Watching TV means you get to learn about and have more informed conversations about politics, values, culture ... and relationships, sex, and drugs."

Many of our readers agreed with Richmond's argument that television can be both enjoyable and important.

Cordas, a British fan of American TV, delivered one of the more succinct defenses, touching on a few shows and highlighting the political significance of each.

No one is saying you should be sitting with your eyes glued to the box, no one is saying that everything put on TV is brilliant, no one is saying that every show and commercial is brimming with artistic merit and talent.

What is being said is that there are some real gems, there are shows that have their eye on current social affairs (things you might not be aware of), shows that are engaged in having a decent look at / investigation of what is going on at the moment (and in recent history), and that some of these shows are also damn entertaining.

The Wire is an in-depth study of drugs and the effect they have on all sides of the line. It has a hell of a lot to say about the implications of the 'war on drugs' and what that actually means to the people involved, the junkies, the criminals, the police, wider society, politics, education e.t.c.

Battlestar Galactica touched on a whole raft of issues that could be tied into 'the war on terror', and also discussions about power and abuse of power, mob rule and the rest.

True Blood throws light on racism and xenophobia/ patriotism and the darker side of it.

The thing is there is a ton of really good tv out there that taps directly into what is going on in society and is well worth watching.

Finally maybe if some self righteous smug gits stopped whining that its all 'crap' and watched some of the better shows (many of which do attract acres of media coverage) then TV companies would make more of the decent stuff and less of the crap. Afterall one thing most of us are agreed on is that the TV companies will follow the ratings... More decent TV gets good ratings then more decent telly will get made....

Many commentators enthusiastically agreed with Cortas (and Vanessa Richmond) that there is plenty of good stuff on TV.

ccunningham3 said:

Yes! Dexter & True Blood! double thumbs up! But there's the incredible Breaking Bad!! Bill Maher!! Hung is wry & amusing. Big Love: can't wait for it to get back next season!
MadMen rules!

...

TV IS excellent these days...& has been getting better & better since the Sopranos & the magnificent 6Feet Under.
We're moving to Mexico next month, & one of the more important things we want to take with us is the ability to download great TV on our computers!

Shey pointed to how valuable certain shows are in helping us grapple with our history. For example HBO's Mad Men, they wrote, portrays:

... the destructive forces of sexism in that time period. Mad Men is the perfect example of high quality entertainment that educates us in the process, about our recent cultural history.

babzter gave credence to Shey's point:

[Mad Men is] about the sixties, and its portrayal of the average office environment is spot-on. I was there - we were called "girls" and paid less because we "didn't have a family to support". During a job interview, I was told that "we don't hire girls because they're not tough enough". A male senior manager once looked up my skirt as I was filing on an upper shelf. I told him to "get the hell away from me". Guess who was reprimanded for showing a "lack of respect."

One of the worst: "Are you planning on getting pregnant?"

I had dozens of similar experiences.

Chorton highlighted a different way in which TV and real life interact:

I rarely watch TV, but I get roommates that do and I drop in. It's important. Progressive politics is about talking to, organizing and working with "ordinary" people - neighbors, fellow workers, going door to door for a progressive candidate or organizing an issue group around foreclosures or the need for a health clinic or whatever. They watch TV. We need to establish our relationships with them. A little knowledge of what they are watching goes a long way.

Rungle pointed to another reason TV is important:

... popular culture is still culture, even if it's ultra-short term culture. low, crass, base, yes. but like it or not, it is what it is. and what it is, is being watched by millions of people. moore's point, i think (and i'm guilty of this very thing), is that we on the left do ourselves a massive disservice by copping an anti-tv pose: all we do is alienate tv watchers - and there are millions of them.

babzter agreed:

Watching a little bit of tv helps us understand the thought processes of "the other side". It's enlightening.

Many commenters, however, were not sold on Richmond's argument that TV's valuable and enjoyable. Tony_opmoc had this to say about the state of our popular culture:

…all the news is propaganda. TV series are the same old regurgitated and repeated crap from a once successful formula. Most movies are absolutely dire remakes of what were brilliant original films. And computer games simply have better graphics of the same old themes repeated over and over again.
.

Mercianomad agreed, adding that a life free of television is a life liberated from capitalist propagandizing:

I have given up TV (and most modern music, and driving cars, but both of those are other stories) since 2003 and it has notably improved my life. The one thing I absolutely do not miss is the amount of advertising and propaganda I had to deal with. Horrendous, really.

With all the extra time saved I get to work on things like piano playing, art, books, and writing, as well as more exercise and generally a much more satisfying and stimulating lifestyle. I greatly prefer interactivity. I'd much rather sit around and play with clay or go over some chess puzzles or talk to a friend on my porch. I cannot believe that I used to spend whole Sundays passively watching NFL games and drinking beer. What a waste of time that was.

leftneck's problem with television wasn't the quality of the programming, but the constant stream of advertising:

There's lots of television out there worth watching; the question is whether its worth the mental trauma that is watching advertisements.

But Sheypointed out that ads can be highly educational:

I watch most commercials once or twice, because they are the best education you can get, about just how subversive and slick the corporate brainwashing has become. Then, it's the mute button.

Celtic Tiger also argued that ads can be easily avoided, adding that progressives should not be trying to tune out TV:

Thanks to DVR or DVD, it's possible to watch tv-originated series as "film" and skip the commercials.So Moore is right to suggest that getting a taste of what a majority of Americans do to be entertained is a good thing. You don't have to be a fan of "24" to recognize its influence on right-wing politics and mass culture.

Want to weigh in? Don’t forget to check out parts II and III of Vanessa Richmond’s series, which will appear on AlterNet in the coming weeks. There has been a lot of fantastic dialogue around this, and we here at AlterNet are excited to see what the rest of our readers have to say.

 

Byard Duncan is a contributing writer and editor for AlterNet.
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