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From the Short Stack: Mark Crispin Miller on TV

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From the Short Stack: Mark Crispin Miller on TV

Critic and professor Mark Crispin Miller, one of the voices I hear in my head, had this to say about TV in his essay, “Deride and Conquer,” part of a 1986 anthology titled Watching Television.

On first reading this piece about how TV blurs the lines between different sorts of programming (and ads), I remember thinking Miller overstated his case. Twenty years on, we live in a 1000-channel, product-placement-heavy universe. Top-dollar ads and prime time dramas strive to look like Hollywood studio pictures. The news often resembles a weepy TV movie, a combative syndicated talk show or a home shopping channel. And TV Guide Channel and E! treat the comings and goings of celebs and pseudo-celebs as an “event” or a “story.” “Deride and Conquer” now seems prophetic.

In 1986, Miller described TV as having…

“…gone beyond the explicit celebration of commodities to the implicit reinforcement of that spectatorial posture which TV requires of us. Now it is not enough just to proffer an infinitude of goods; TV must also try to get its viewers to prefer the passive, hungry watching of those goods, must lead us to believe that our spectatorial inaction is the only sort of action possible. Appropriately, TV pursues this project through some automatic strategies of modern advertising….

“First of all, TV now exalts TV spectatorship by preserving a hermetic vision that is uniformly televisual. Like advertising, TV today shows almost nothing that might somehow clash with its busy, monolithic style. This new stylistic near-integrity is the product of a long process whereby TV has eliminated or subverted whichever of its older styles have threatened to impede the sale of goods; that is, styles that might once have encouraged some non-televisual type of spectatorship. Despite the rampant commodity emphasis on TV since the mid-50s, there were still several valuable rifts in its surface, contrasts that could still enable a critical view of TV’s enterprise.

“For instance, there was for years a a stark contrast between the naturalistic gray of TV’s ’public interest’ programming (the news, and ’educational television’) and the bright, speedy images surrounding it—a contrast that sustained, however vaguely, the recognition of a world beyond the ads and game shows. That difference is gone now that the news has been turned into a mere extension of prime time, relying on the same techniques and rhetoric that define the ads.”

Miller’s observations have dated in the sense that TV does allow keen stylistic gradations between channels. Such HBO dramas as The Sopranos, Deadwood and Rome, for instance, tend to be emotionally cooler, more classically directed, more rooted in wide masters and deliberate camera moves than, say, the jagged, documentary-affected, emotionally turbocharged dramas you see on FX (The Shield, Rescue Me). But he was right about TV news, which has become even more frenetic, jumbled and prone to melodrama than when Miller wrote “Deride and Conquer.” And he was right when he wrote that TV, like all durable media, had incorporated self-awareness, even a mild pantomime of self-criticism, as a means of defusing distrust and ensuring its own survival. That impulse explains the occasional appearance, on news channels or medium-conscious outlets like TV Land and Trio, of media experts who are given anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute to describe (but never actually critique) the neon funnel cloud swirling around them.

“TV solicits each viewer’s allegiance by reflecting back his or her own automatic skepticism toward TV,” Miller wrote. “Thus, TV protects itself from criticism or rejection by incorporating our very animus against the spectacle into the spectacle itself.”

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.