The Television Set is a Character

11 Oct

As we spoke on Tuesday about the impact of the television set’s physical presence in a space, notably as a rock of the American household around which everything becomes oriented, I had a hard time not thinking about Beavis and Butthead. With very few exceptions, every episode of Beavis and Butthead features the classic scene: the two of them sitting on a couch in  front of the TV. The room seems to have nothing in it at all except the couch and the TV, and to the best of my knowledge, it has never been revealed just whose house it is to begin with. We’re dealing with a highly abstract space designed to emphasize the extent to which (M)TV is all these wayward souls have in the world and as a world.

Most episodes actually begin with a shot of their TV set featuring a parody of a popular show or TV personality, and these programs sometimes set off the action of the episode. More interesting, though, is the even more common shot of Beavis and Butthead watching it. The joke is that they are watching what’s on the other side of the screen, i.e. us, and in turn, we are also Beavis and Butthead. We’re becoming “Vidiots,” mindless couch potatoes, because we’re watching mindless couch potatoes, who are watching mindless couch potatoes, etc and infinitum… (I think David Foster Wallace might have something to say about this). I don’t think the joke stops there, though.

Consider the idea that that classic shot is not just playing with the perspective of the TV viewer, but also of the TV itself. This is a shot taken from the TV set’s point of view. While Beavis and Butthead watch Al Roker, music videos, and what have you, all the TV sees is the two boys sitting, completely still, every day. In order to tell this Wallacean story of televison’s ironic and ironical hegemony, we are introduced to the TV set as a character, a sort of impartial narrator without whose point of view we would not be able to bear witness to the gross decline of American youth culture.

Though “What’s in the Box” does not treat the television as a character, giving it instead an advocate in the Repairman, it does introduce a trope that, in its uses in comedy shows, creates a cognitive mystique around the TV set. There is a Beavis and Butthead episode in which Beavis falls under the impression that he may be pregnant. While trying to take his mind off this (god forbid he is effeminized – he might have to sit up straight while watching TV, says Spigel), he turns on the TV to find a show about pregnancy. He changes the channel to see a scene of childbirth. It seems that every channel is airing a program dealing with the exact topic he is trying to escape from. The “Omniscient Television,” which we saw in our eerie Twilight Zone episode, is a tried and true comedy gag. Some of you might remember an episode of Spongebob Squarepants in which Squidward, resisting the urge to play make-believe with Spongebob inside of an ostensibly somehow enchanted cardboard box, turns on the TV (also a box, interestingly) only to see programs about boxes (including boxing: two boxes fighting one another).

The Omniscient Television is, to borrow some terminology from Wallace, a sort of dream machine (I guess an inside out dream machine would be a Dreamatorium). It shows these characters exactly what they do not want to see, teasing them as another character might. Sure we spend a lot of time watching television, but the television is also a character, and it spends every bit of that time watching us. It has watched so much of us that it knows us better than we do, and that omniscience enables it to be the deliverer of a sardonic joke at the expense of one of its fellow characters.

This is very much akin to one of the paranoias we read about in Sconce’s chapter: is the TV screen one-way, or does whatever is on the other side look back at us? Whatever answer one gives to that, it seems like we are fairly accustomed to the idea that our TVs are not just set pieces in a political theater, semiotic centers of gravity around which social interactions in the home revolve, but also weirdly cognizant beings in their own right that enjoy a certain conversational dynamic with us.

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3 Responses to “The Television Set is a Character”

  1. jhaderlein October 14, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    This reflection is especially interesting in light of David Foster Wallace’s observations on how television seems to be an ideal source of entertainment for the lonely in society. Are these show creator’s consciously putting on screen a realization of the fantasy inherent to a personal relationship with television, that maybe the television is sentient and does care, that it broadcasts these wonders to you because you are so special and deserve it? Something that facilitates these kinds of fancies is definitely as Alessio notes the paranoias mentioned by Sconce, which Sconce directly connects to the alienating nature inherent to the transmission of images from somewhere that is essentially nowhere. It is certainly a far more comforting belief that televised content is a personal communication rather than a disembodied corporatized mass broadcast, and a delusion that is most likely in the interests of the television powers-that-be to perpetuate.

    • Allison Elizabeth October 14, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

      While I find the reference to the David Foster Wallace article valid, I cannot help but have a little apprehension with it. Beavis and Butthead always watch the tv together. I cannot think of an instance in the show where one is watching and the other is not. They may not have the exact same opinions, but that is a huge part of how they talk to each other. Beavis and Butthead are a great example of the idea of social viewing and the way popular culture has completely permeated the way we talk to each other. This goes back to the community feeling were discussing on Thursday. There is something about digesting television together that is hugely appealing to people. We love watching our favorite television shows with other people or in the very least talking to them about those shows afterward. We love this feeling so much that people watch certain programs live because they fear another person being so excited to talk about what occurred during that half an hour or hour of television that they unintentionally spoil it for them. Which might go back to the lonely which is why I don’t completely disagree with the Wallace reference because the loneliness might not just be the living through the viewed experience of televised beings, but also how it makes it easier to connect with other people by referencing television.

  2. kebullock October 14, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    I am interested in the discussion of the personal relationship between individual and television. It becomes even more intriguing when compared to the much more communal relationship with television’s visual relative, cinema. Whereas television can provide the illusion of a private interaction between an individual and the television, one of the appeals of cinema is community viewing. The appeal of viewing genres such as horror or science fiction in a theater is the safe environment in which you can encounter the uncanny topics in the genres. Yet when shows like the Twilight Zone are screened on a television set in one’s home, the communal catharsis no longer exists and the uncanny escapes into the personal space. So again, the uncanny nature of television goes beyond the physical mechanisms of television broadcast and also exists in the private, rather than communal, presentation of certain genres.

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