In the 500-channel universe, we're definitely lost in space

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In the 500-channel universe, which may, of course, contain many more channels than 500, the fun never stops -- fun at such a fever pitch as to sometimes seem threatening, numbing, even agonizing.

It's supposedly, theoretically, marvelous to gambol about in a "something-for-everyone" culture where all tastes are catered to by one medium or many. Combine the cable or satellite smorgasbord with all the other diversion-dispensers -- home video, including high-def and Blu-ray and their sumptuous visual capabilities; video games; and that whole social networking business and its elevation of the trifling, the quotidian and the banal. Put them all together and you have the passive sensory environment in which we now exist.

We may be out of work, but we're not even close to out of playthings. We haven't much to do, but we have more than enough to watch; we can watch till we're blue all over, not just in the face. And now, every life is a show, worthy of documentation or twitterfication, of being turned into a kind of reality-show serial and consumed by others.

Somewhere along the way, standards seem to have been not so much lowered as eliminated. "Content" has replaced that archaic term "substance" and seems to promise much less. Style, in many cases, is content; that's not even really news anymore. The bar has been lowered so many times that it now just lies there on the floor, lifeless and limp, the outmoded relic of other eras.

Perhaps most tellingly, judgmental words like, say, "good" and "bad" are genuinely endangered species. They are perhaps becoming outmoded concepts, doomed to the dump where other discarded values like "originality" now languish. Originality is now really too much to expect from a movie industry enslaved by economics and the need to produce film franchises fit for clone upon clone after clone. In television, on CBS, there are those endless "CSI" franchises. ABC's "Grey's Anatomy"and "Private Practice" are essentially the same show. On ABC Sunday nights, "Desperate Housewives" flows fairly effortlessly into "Brothers and Sisters" -- their temperament and attitude are identical and they seem to even share the same musical score.

Criticism of the culture of too-much-plenty is not all that new. In a 1985 book called "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Neil Postman saw the new excessive excess as a pestilence conducive to fascism. The related rise of bloggery and its implicit dismissal of professional standards in criticism, meanwhile, was condemned by another writer (the professional kind) as the "cult of the amateur." Indeed. One popular Web site that "reviews" film, TV and video releases is written, mostly by its founder, in casually conversational tones: "This is a very cool show" and "This isn't for everyone" pass for reviews of movies in a current edition.

If there's a war -- and some blogs troublingly trash professional standards as quaint and archaic, like communists denouncing anything "counterrevolutionary" -- the blogheads may have won, at least for now. In city after city, newspaper after newspaper has diminished its staff of critics, sometimes to zero. Film and TV critics have been dropped and not replaced. Maybe they're deemed unnecessary because nobody cares if anything's good or not.

Or maybe it's because the very concepts of "good" and "bad" in the arts and communications are now deemed obsolete. Movies and TV shows just "are" and have been fashioned for consumption by various essentially undemanding constituencies. Audiences are stratified according to sexual identity (hence "chick flicks" and "guy movies") or by particular tastes (sexy vampire movies, scary vampire movies, gory vampire movies, straight and gay vampire movies, and so on).

Looking back at the summer movie season -- already being reprised as the fall DVD season -- or looking ahead at the network TV season that is just beginning, we are faced with the proverbial if not quite literal "something for everyone," especially everyone who likes vampires and zombies. But no, seriously -- the range is wide, very wide -- just not deep, very deep.

This columnist surprised himself the other night by watching an entire hour of entertainment on the History Channel that consisted of attempts to drive big trucks up a mountain road in a perilous wilderness. It's a spinoff of "Ice Road Truckers" called "IRT: Deadliest Roads," and that was basically it: trucks being driven up this road, and across this rickety bridge, and since none of them colorfully crashed and burned, we were shown through lifelike computer imagery what it would look like if one of them did crash and burn. It was awful; let's see it again!

Perhaps unscripted reality shows and written fiction have already blurred together into some new amalgamated mush, just as the line between commercials and programs has been trashed. The once inviolate frame within which programs or commercials were displayed on television -- always separately -- has been violated to a pulp. Program content is seen increasingly as a mere backdrop on which ads are posted like billboards on a fence.

And where does it lead -- without getting all judgmental or moralistic about it? First of all, why can't we be judgmental or moralistic anymore -- because it's uncool? But where it all leads is not perhaps to fascism, as one critic worried, or even a kind of cultural fascism, but instead to a culture that is so multi-flavored as to be flavorless, so superficially diverse as to be homogenized and homogeneous. Just a big nothing composed of everything.

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