Given the nature of television today one could write several volumes – nay, an entire library – of criticism of real stupid television.Stupid reality TV, really stupid game shows, really stupid ‘news’ shows, really stupid sit-coms… but to get started, one has to focus on one or two shows and then follow the implications to encompass the whole of the medium.
Today, I want to start on one recent (and recently cancelled) 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… stupidity.
Everyone – well, everyone above the age of 30 – knows the purported premise of The Beverly Hillbillies. 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 being Jed Clampett, a mid-south hillbilly (a backwoodsman on a small farm, living below the poverty line, usually uneducated, unsophisticated, and suspicious of anyone outside his community). And Jed notoriously shoots at game, misses, and his shot burrows a well of oil that turns magically into a gusher. and suddenly he’s a millionaire. He decides to use the money to live the high-life in a mansion in the wealthy suburb of Beverly Hills, CA. However, he and his family can’t quite get what living in the 1960s is all about, nor can they give up their 19th century ‘down-home’ back-woods 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 help explain why anybody would watch it. This is the real premise of the show: “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). And this helps explain quite a bit of the psychology of the viewers who faithfully watched the program. Who wouldn’t feel superior to the Clampett family? Even those we might disparagingly refer to as ‘white trash hicks’ would feel themselves safe from class identification from those dolts! And they would have an added incentive – the Clampetts were morally pure as the fresh-fallen snow. (Jed’s two children remain virginally asexual many years beyond puberty.) So if any audience members approached self-recognition watching the Clampetts, they could ease their conscience by reminding themselves that, though intellectually inferior, they remained morally superior to the corrupt world dominated by those better off. Hadn’t the Lord promised that the meek – and the ignorant, the hopelessly blind to reality – would inherit the Earth? The premise also had the benefit (to the producers) of linking into an Old World bias many in the middle class still held back then, that supposed that class was largely a matter of character-inheritance, and that character was pretty much set for life – if one were born to the hardworking and uneducated parents, one would remain largely hardworking throughout life, and education could only have limited value. (And if one were born to lazy, ‘shiftless’ parents, one would remain lazy and shiftless throughout life – and where have heard that suggested before? Rhetoric concerning ethnicity, concerning welfare, concerning the financing of education.)
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 further adaptation – with far greater capacity for it than any other animal has ever exhibited. (Whales may have some form of intelligence greater than our own, as some suggest; 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 – something computers can’t do, BTW.)
When people are transposed from one liveable 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.) Now, 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, take a poor family and introduce them to sudden wealth, they may simply 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 not infinite, dependent on prior social acculturation – but 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 – ‘impossibly,’ because, in fact, a person this lacking in basic intelligence would not be ‘stupid,’ he or she would be diagnostically mentally retarded. 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.
So what does that make the premise of the series? It means the premise is itself stupid – it is almost as stupid as it wants us to believe the Clampetts are. Yet it survived for nine years of broadcasting. Oh, the humanity!
So have American viewing audiences improved their taste since the 1960s? Maybe. Let’s consider this issue in terms of a much more recent television series, that, fortunately for the sanity of the Universal Mind, was cancelled after one season, the sci-fi thriller, Flash Forward. The fact that it was cancelled, after its ratings had dropped by nearly half over its broadcast season, suggests that at least some audiences have gotten a little sharper over the decades. Or maybe not.
But, like many television series today, time requires that we pause on a cliff-hanger – so: To Be Continued.
More on the Beverly Hillbillies: