Friday, May 23, 2008

Dumb it down, baby

Got into an interesting conversation yesterday with a professor from UT about World War I. Won't give too much away since I have a column to write.

But, one thing he said, about another topic, piqued my curiosity. He was talking about good television, and how it doesn't have to be dumbed down for moronic consumption. At its best, he said, television can educate, entertain and inspire.

He's exactly right.

God knows I've wasted a big portion of my life watching mindless sit-coms and hour-long escapist adventures on the tube. As the great savant Willy Wonka once observed, "A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men."

At some point, though, you have to ask yourself what this crap says about us as a society. "Temptation Island," for example, comes to mind, as does virtually anything on MTV.

Compare something like "M*A*S*H," the most popular 30-minute show of its day, with its mid-'90s equivalent -- at least in terms of popularity -- "Seinfeld."

"M*A*S*H" started off as a fairly lowbrow sit-com, "Hogan's Heroes" goes to Korea, have a laugh on me, I can help. And then something wonderful happened.

Alan Alda and producers Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalf and Larry Gelbart decided to make this show stand for something. You'd laugh, sure, but you also might learn something, could ponder a grand point, gain insight into why humans do the things they do, and even (quick, make sure nobody's looking) shed a tear or two along the way.

And, somewhere amid those 11 years, the stereotypes became three-dimensional characters. Alda tried to show us how to become better human beings. William Tecumseh Sherman would have been proud. It was difficult to come away from a night with the 4077th not believing that war is all hell.

"Seinfeld" was a self-described show about nothing. Occasionally amusing, sometimes brilliant (Kramer finding the set to the "Merv Griffin Show"), "Seinfeld" often morphed into a 22-minute ego trip. Four selfish, impish, incredibly solipsistic characters would roam around Manhattan, all wrapped up in themselves, commenting about the most inane aspects of life.

I can't tell you the delight I took when the much-hyped "Seinfeld" finale came nowhere near the ratings monster that was the final installment of "M*A*S*H."

Times change, I guess. Two generations removed from Vietnam, maybe something like "M*A*S*H" is no longer relevant.

What's that? You forgot about the wars in the Middle East?

Guess you were too busy watching TV...

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