Television Is Evil

August 9, 2008 – A brief examination of the “evil” television, its pros and cons, including a list of my favorite television shows and the years they aired.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

Television is evil. At least that’s what everyone says. I myself have disparaged television from time to time. Mostly I have criticized the uncritical, vegetative manner in which people watch television, as well as the length of time they spend doing so. I’ve also criticized the inane and insulting commercials and some of the appalling shows that are so popular.

However, television, like anything else, is simply an inanimate tool that can be used beneficially or abused. Other things can be abused just as easily, even computers. I readily admit that I spend too much time using my computer – I suppose I’m a computer addict. However, I don’t use the computer to the extent that it interferes with my life (except when it comes to my avoiding spending four hours in the hot sun cutting the grass; then I can find abundant excuses to hunker down in front of the computer!).

I watch television almost daily. Presently, I almost always watch Everybody Loves Raymond at dinnertime. When the commercials come on I mute the volume and avert my attention from the television – the ads are utterly wasted on me. (I wonder how long before advertisers gain control of our televisions and prevent us from muting the volume!) Sometimes I take a peek at the 24 hour weather channel just to see what kind of weather to expect during the next few days. On rare occasions I take a peek at the national news broadcast to see what propaganda is being spewed. A few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to see a story on CBS about troubled banks that actually delved deeply enough into the story to discuss the esoteric Texas Ratio. More rarely I might glance at the local news, but its insipidity is unbearable. Why are all local news programs alike? Except for a few different details, such as place names, the stories are the same, the “actors” look the same, the program flow is the same. Sometimes in the evening I’ll watch an episode of an old television program, such as Kung Fu, of which I have hundreds. That’s the best way to watch television, without commercials. On average, I probably spend about one hour a day watching television in the manner I described, far less time than I spend reading articles online, reading books, writing, or even cooking.

I actually watch more television today than I did a few months ago, thanks to the HDTV tuner I acquired recently. By the way, I can personally attest that the HDTV tuner coupon program the government is operating is one of example of a government program that works well. The coupon I received paid for 80% of the cost of the HDTV tuner. And while some people, such as my father, resent the government subsidizing these devices, I disagree. The government is the one mandating the switch from analog to digital transmission. Therefore, it’s appropriate that the government should help poor people like me pay for the transition rather than render our old televisions obsolete. (Even if everyone could afford to go buy a new television, can you imagine the environmental impact of disposing of all the old ones? Keeping them operational is pragmatic, if nothing else.) Besides, probably a small fraction of television viewers receive their signals through the airwaves, so it’s not as if the government needs to subsidize an HDTV tuner for every single television in America. Even if it did, let’s say there are 300 million televisions in America. At a cost to the government of $40 per HDTV tuner, that’s a one-time cost of only $12 billion. That’s what the the government is spending every month on the war in Iraq! That’s a few percent of what the government has spent bailing out the nation’s bankers since last summer! Aside from the low cost to me for the HDTV tuner, the darn thing works spectacularly! I used to get three channels very poorly, so poorly, in fact, that I seldom bothered to watch them! Now I get the same three channels, but they are subdivided into several digital channels each and they are crystal clear. Sometimes atmospheric conditions or – I believe – local radio sources interfere with the signal, but I can usually compensate by moving my antenna around (just like the old days). Usually the signal either works or doesn’t, which is what I would expect with a digital broadcast.

While I don’t think my television viewing habits come close to being abusive, it’s obvious that many people do abuse television. I’ve read that Americans spend an average of six or eight hours watching television. I don’t see how that’s possible, but I’ll accept it at face value. In any case, if this is true, then that’s definitely abusive. I have had occasion to observe people watching television in the manner I object to. I once observed a dear friend of mine reposing in his recliner, hardly stirring, half awake, watching – or rather absorbing – Faux News. At some point during the broadcast my friend said something that floored me. He said with all seriousness, “I think Bush will go down as one of the best presidents in history.” I was stunned, not because I have a partisan objection to Bush – he’s irrelevant to me and I am neither supportive of nor antagonistic toward the guy. I was stunned because my friend is a very intelligent and kind fellow, and evidence abounds of the enormous damage Bush has caused to our nation. The only explanation I could come up with why my friend would say something like that is that it was implanted into his brain by the likes of Faux News during one of his half-awake receptive states.

When I watch news programs my critical thinking skills go on red alert and I look for the slightest indication of important omissions, truthiness, spin, etc. I’m pleasantly surprised, like with that CBS story, when the story is not misleading and reasonably thorough (as thorough as one can be in thirty seconds). But a lot of people shut off their critical thinking skills when they vegetate in front of the television, so the programming can enter their minds and more or less brainwash them. Astonishingly, nobody I know who watches television bothers to turn off the volume when commercials come on. Not only are commercials especially offensive because of their louder volume and insulting messages, but they are even more likely to brainwash the viewer. After all, what is marketing if not brainwashing?

Television is useful as a barometer of social attitudes, especially serial shows. I’ve been watching television since shortly after it was invented, so I’ve seen huge changes in the nature of television programs. My favorite era for television shows is the 1960s and 1970s. After that it was pretty much downhill, with some notable exceptions, such as Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond.

Cop shows in particular seem to reflect our changing social attitudes. In the 1950s and 1960s cop shows such as Dragnet, Ironside, Adam 12 and Hawaii Five-O reflected the strict law-and-order mentality of those eras, but with professionalism and civility. In the 1970s cop shows like The Streets of San Francisco, Starsky & Hutch and The Rockford Files depicted a kinder, gentler, more compassionate demeanor, echoing society’s attitudes of the time. Citizens’ rights were at their peak and government power was at its lowest ebb during the 1970s, and these shows echoed that fact by depicting cops dealing with the public in a reverential manner. Cop shows at the beginning of the 1980s, such as Magnum P.I., continued the gentle 1970s motif, but by the mid-1980s, shows such as Hunter and Miami Vice, veered away from “coddling” the criminals, reflecting a similar harshness overtaking society at that time. The latter two shows began to blur the line between righteous law enforcement and criminality, but still the integrity of the cops remained unimpeachable. Magnum P.I. of the 1980s was a lot like The Rockford Files of the 1970s, and, in fact, the star of Magnum P.I., Tom Selleck, appeared as a private detective in a couple of episodes of The Rockford Files, so I can’t help but think those appearances inspired the later show. By the 1990s, however, shows such as NYPD Blue really began to depict cops as imperfect human beings capable of being immoral and even criminal. Finally today, in the 2000s, shows such as COPS and 24 are downright loathsome and proudly depict – no, glorify – cops that can be described as borderline criminals or terrorists, goons. Other contemporary cop shows, such as NCIS, laud technological wizardry and seemingly unlimited law enforcement powers in the hands of trustworthy “authorities.” I don’t think I need to dwell on the parallels between these modern shows and modern day society.

In summary, television, like anything else, can be “evil” if used improperly. But it can also be a useful information tool and a window on the world. Television is exceedingly useful as a sociological tool, succinctly and accurately capturing society’s changing values. One more thing I love about watching old television programs: I love seeing old footage of the way things were when I was a kid. The simplicity of life, the freedom from technology, the lack of real estate development, the diversity of people, architecture, businesses, in contrast to today’s saturating, monochromatic, clonish forms. It’s like going back in time, to a happier (to me) time. Another thing I enjoy when watching old television shows is seeing actors before they became famous. For example, one of Harrison Ford’s earliest appearances was in an episode of Ironside. You may get the impression that I’m some kind of TV-holic. That isn’t the case at all. I simply have a passion for movies and some television shows, I’ve been around a long time, and I have an extremely good memory that enables me to remember an extraordinary number of details.

As I always suspected, my favorite era for television shows was the 1970s. The table below lists how many of my favorite shows aired in each decade (some shows spanned as many as three decades).

Decade Number Of Favorite Shows
1950s 3
1960s 9
1970s 13
1980s 9
1990s 9
2000s 5

To conclude, I’d like to offer this list of my favorite television shows.

Show Years Aired (Source: Comments
Gunsmoke 1955-1975 Extremely long-running series. Full of the usual western morals, such as honor and integrity.
The Twilight Zone 1959-1964 Who isn’t familiar with Rod Serling’s in-person introductions of these episodes? Extremely imaginative stories and a surprising number of appearances by future stars, including William Shatner, the future Captain Kirk. It seems like the show ran longer than a mere five years.
Bonanza 1959-1973 Western about the Cartwright family. This show aired during the heyday of western television shows and movies. Occasionally beautiful scenery, and all the usual good moral values. Hoss is my favorite character.
Wild, Wild West 1965-1969 I love all westerns. This show combines westerns with tongue in cheek comedy, good natured amusement, gadgetry, and stunningly beautiful colors. And, if West and Gordon aren’t gay lovers, they ought to be!
Big Valley 1965-1969 Yet another western. Sort of a B-grade Bonanza. Lee Majors, who stared in this show, later went on to star in The Six Million Dollar Man.
Star Trek 1966-1969 What can I say? I’m a nerd, a geek. I love Mr. Spock.
Mission Impossible 1966-1973 Mostly I like the super-duper gadgetry and the exquisite perfect planning and execution of their missions. Nothing ever goes wrong, and they seldom, if ever, kill anybody. The political themes, while reminiscent of real life, seem so corny when seen on the screen.
Ironside 1967-1975 Very kind-hearted cop show, set in my favorite American city, San Francisco. The scenes of the city alone back then make the show worth watching. One of Harrison Ford's earliest appearances was in this show.
Hawaii Five-O 1968-1980 Long running cop show. McGarrett is tough but fair. I like the early seasons; I’m not familiar with the later seasons. Really showed off the locale where it was filmed.
Kung Fu 1972-1975 Sort of an east meets western. The main character is a paragon of honor and kindness and everything else noble. Notable quote: “No, grasshopper, evil cannot be conquered in the world. It can only be resisted within oneself.” Harrison Ford appeared in an episode as a “Mr. Harrison.” A “retired” Captain Kirk appeared in another episode as a ship captain.
The Streets of San Francisco 1972-1977 Another kindhearted cop show situated in San Francisco. Very similar to Ironside, but not quite as family-like a bunch of characters. One episode was filmed on the very street where I once lived, which I thought was cool, seeing my apartment building and all.
Sanford and Son 1972-1977 Comedy about a junk dealer living in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles. Not extremely funny, but deals with contemporary issues. I do like bible-thumping Aunt Esther, though.
The Rockford Files 1974-1980 Excellent detective show featuring a humble main character who uses his wits instead of his brawn, and isn’t afraid to flee like a girlie-man or stand up for his Constitutional rights. Wistfully, it also depicts the law enforcement authorities respecting those rights, something that today is wishful thinking.
Starsky & Hutch 1975-1979 Warmhearted cop/buddy show. Often corny but the guys are always likable. As with Wild, Wild West, if these guys aren’t gay lovers, they ought to be! One particularly predictable thing about this show is that if one of the guys gets a girlfriend, you know she's gonna die.
Barney Miller 1975-1982 Comedy about a small police precinct in New York during one of its tumultuous eras. Pokes fun at many contemporary problems.
Qunicy M.E. 1976-1983 Yet another cop/detective/mystery show featuring a dedicated and unimpeachable main character. Kind of preachy at times.
Dallas 1978-1991 Excellent depiction of the wheeling, dealing, roaring 1980s. Most of the characters are deliciously wicked, conniving scum, but there are a few gems among them. It’s terribly amusing once everybody has slept with everybody else.
Magnum P.I. 1980-1988 Lighthearted detective show featuring crazy predicaments and the beautiful scenery of Hawaii.
Dynasty 1981-1989 A contemporary, more girlie (and gay) and genteel version of Dallas.
Miami Vice 1984-1989 There’s much I dislike about this show: the drug war theme, the glorified violence. I’m not really sure why I like the show. Maybe it’s because the characters display the same ambivalence as me. Or maybe it’s the music.
Hunter 1984-1991 Super cornball, macho-man cop show. But Hunter is such a stud he carries it off. Such a flashy ‘80s show too. You gotta see the tights, leg warmers and big hair to believe it. Think Flashdance with guns.
Keeping Up Appearances 1990-1995 Sophisticated, but not too, English comedy. I love Onslow.
Highlander 1992-1998 I love the concept of immortality – I wish I were immortal. And the flashbacks are a lot of fun, if implausible. Plus it’s occasionally set in Paris, one of my favorite places, where the guy lives on a barge in the river! How fun would that be?
Absolutely Fabulous 1992-2005 (five seasons) Somewhat funny but gets tiresome fast. I love the debauched gals, though, especially Patsy.
The Nanny 1993-1999 Formulaic but warmhearted comedy featuring weird, neurotic personalities.
Frasier 1993-2004 Sophisticated and witty, exceedingly well-timed comedy. The brothers’ benign snobbishness always trips them up. The last few seasons were extremely tired! Once Daphne and Niles wed, it was all down hill.
Everybody Loves Raymond 1996-2005 Comedy about a neurotic, dysfunctional family. Nevertheless, the characters are all endearing. I love that old curmudgeon, Frank!
That ‘70s Show 1998-2006 Deftly captures the nuances of the fun and kooky 1970s, my favorite decade.
Queer as Folk (USA) 2000-2005 Poignant, bittersweet, touching and fairly realistic portrayal of gay people living in Pittsburgh. Quite risqué (often XXX-rated) and not for the faint of heart!

The End