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Every now and again, you’ll see something on television that will stop you in your tracks and make everything else you’ve seen recently pale in comparison. Which raises the question: Why does television so often fail to live up to its potential?
The show that brought this to mind for me this week was Tuesday’s episode of The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson, in which he got rid of the monologue, the robot sidekick and, for the most part, the comedy to talk to author and philosopher Dr. Cornel West for an hour. Ostensibly a conversation about the importance of Black History Month, it was an amazing, meandering conversation that was really about the human experience, history and cultures as a whole, and West’s amazing delivery of the word “funk” (suitably, George Clinton was the musical guest for the evening). It was smart — Ferguson joking that West was intimidatingly smart in the opening, playing down his own intelligence for comic effect, but the two together were really impressively up there — and challenging and enjoyable, and it really made me wonder why we don’t see more talk shows like it, instead of something advertising the latest movie, book, TV series or pop song that might be the next big thing.
(On a related topic, am I the only one who thought that the Justin Bieber appearance on The Daily Show was, although funny, kind of depressing? If only they hadn’t had the movie-title punchline … Jon, we expect so much more of you.)
It’s not just talk shows, though; how many dramas can honestly compete with The Wire or Friday Night Lights? How many reality shows can go the This American Life route, instead of just turning serious subjects into triviality? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not demanding that everything on television be heavy, weighty programming that “means something,” but on the flipside, I don’t get why so little of what’s there is so frivolous. Television is such an amazing medium, capable of so much more than it’s generally used for … Is it really so wrong to want that to change?
The answer, of course, is “probably.” Easy viewing is more popular than the alternative, as the ratings history of, oh, every single television show that’s required more input from the viewers than the norm has proven, and without the viewers, there’s not enough advertising, and without the advertising, there’s no money, and without the money there’s no television show. It’d be nice to imagine a utopian world where networks were run like PBS and could invest in things that wouldn’t necessarily have to be the Next Big Thing to make it to the end of its run, but that would require a change not only in the way the industry runs, but also the shows that audiences are ready to watch.
There’s a lot to be said for unchallenging television; entertainment isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself, after all, and television is probably used as relaxation after a stressful day in many, many homes across the country. Some of my favorite shows are unchallenging (and, yes, I know how cliched that sounds) … It’s just that I don’t think that entertainment and education have to be polar opposites (Again, The Late, Late Show managed to span the divide successfully this week, and on radio, WNYC’s Radiolab does it every single episode). I’d like to see someone try and bridge the gap on a regular basis. That, or settle for Brad Meltzer’s Decoded …