Did you ever wonder just when television became so sexualized and violent? When gangsters, pimps and drug dealers became our top-rated dramas? It's ratings, but it goes deeper.
It happened over time. It starts with reality television in the 90s, which was also the decade the Sopranos started in. The nineties brought in the newly sexualized and violent content to two areas where drama was socially acceptable: police work and hospitals. Shows like Law and Order and ER brought the shock value, but were okay, since the heroes were cops and doctors. In the aughts is when it shifted to the bad guys being the focus.
There are a few threads here. First, we have the rise of graphic images and scenarios, which I contend for television starts in the 90s and increases in the past decade. Prior to then very graphic stuff wasn't on television. Second, the graphic stuff is increasingly on shows where anti-heroes, generally criminal, are the focus. Dexter, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Oz, Hannibal, and so on. This was not the lineup of characters in the seventies and eighties. Third, television in general is more and more emotionally charged, from reality tv, to the well-scripted dramas, to the news. Take a look at a pretty decent list of best tv shows (http://tinyurl.com/nu8wckr) and compare historically. Very few are so emotionally charged before 1990, and if they are, it's sympathetic for characters who you consider good people. If I'm wound up by an episode of M*A*S*H or Cheers, it's because I feel for the difficulties they're going through.
Lastly, while I get that people have for a while been hyperfocused around television – wanting to know who shot JR and who'll win the Super bowl – I feel as though the placation has increased, and due to the emotional intensity, is more dangerous. Watching television can now leave people feeling drained. And that is potentially very dangerous.
Instead of screaming at the Koch brothers, we're screaming at Skyler and Tony Soprano. We are invested in reality tv celebrities, because we want to see our choice make it to the final round. We have so much strong emotion on our televisions, we've saved none for the realities we must conquer to make our world a better place. Which is just the way they want it.
The other night Robert Reich was on The Daily Show, for his film ‘Inequality for All’. I read a lot of Reich for my “Loser Generation” series, and put money where my mouth is for the kickstarter that funded this movie. I am in complete agreement with Reich that money in politics is the most dangerous thing in our society today. I wrote about this at length, and I am motivated to fix and change it.
Yet sometimes I feel pulled between competing passionate subjects. I’m teaching ‘Current Social Issues’ this semester and the goal is to get the kids zealous about big issues. We’ve talked about genocide, modern slavery, and race discrimination regarding the death penalty. They are intrigued, and sort of sad, but not moved. You could say it’s my teaching, but I don’t think so. Because the other night, on dormitory duty, I saw a boy become impassioned by ‘Breaking Bad’ who was unmoved by human trafficking that same morning.
This is part of why the youth generation is a bunch of losers. It applies to Gen Y, the young professionals who aren’t in the streets protesting for equality and wage benefits befitting their dignity and degrees, and to the youth who are currently teens, raised in a decade of wire-tapping and standardized testing that has left them numbed and apathetic. Imagine your day: school is useless, or your job far below your training and education level, you go home and distract yourself with television which leaves you emotionally drained, and then what you don’t do is try and start a social movement, a protest, or a sit-in. And, like, look at Occupy, man. Like the youth’s parents learned, protests are a bummer, demonstrations are a drag. After an unfulfilling day, let’s sit around and get excited by meth dealers, murders and sexual victimization.
“Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.” ~ Bill Hicks