Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A different kind of conspicuous consumption

Patton Oswalt says, Wake Up, Geek Culture. It's Time to Die. He touches on a few things I have been pondering lately, which is the increase in cultural consumption that has occurred within the past few years--or, as he so adroitly points out, the way in which we are consuming popular culture. There used to be very few TV shows that people watched religiously, and discussed with their friends. Shows that, if someone said, "Oh, I don't watch that," you would say, "What's wrong with you?!? You don't know what you're missing!" The first show like that was I Love Lucy. If you were scheduling to go out to dinner with someone, it could never be at the same time as I Love Lucy.

The show of my generation like that was The Simpsons. When I was in fifth grade, some kids actually had a kind of Simpsons discussion group that met during recess every Monday, to talk about the Simpsons episode that aired the previous evening. (This, of course, was nothing like a book club where they talked about the biting social commentary--it was more like, "Oh man, that part was really funny.") As the show became syndicated, it was possible to watch The Simpsons every day, sometimes up to four times in a single day. When I got to college, if a person wasn't able to converse in Simpsons references, it usually meant they had parents who, at some point, strictly controlled what they watched on TV.

Today, you can watch any TV show you want, any time of day. On that note, we are going to take a brief diversion.


People sometimes talk about how bad TV has gotten in the past decade, pointing to the surfeit of crap reality TV that is out there. TV has also, in other respects, gotten really good in the past decade. Setting aside the several original series produced by Showtime and HBO (The Wire. There, I said it.), there are plenty of shows that are far better than what was around in the 90s. To me, the only things that come to mind are sitcoms, since it is one of my preferred genres: Community, Children's Hospital, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Office, to name but a few. In animation, there has been Avatar, Adventure Time, and quite a few things on Adult Swim.

I think that was has happened is that instead of trying to make their shows appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, producers are trying to make each show appeal to a particular audience in the best possible way. When you form a devoted following, you get people who tune in every time the show is on, regardless of what else is on, whereas before, you might have gotten people who watched your show simply because it was the best thing that happened to be on at the time. (Also, there are now shows you have to pay attention to while you watch them, and shows where you can do housework and only half pay attention while missing nothing.)

What brought this into stark relief for me was when I recently watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its fans will talk to you about all the things that are so great about it, while its detractors will talk to you about all the things that are bad about it. From time to time, both of them are correct. It has interesting storylines where characters make tough moral choices... but it will sometimes have entire episodes where the characters play hot potato with the idiot ball. There is a lot of fluff and filler. And this is because the show was probably aimed at trying to capture both the audience who likes "good television," and the audience that watches whatever crap happens to be on right now.

If Buffy were made today, I think that it would have half as many episodes per season, and have at least 50% less filler. It would be more watchable for some people, while some of its most die-hard fans would probably be upset that you cut out all of the rich social drama (which was really just people yelling at each other for five minutes, over a misunderstanding).


So, we now live in a world with lots of great television shows. And video games. And movies. And books, good god, there are books everyone is reading! With the power of the internet, we can find out all of the cool things there are to consume in our spare time. We can also see our friends having conversations about these things, and we think, "I would like to be able to participate in that conversation. I will go find out what it is they are talking about." (I might just be speaking for myself, but I don't think the power of implicit social pressure should be denied.) But each one of those TV shows will require several hours of your time to watch all the way through. The movies, two hours apiece. The video games, 10 hours or more. The books depend on how fast you read and what books you are reading, but reading a George R. R. Martin novel will require no less than 10 hours of your time.

Now you are spending every possible minute of your spare time doing nothing but consume popular culture, and it's not enough. Unless you quit your job, and make your life all about media consumption, there is never going to be enough time for all of it. The further problem, as Patton Oswalt says, is that you are never taking the time to reflect on these things and absorb them. In a world where we never have to watch the same show twice, we are missing out on the value of repeated viewing that made some of us conversant in Simpsons references.

This means that you have to make a choice in what you are going to consume, and stop worrying about the fact that you haven't consumed the thing your friends are talking about.  I am trying to take this even further, and want to take the time to rewatch some of the shows I have enjoyed the most in the past five years (yes, The Wire, but also Adventure Time). If we don't try to slow ourselves down, I don't think it will be quite as bad as Oswalt says, but it doesn't seem like something I want to be part of. All I can see is a future of image macros that reference 10 different intellectual properties at once.

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