Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On staring blankly

Rita's post about "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as experienced in 2009 via Hulu brings up some Major Questions of Our Age, among them why do we watch what we do? (It also, I should point out, helps to refute the notion that watching TV in childhood prevents scholarly pursuits later in life. It can be done!)

Although I want to do so, I have a tough time arguing for television-as-escapism when the two current shows I watch most avidly are about rather specific situations I happen to be familiar with, neither of which I'd have ever imagined would be made into a TV show: class conflict at a Manhattan girls' school and the unique experience of hanging around with physicists, respectively. (OK, anything about young Manhattanites probably has future-TV-show written all over it, but the difference between theoretical physics and astrophysics?) At any rate, if "Gossip Girl" merged with "Big Bang Theory", I could simply cancel all future endeavors and watch my life thus far on loop, in a narcissistic stupor on the couch.

These preferences, however, are a fluke. In high school, I could not get enough of "Designing Women," precisely because being a shoulder-pad-wearing Atlanta interior designer preoccupied with a particularly 1980s brand of pseudo-feminist outrage could not have been further from my experience. Nor do I know what it's like to stay in, let alone run, a hotel in Torquay, but that's never made enjoying "Fawlty Towers" a problem.

But in general, my favorite shows are the ones set in real American high schools, ones with universally-recognized popular kids (who are also the rich kids, as well as the ones wearing visibly expensive clothing, because any other way would require too much explanation), sports teams, parking lots, and house parties held in actual, detached houses, in parts of the country where 16-year-olds actually have trouble obtaining liquor. Thanks to glorious American cultural hegemony, young people the world over grow up with a shared experience of suburban American high school. The lockers, the cheerleaders, the prom, we've all been there, even if we haven't. Perhaps for this reason, the more interesting the high school show ("Freaks and Geeks" and "Strangers With Candy" come to mind), the more generic and clichéd the school environment.

(In this post, I just eliminated the possibility that Helen Rittelmeyer will ever read this blog. But parentheses are a tough habit to break.)


Dara said...

Helen talks a big grammar-curmudgeon game, but she's a softie. I speak in parentheticals and we've lived together.

Dana said...

Or you could be the exact opposite and only watch escapist shows that are NOT you. I love science fiction! Although I have never seen Gossip Girl and have a certain class resentment towards it, I did like Freaks and Geeks and My So Called Life and the funny high school commentary in Buffy. Mainly because everyone who's been through high school hated it, because if they were the best years of your life, you peaked too early. So television writers, who are mostly the geeks of high school (and that's why we identify with them) have a more jaundiced view of high school (and that's why we identify with them).

But girlfriend, you are missing out on bizarre escapist drama: Buffy, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire--best shows ever! I really like watching completely different things and still feeling immersed in the show, and if they compel some sort of visceral reaction, then I think the show did a good job about translating one experience to another.

Phoebe said...

But with "Gossip Girl," class resentment is part of the fun! Even the 'poor' schoolteacher lives alone in what looks like a $4,000-a-month one-bedroom. But the students need to be as wealthy as they are so that the show can have those high-school-show staples, houses and cars, that NYC kids rarely have.

Since my high school (not the girls' school) *wasn't* the one shows are/attempt to represent, but was filled with nerds who for the most part were uninterested in cliques and popularity, I didn't get to experience the high-school misery that's supposed to make shows like "My So-Called Life" and "Freaks and Geeks" relatable. And yet, they somehow still are.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"Perhaps for this reason, the more interesting the high school show ("Freaks and Geeks" and "Strangers With Candy" come to mind), the more generic and clichéd the school environment."

Of which the spectacular reductio is Daria.

Phoebe said...

Very true! That was a great show--whatever bias I have against it comes from having been compared to its main character.

Miss Self-Important said...

I agree. It's kind of shameful, but I don't think I will ever be old enough to be uninterested in the high school drama show. As part of avoiding real life on Hulu, I came across The Facts of Life, which combines the elements of vintage 1980s TV AND high school girl drama/comedy into one horrible wonderfulness. You should look into it--one of the main characters is a fat, Jewish girl. I predict you would have a lot to say about that.

Phoebe said...


I'm now wishing I could say I had not yet 'looked into' The Facts of Life, but alas, seen it. It does tie in with the Mary Tyler Moore Show, in a way, because there there's also a fat Jewish woman, albeit played by a woman who's neither fat nor Jewish. (The dialogue about Rhoda and weight seems to imply a totally different actress playing the part. She does, it seems, pass for Jewish, and I think her most recent big role was playing Golda Meir.) I remember, in high school I suppose, finding The Facts of Life horrible and wonderful, as you put it, but when stuck with it on a flight over the summer, I found it crossed the line into all-out unwatchable. Not because of the asexual-Jewish-girl-who-eats-her-feelings archetype, but because it's just... dull.

Re: Hulu-have you tried the Bob Newhart Show? It's not high school, but it has its moments.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think the fat Jewish girl in FOL is actually awesome, and not asexual. She's ridiculous, but in the world of the show, apparently popular and smart. She's also the one who loses her virginity in the episode about virginity loss (the after-school-special-ness of the show being one of its most fascinating parts). Also, the actress in FOL was in fact the character she played, whereas, yes, Valerie Harper was neither fat nor Jewish. I'll blog in defense of FOL soon. Suffice it to say, it's basically the Judy Blume novel of prime-time TV, and you can't really hate Judy Blume, although she is also awful in many ways.

I watched Bob Newhart in my childhood Nick-at-Nite stage, but now can't recall the plot at all. It featured a bald dude, this I remember. I'll look into it. I plan to avoid life and regress into TV until at least April 15.

Phoebe said...

OK, then you've indeed watched more FOL than I have. In the episodes I remember, there was, along with the large Jew, a blond girl (I want to say 'Blair'?) who was the sex symbol, an unstated lesbian of ambiguous ethnicity, and a cute black girl who giggled. Who does the Jew (what is her name???) lose her virginity to? I eagerly await your defense of FOL.

BN is set in Chicago. And, for an ancient sitcom, relatively fast-paced and non-cringe-worthy. The scenes of Bob in his office (he's a psychiatrist) are the best.

Miss Self-Important said...

The fat Jewish girl was Natalie, the ambiguous ethnicity lesbian was a "street-smart" Polish girl from the Bronx (whose unstated lesbianism was one of the many eye-rolling "issues" confronted by the show). I don't know who Natalie loses her virginity to because that episode is NOT AVAILABLE on Hulu, which is a major tragedy if you ask me. Maybe I will get Netflix just for this.

Andrew Stevens said...

Jo wasn't a lesbian. (She gets married at the end of the show and tried to elope with a boyfriend earlier in the run. Earlier, she was sexually assaulted by a boy she had "stolen" from Blair.) The unstated lesbian was a character from the first season, Cindy, who got cut from the show. Jo came in at the beginning of the second season, taking over as the new tomboy (but not a lesbian) and coopting the smoking and drinking which Blair had done in the first season.

The loss of virginity storyline was written for Blair, but the artiste, a born-again Christian, refused to do it and it was shifted to Natalie. It's the only episode of the entire run that Blair doesn't appear in.

Natalie loses her virginity to her boyfriend Snake on their one-year anniversary.

Phoebe said...

OK, the show is now coming back to me. I still think Jo was an unstated lesbian, even if they did write in plotlines involving her running off with boys. Thus "unstated." Like Anthony the token black male character in "Designing Women"--clearly, clearly gay, but involved with women in just enough episodes to avoid having to bring this up.

Andrew Stevens said...

You'd have to see the contrast between Cindy in Season 1 and Jo from then on to see what I'm talking about. While Cindy was an unstated lesbian in Season 1, she was a really obvious lesbian, with suggestive hints about her feelings for other girls and Blair practically saying as much, just without using the word.

With Jo, there wasn't any of that. Delving into the stereotypes, most (though certainly not all) "swish" or effeminate men really are gay, but tomboys tend to be aggressively heterosexual much more often than lesbian.

On your side, however, there is a definite subtext in the frequent battles between Jo and Blair, whether this was intentional or not. But I'm not clear on how that subtext makes Jo more of a lesbian than Blair. Unless it's the feathered hair. But, yes, one does half expect Jo and Blair to start tearing each other's clothes off any second when they start bitching at each other.

Anonymous said...

if you log onto youtube, you can watch numerous videos created by fans of FOL depicting Jo and Blair in many "love" situations, cutting together footage from FOL over the years to string together their love story...this is lesbian cult history, even if it was acknowledged by anyone associated with FOL>.