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Today’s televisioks the social significance of shows of yesteryear

Television is probably the single greatest hindrance to the improvement of the American situation.

There is more dreck on TV now than ever before. People have been moving increasingly from the networks to cable, and although there are better offerings there (National Geographic, Discovery), there is also lots of absolute garbage, perhaps best exemplified by MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” whose ratings soared during the close of its season.

Still, despite the ratings, I talk to more people all the time who claim they find no redeeming value in television. It’s not hard to see why.

In the 1970s, programs like “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” pushed the envelope of what could be talked about on television — particularly the latter, one of the most effective anti-war, anti-Military Industrial Complex offerings in American pop culture. Nothing on TV now compares to the social commentary offered by those shows.

Even the great bastions of anti-establishment programming have come around to the lowest common denominator. In 1975, the great comedian George Carlin hosted the first episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Recent hosts and musical guests have included Taylor Swift, Dane Cook and Zac Efron from Disney’s “High School Musical” series. Methinks the show hath lost its edge.

Worse, the greatest series in American television history, “The Simpsons,” has suffered a serious lack of quality the past 10 or 12 years. The show still makes an occasional social statement, but the humor has morphed from sophisticated jokes (like Lenny, caught up in mob mentality, burning a dollar bill and saying angrily, “I worked like a dog for this!”) to “Family Guy”-style post-modern random nonsense.

Actually, “Family Guy” is another textbook example of great potential squandered. In the early seasons, the show seemed to be picking up where “The Simpsons” was leaving off. Apparently, Americans don’t want a show they have to think too much about, because “Family Guy” was cancelled.

A few years later, after DVD releases proved popular and the show was getting big ratings on Adult Swim, the network decided to revive “Family Guy.” Now, the characters all speak interchangeable one-liners. The show has been back on the air for five years and hasn’t been anywhere near as clever as it was in its first three seasons.

Cable news is one of the best examples of a trend toward decreasing intellectual value. In 1977, “Network” predicted the circus news programming would become; FOX News and MSNBC have realized that vision, making it all the more startling to hear the occasional invocation of Howard Beale by Glenn Beck.

The essential problem is that all the above-mentioned shows are too tame. Sure, they might be tasteless, offensive, in-your-face and slanderous, and it might appear there is no limit to what they can say. But allowing more swearing, violence and sex on the screen doesn’t mean there is any positive progress. It doesn’t even push pop culture closer to any counter-cultural edge. All it guarantees is a move toward banality and thoughtlessness.

If the goal of television is, as the late Bill Hicks thought it was, to keep people stupid, docile and uncaring, the shows on today are great tools to that purpose. Hicks thought watching television as like “Taking black spray paint to your third eye,” a metaphor for our ability to reason and judge properly. Even the supposedly higher-minded product, like “30 Rock” or “The Office,” is seriously disappointing.

Perhaps Americans are still capable of sound judgment. Many people I’ve talked to who watch shows like “Jersey Shore” acknowledge it has no value. But this doesn’t really redeem them — the show still constitutes a chunk of their life which would be better spent doing anything else, from reading a book to just zoning out and staring off in space.

Americans have produced great brilliance through popular mediums — the music of Bob Dylan, TV shows like “The Simpsons” and movies like “Network.” It’s time we start judging things properly and stop being satisfied with shutting our minds completely off for hours at a time.

As the lead character of Mike Judge’s 1999 cult classic, “Office Space,” said, “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth. We weren’t meant to spend it this way.”

Respond to Kyle at [email protected]

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