Do We Prefer Comfort TV To Good TV?

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

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Comments

  • kozmik

    Everything you stated here is true….

  • Jay Gerding

    Interesting. I have never been able to watch more than 10 minutes of Ferguson before having to turn it off. This one, I might have watched. In our house, we have basically dropped most late night type shows in favor of Graham Norton on BBC America. Way funnier, more in-depth interviews, and more attention to the guests instead of the antics of the host.

  • mw

    The Late Late Show is my favorite late night talk show (or whatever the category is) next to the Daily Show and the Colbert Report.

    I do thinking we as a society prefer Comfort TV, which isn’t surprising.

  • Thoream

    I couldn’t watch the show thank’s to my cable company for doing some maintenance. Fergusson made a couple of shows like that before including one without audience. It will be better if the shows (any of them) will concentrate in one guess per episode, artist, cientist, actors, – even some politicians could be interesting- but by now I think that is establish that this shows got to be like they are with, thank’s Craig, few exceptions

  • Fero

    I am not trying to sound smart or superior but…exactly what you said before because people that hear Justin Biever will only tune in for that reason.America doesn’t prefer quality as much as quantity in anything lowering the standard of the standards and for this I am honestly so glad that comics is a medium that is and probably will never be embraced into the general public as serious reading material when neither film(besides indie films)or media reaches anywhere near the creativity found in comics,the heroes is the only they see but that’s as far as it goes.If comics were to go the same direction I do not have to say where they’ll end up because we’d already know.The thing im trying to get at is there is a certain sense of adventure to look forward to finding things that are worth your time both in intellect and value,alot of people tend to forget that as we grow up and end up settling for what the glowing box gives them.

  • Brian

    “Comfort” or “good”? That’s a false distinction. Many things are both, and light escapism is not only valid, but important.

    Why is “easy” television more popular? Because real, everyday life is stressful and mentally taxing, so the reason many people turn to television in the first place is to get a release and maintain some level of peace of mind. If you live a demanding life, then come home and indulge in nothing but the most heavy, challenging television, you’ll probably spend every day feeling exhausted, depressed, and overwhelmed. It’s not desirable, and it’s not healthy.

    Variety is good. Lightness is good.

  • Michael P

    Of course we do. Where the hell have you been?

  • Acerbic68

    Damn normally I stay up for Craig, but this past week I’ve skipping him. And then this happens.
    Well they’ll repeat it eventually.

  • Apodaca

    But most things are not both. Let’s be honest, here. The majority of light television is not good, and the majority of television is light fare. I think it’s silly to argue to validity of light television, because it’s already the winner, in terms of quantity. You don’t have to defend it.

  • Sijo

    The problem is that quality and personal tastes are not necessarily connected. Was that episode of Late Late better than the usual? Probably, from a technical point of view. Would I watch it? Not likely, it sounds like it would bore me to sleep. And the general audience is composed of million of different opinions that vary all the time. Are the movies that sell each year the best ones? Even some of Shakespeare’s works were originally ridiculed. If you’re a TV producer, can you be blamed for not taking many risks if you don’t know if they will pay off? (The smart thing is to offer “comfort” stuff while experimenting on the side, until you find the next hot trend.)

  • Brian

    There’s a difference between light television and vapid television. No one’s defending Jersey Shore here.

    And things really aren’t as bad as you’re making it out to be. There’s a wealth of good television out there right now, light and heavy, and if you disagree, I think that speaks more to your personal experience than the actuality of what’s available.

    Your point about the majority of light television not being good is moot, because it’s rare for the majority of anything to be good. The majority of challenging television isn’t good either. But there’s plenty of good television out there on all levels for people that are willing to seek it out. This is the golden age of television.

  • Brian from Canada

    Personally, I see two problems here.

    First, you’re comparing talk shows and in that regard, it’s dependent on the guest. Most guests don’t care to drive the interview so long as their product is plugged: just look at Jay Leno, and it’s funny anecdote followed by plug, followed by next guest. And that ASSUMES you’re talking about someone who’s interested in interviewing as well — Fallon’s becoming the living SNL sketch by Chris Farley who talks without asking questions.

    But then you get some guests who are there to talk. Stewart and Colbert, like Maher and pre-CNBC Dennis Miller, got guests from the political spectrum who were there to go beyond the simple plugs and talk about the issues. (Here in Canada, we have George S. and his desire to get to different issues in the plugger’s life.) And those are the ones that shine.

    So the real answer is to go get people worth asking questions of. Ellen can have the drop by for a plug, but a talk show should really be about TALK.

    The other issue is light vs serious television, and that’s a whole other ball game. It’s not that light is more popular or that it escapes us from our daily lives: it’s two things, the first of which is the fact that most of the networks these days are too afraid of parents groups and other watchdog organizations who scream and protest when the serious issues are raised, or even when they try to get closer to real life in language or attitudes. In other words, it takes a cable network to give us Sex & The City or Weeds, which is light fare that goes beyond the restraints, just as it takes a cable network to give us The Pacific because of its short fare.

    And the other, second mitigating factor is the studios and networks themselves. Too many of the shows are skewed into younger writing staffs with far less experience with the real world. Some of the best written shows of the past decade — shows like The West Wing and Law & Order — were both light and deep because they had writing staffs that took heavy messages and coated them into people’s every day lives in a fun way.

    But put them in younger staff’s hands and it doesn’t work. West Wing got handed over to the producer of ER after Sorkin, and the political stuff was replaced with romance that may have boosted a rating but weakened the show to an embarrassment. (They got it back in the end thanks to the need for political writers about an election.) Law & Order moved to LA, got a new writing staff, and ended up being nowhere as good as the original.

    Light shows work best when you have a writing staff invested enough that they can write the show in a way that’s consistent, entertaining, and leaves plenty of spots for enlightening even if it’s in obscure factoids. But today’s light shows are more like The Defenders: cartoons not taken seriously by anyone because there’s nothing to take serious. Period.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

    A conspiracy theorist would not that the elites who run the networks are within the class of people who run every other corporate enterprise, and they have a vested interest in keeping the American people vapid and ignorant and, therefore, controllable. If most Americans were the sort of people who would stay up to nearly midnight just to watch an hour-long conversation between two witty and highly educated men, America would be a vastly different place.

    As for myself, I’ve without cable for 11 months now. I canceled it last year after I spent six hours lying on a couch watching a marathon on the Military Channel about tanks. G**-D***** tanks! I don’t even LIKE the Military Channel; my roommate had it on and I was too lazy to change it. At that point, I realized $80 a month was too much to pay for what had become a self-inflicted lobotomy.

  • Jonathan

    Craig Ferguson has pushed the envelope a few times. He had a great episode with just him and Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, and another where he and Stephen Fry just talked with no audience in the studio to watch. I enjoy The Daily Show, and Conan respectfully, but Craig is doing things his way…and it’s working!

  • featpete

    It’s 100% because a show’s life is based on it’s viewership. The Nielson system is outdated but is still used. Even if a TV show puts out Shakespeare groundbreaking quality work, it doesn’t matter if the ratings aren’t there.

    As for WHY people don’t watch “good quality” shows, I don’t know. I enjoy mindless TV but I love a show that can tell a great story or be poignant. Maybe the American public just doesn’t care for quality when it comes to the medium of television. Two and 1/2 Men being the #1 sitcom for years now kind of proves that point.

  • John

    I’ll take 12 EPISODES of Fawlty Towers over 9 SEASONS of According to Jim anytime!!!

    Shows like Arrested Development get axed in less than 3 seasons, yet how many years, or decades, has COPS been on the air?

    I can keep adding examples, but you get the idea. I’m surprised they haven’t replaced 60 minutes with the NEW Battle of the Network Stars or something so stupid!

  • Shaun

    I think that one of the purposes of popular entertainment is to keep people distracted and uninvolved and otherwise inert. Thought-provoking TV is rare because, indeed, most people would rather be comforted and distracted, not forced to think or face reality.

    I missed the Ferguson interview with Cornel West, but it sounds great. I’l look it up. And I really agree with your comment about Jon Stewart – the Bieber appearance was embarrassing. I hope Jon doesn’t do something like that again.

  • AnotherZero

    Caught the second half of this episode. Finally got an antenna and cable box, so it was the first actual tv day since june 1st. Craig is someone who can be incredibly funny, but when he makes a point, or has an episode like this, it shows just how good he is, not just as a personality, but as a person. Whenever I feel depressed or think about suicide, I watch his monologue about when he was an alcoholic, and it helps so much. This is what tv is for.

  • Jack

    Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men and Breaking Bad could all go toe-to-toe with The Wire or Friday Night Lights if you ask me.

  • Alex

    How about that NFL Halftime show, huh?

    People watch Two and a Half men. People watch the Kardashians. I think it’s clear what a lot of viewers like on television. Garbage!

  • the way it will ALWAYS be

    There is a time and place for inteligent social discussions.

    The simple fact is this: we are a vastly DUMBER soceity than we were just 20-25 yrs ago.
    There is virtualy NO family unit these days.
    The ignorant screw ups from broken families of the last 20 yrs are now the parents to the current generation.

    WIth that said— pop culture demands attractive short attention span FLUFF on TV.
    simplistic banter and attractive people PERIOD.

    Its just like comics.
    Most of us keeping this industry afloat are in out 30s & 40s now.
    We’ve read about the DEATH OF FANTASTIC FOUR members and DICK GRAYSON becoming BATMAN 20 yrs ago.
    We’ve read it all before- yet we still buy the SAME stuff.

    People will always want the same stuff recycled and dumbed down.
    Sure there is an interest in social commentary or intelligent comics– but NONE of it makes a dent in the grand scheme of things.

    Comics will always be SPIDERMAN & BATMAN doing the SAME thing over & over.
    TV will always be super hot trampy chicks and dumbed down programing.

  • is anybody alive out there

    @Jack.

    go toe-to-toe as in one bad show versus another? yes, you’re right, they could