My sister sent me an e-mail describing her frustration with a peer who labeled television as 'passive entertainment'. That riled up the both of us, and here was what I wrote. Keep in mind, I didn't edit from the original e-mail, so it may be a little sloppy and parentheses-intensive.
People who call television ‘passive’ are one of two things. 1) Assholes. 2) Watching bad television. I actually saw According to Jim a week or two back. (I was waiting for Lost to start.) And I realized about 15 minutes in that I hadn’t watched TV like that in a long time. I was not having any kind of reaction to anything being presented to me, I wasn’t thinking about it, I didn’t feel anything about it – it was simply there. (Even the gender-stereotyping subtext was such well-trodden ground (every episode of Home Improvement) that it didn’t provoke any kind of reaction.) There are shows that promote passive viewing (And even then you can still approach them as an active viewer, but the rewards won’t really be there.), but that’s like tarring all movies as being exploitative because pornography exists. There’s this elitism that’s always going to exist, simply because TV comes into your house for free (more or less). These are people who will always mistake inaccessibility for quality. (And I don’t mean ‘inaccessible’ as in ‘I had a hard time getting into that movie’. I mean it literally. ‘You have to order the DVD straight from the director to get a copy, but he only checks his e-mail every couple of weeks. Plus, you need a Region 2 DVD player, since he feels like the American home entertainment industry is inherently corrupt.’) Further, they’re judging an entire medium by its worst examples. (Or worse, what they perceive to be its worst examples, based on something they heard another asshole say.) That’s like me saying that film is inherently pandering because of “Wild Hogs” or “Norbit”, or that the novel is a worthless medium because of Danielle Steel or Newt Gingrich.
Even people who should know better make this mistake. NPR recently called The Wire the ‘best film’ of 2006. Their logic being that the show was so good, why, it was as good as a movie! Which is really fucking stupid. (Per the e-mail I wrote them. It was not read on the air.) It was so good, it deserves to be elevated to the same medium that brought us “Are We There Yet?”, apparently. First off, I firmly believe that at any given time you can find more quality on television than at the movie theater. Secondly, the specific strengths of The Wire that they applauded were things that would be nearly impossible in a movie. (Full disclosure: I love The Wire more than I would love my children, if I had any. Just to be fair, I’m sticking with specific things NPR mentioned.) They praised the intricate story. True, and it unfolded over 13 hours. Not really something that film can do. And the emotional impact of the finale? Well, that may have been helped by the fact that in the past 4 years, we’ve spent 50 hours with these characters. Again, you can’t really do that in a movie. It’s really something that these ‘patrons of the arts’ should have considered. Can you imagine somebody ignorant enough to try that in another media? “That painting is so good, it’s as good as a book!”