Why Television Is Good For You

I was out in the Lower East Side Saturday night to meet friends for the tail-end of their all-day drinkfest. How some of my friends can start drinking in the afternoon and still outlast me is a complete mystery. I mean, I used to be one of them. At any rate, I drank very quickly to catch up to the buzz, and ended up overhearing an animated conversation between two very intellectual, carefully scruffy, rather cute young men. They were talking about books in that really excited animated way that you do when you're only a few years out of college. You know, where you still collect them, and don't yet know how much you're going to hate their combined lead weight when it's time to move. Since I have never grown out of this phase, I was really enjoying hearing them talk with such passion for reading, until one of them said "Yeah, I won't even get television. Television kills your mind."

I suppose we all go through this phase, but since I graduated, I am never without a television, full cable, in my bedroom. I can finally justify it as a business expense, sort of, because it's all part of my cable modem package, but I always feel like I should be a little embarassed to have two televisions in a storage cube of an apartment. But now--no more.

You know that NRA saying: "Guns don't kill people; people kill people?" My beloved Eddie Izzard had this immortal comment: "Yes, well. I think that the guns bloody well help." Same with television. TV doesn't make you stupid; people make themselves stupid. And yes, if you are stupid, then watching television can make you much, much stupider. However--if you're an intelligent person, interested in the world and people around you, then television can also make you much, much smarter.

The best channel on television in New York (Time Warner, at least) is the Ovation Channel. Bar none. The network calls itself "The Arts Network" and that's all it is: artists, musicians, actors. Sounds like a PBS knock off, doesn't it? (And what would be wrong with that anyway?) But there are two very cool things about this channel.

One, the programming is extremely unique. It does some things like A&E does--mini-documentaries about history, biographies of John Cleese, that sort of stuff. But Ovation does it in a very eclectic, hipster, sexy way. Last night, I watched an incredible documentary about Botticelli's drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy, and it was like MTV had taken over the Renaissance Wing at the Louvre. Yes, there were dry professors talking about what the Divine Comedy meant, and artists talking about brush strokes and they were all talking about what, in a museum, is just something to look at. But it was also cut in the MTV style, with contemporary shots of lovers and lots of sound effects and fast cutting and rather cool music. Allusions were made to cartoons, sexual depravity, demonology and Renaissance physics; to the artist's enjoyment of violence; to why we should care about any of this. By the time I was done, I realized I'd learned something, almost by accident, while being immensely entertained.

Second, Ovation is not just boring videos of some ballet or dance performance, or museum tours. Frankly, I don't like watching music on television (it's only good live), so I skip all the ballet or dance or even the opera. But the little documentaries about visual artists are addictive. The show "The Private Life of a Masterpiece" tracks the history of major works of art (Below, mostly to break up the acres of text)

Michelangelo's David, which many Victorians felt was just a big naked man, not art. (Hey, can't they be both)

Rodin's The Kiss. Did you know it's sculpted so that she's actually jumping him?

Eduard Munch's The Scream: The image obsessed Munch so much that he actually painted dozens of Screams.

In short, the stories behind those boring hunks in the museum are full of murder and sex and madness and weird interpretations of art and artist intent that you never though of. The best documentary was the first one I saw: "Matisse & Picasso," a French documentary about the friendship/rivalry between the two artists (they riffed off each other's work like jazz musicians). I've been hooked on the Ovation Channel ever since.

And yes, dammit, I am quite aware that I sound like some boring chick who'll drag you to some six hour Russian opera or an exhibit on Medieval wolf-whistles in some gallery in Queens. (I wouldn't, but I'd be excited if you would). Sometimes I just get that way, It makes me nervous. Where when I was a kid, I wanted to impress everyone with how much I knew, I now want to impress everyone with normal and un-snobby I am.

So...to aid in that, and further my argument that television is good for you, I will confess this: Tonight, I watched, for the second time, the Jerry Hall show on VH1 called Kept. This is the show where Jerry Hall, living happily and Mick-free in England, has decided to hold a contest to find a boy toy. She has picked 12 underwear model-looking guys to torture, tease and train into "the perfect kept man." I was appalled and abhorred when I heard about the show, and yet already rather bored by it. It was inevitable, wasn't it? Besides, I hate, hate, hate reality television. In fact, I hate most television, which is as it should be. And I should be hating this show, but I'm not.

For one thing, I like the idea. Now, don't get me wrong, I think Jerry Hall is one scary looking broad. Over the years, she's gone a little Morticia Addams--if Morticia were blond and Texan. But what else is she supposed to do with herself? She has money. She used to be famous. She would like to be famous again. (After all, it used to be Mick and Jerry on the cover of People and Rolling Stone; now it's Nick and Jessica). Most importantly, she would also like to humiliate a bunch of men on television, thereby announcing to the world that she's a dominatrix looking for action.

I mean, lets give the lady some credit. She greets them in a red, shoulder-padded power suit and elbow length black leather gloves. She makes them swim across the Thames--not the cleanest place in the world--in speedos withe Union Jack emblazoned on the behind. She parades them in front of her girlfriends at a local pub (and, amusingly it's sort of a Rock Dinosaur Wives Reunion; everbody's boyfriend is Bob Geldof or Bill Wyman or Charlie Watts or Pete Townsend). And, best of all, she has a tightly wound, icy blond, British schoolmistress-type Secretary named Katy to order them around and be very, very mean to them.

And, essentially that's what these dating reality shows are about: humiliation. The train-wreck fascination about a whole gender misbehaving and being punished for it. So it's rather nice for a show to be so overt about it, whith Dame Jerry in the middle acting like she's not a day over 20 and yet really seeming to enjoy herself in all her drag queen glory. Hell, when she tosses the first Mr. Wrong off the show, two armed security guards escort him off the premises. Very Duran Duran-meets-Third Reich.

There are many of you who will be appalled that I watched and liked this show--without irony, with genuine interest. There will be many more of you who are appalled that I think it means something. I can do nothing about that. I can only offer the following arguments to your possible criticisms:

1) Isn't it horrifying to see talentless people make millions of dollars and the cover of magazines for absolutely no fucking reason while people are dying in Africa?
Yes. Next question.

2) Well, shouldn't you be doing somdthing about the people in Africa?
Yes. Next question. This one about the show, please.

3) Why do you support or find interest in these talentless celebrity hangers-on who are famous just because they fucked the right people?
I have no idea. That is why it is so fascinating. That is why the human brain is fascinating. That I--or anyone--can switch back and forth between a documentary about Vermeer and The Fab Life of Nelly is fascinating. And yet cannot sit through a single episode of Sex & the City or some godawful Civil War documentary without feeling ill. I just don't know why.

4) Isn't it just junk food for the brain?
Well, duh. But you can find meaning in anything if you choose to think about it, to be aware. For example, I find it a little tacky to advertise for a boy toy on television, and yet I understand it just the tiniest bit. After all, this blog entry began with thoughts of Saturday night, where I was hanging around with some adorable, just-post-college boys and having the time of my life. There's a little Jerry in all of us.

5) Don't you realize that the show has no meaning, it's just marketing and publicity? Something can be overtly about marketing and publicity and still be good. For example, the Botticelli/Dante documentary I saw last night was prepared by various museums who, incidentally, are preparing to exhibit those very illustrations. They are willing to put in rock music and sexy comments and contemporary movie clips to do it. Good marketing? Well, now I really want to see those illustrations, so...yes. And yet it makes you think critically. Kept also makes me think critically. For example, which idiot contestant is going to make a move on Jerry's ice-bitch hot assistant first?

6) Don't you know that it's all planned in advance?
Yes. I don't quite believe that any of these people are real people. I think they're all publicity hounds desperate for their 14:59 of fame, it does sicken me. But I'm enthralled by the obviously fake emotions and plot manipul`tions that keep intelligent, aware, critically thinking people hooked. Especially when it's in a "wow, I didn't see that coming" way.

7) Does this mean that you like Jerry Hall?

No, I think she's a publicity hound, and probably has an exaggerated faith of her looks and, well, kind of a high-maintenance dominatrix who's two steps away from Sunset Boulevard. But even if her line readings are robotic, at least she sounds like she's a littls self-aware of the ridiculousness. And she's still more interesting than J.Lo.

8) Does this mean you agree with her approach to men or sex?

No. I like men. I think the men on the show are gross, but that's another story. I still believe in chemistry rather than the purchasing power of the British pound. And I don't get off on humiliating people. (Unless it's their birthday and they ask for it nicely, of course.)

9) Are you addicted to this show?
For the next couple episodes, maybe. I'm faithless to television. I certainly won't set the VCR for it. Mostly because they'll play it enough so that I'll catch it again eventually.

10. Will you watch America's Top Model with me?

No. I draw the line at Janice Dickinson. Actually, I'd like to draw a line through her.

Anyway, you get the picture. Some television is good for you. It is good for you in obvious ways, and good for you when you stop and think about what you're watching.

The internet, on the other hand, is evil. Especially when your blog entry is about younger men, Jerry Hall, Bottticelli and television, and you have a tendency not to edit.