From the beginning of Caldwell’s chapter, “Excessive Style: The Crisis of Network Television” I was thinking about Hamlet. In act 3.2, Hamlet encourages his actors to hold up a mirror to nature with their art. So whenever someone (Caldwell) accuses an art of being tasteless, trashy, whatever negative evaluation you can come up with, I tend to think of what that reflects about us. I think that to see what is in the TV/mirror (“combination female mud-wrestling act-heavy-metal rock concert game-show with some comedy bits thrown in”, for example) as a perfect reflection is an ineffectual way of viewing. On page 20, Caldwell says that paradigms can “compete, contract, and co-exist”. With this in mind we could see “trash TV” as a dramatic response to inaccuracies reflected by highly stylized prime time TV, a rejection of too much cultural “air brushing” brought about by TV that perfects an image of an educated, beautiful society.
Caldwell opens with an example of two trashy programs being juxtaposed, but look at the juxtaposition of a show like Jersey Shore competing for viewers with Big Bang Theory. First, it should be acknowledged that Jersey Shore is on a cable channel whereas Big Bang Theory plays on CBS, so there is some disparity in viewership based solely on access. It is also important to note that Big Bang Theory and Jersey Shore vary generically — sit-com versus reality TV, respectively. It is still worthwhile to compare the different images of society reflected by each program, and what motivates the distorted image of our society projected by each.
In Big Bang Theory, we see a group of pretty nerdy dudes that somehow through their endearing quirky-ness and genius antics attract a hot girl to sometimes hang out in their apartment. The “nerds” are stylized — none are actually that unattractive. They are funny nerds, they project the typical nerdy tropes but win us over with their endearing quirky-ness. Also, no one on the show is obese, or even overweight. Any one of these dudes could slap on a suit and rock the red carpet. And the hot chick is of course, a blonde hot chick.
Then we flip the channel over the Jersey Shore. Bam. Fat people. Crazy hair, crazy make-up, f-you attitudes abound. There is no awareness of audience, no pandering. The plot of Jersey Shore consists almost entirely of night after night of partying, and interrupted by brief observations interjected from cast members, confessional-style. No one is super pretty, or super witty. They make mistakes that aren’t resolved in 30 minutes (or a whole season). They get arrested, and do things that are (to some) irredeemable. Jersey Shore emphasizes the kind of “live-ness” referenced by Caldwell on page 29. While it is not being broadcast live, it embodies the same experience. The unscripted reality creates an electric excitement from knowing that these characters are not “photo-shopped” — this is really how they are, how they exist, look, interact. This concept of “raw-ness” prevails in reality television as a genre and could be seen as a cultural desire for more live action, perhaps a need that used to be satisfied by live theatrical performances (this should be another blog post).
Unlike Big Bang Theory, where we see people who fundamentally want us to like them, on Jersey Shore we see an insular group who seem by their actions to be nearly unaware that their may be a shocked/disapproving/enthralled audience observing their actions. The image of our society put out by Jersey Shore is vastly different from the image reflected by Big Bang Theory, yet there is overlap in the demographics they attract (age 12-34). They both do well within that demographic.
What does this tell us? Sure, Big Bang Theory isn’t Breaking Bad – which is to say, if we did this comparison with a drama, some kind of Prime Time, auteur-ey show, this would be a totally different post. What I’m interested in is the image of society that these two shows give us. One, that we are redeeming and attractive and smart (or maybe redeeming and attractive despite our smarts). The other, that we are trashy alcoholic animals. Maybe we to see both distortions in order to find a truthful middle ground, a true reflection.