Hollywood writers strike a sorry spectacle
Candian Arab News
January 7, 2008

Another New Year's Day has come and gone. (Tweeeeet!) We can all thank the Roman senate, which in 153 BCE, moved the celebration from the onset of spring to the agriculturally and astronomically irrelevant beginning of January. Seems excessive tinkering by successive emperors had pushed the event out of sync with the Sun, and so the senators had to come up with a solution.

Speaking of things being out of sync—how’s that for a segue!—the Hollywood writers strike that began in October has carried on into the new year. The scribes took the action in support of higher royalties, which have not kept pace with on-line and DVD sales. Since writers are every bit as responsible for churning out the derivative escapist formula that made mountains of money for the studios, they have every right to more money. Unfortunately for them, the strike isn’t just about economics. At issue is the very nature of movie and TV production, and media in general.

First, though, a comment about the strike: Even if studios and networks suffer financially from the strike, they will suffer equally and find other stuff to put on the cycloptic mesmerizer. Writers, though, need to make a living, which means that the united front, if not the existence, of the Writers Guild of America will be sorely tested.

Gone are the days when networks ruled television and good writers were always in demand for prime-time shows. Now, the TV schedule is dominated by reruns, old movies, sports, infomercials, and unscripted “reality” shows. Who needs to pay good money for writers any more? I sympathize with the writers, being one myself, but I expect the strike will drag on for months, which would not be entirely bad.

As an entertainment medium, TV is creatively bankrupt as is the case with most media. It bears little resemblance to what it was in the glory days of the 1960s, ’70s or even ’80s, before the advent of the worldwideweb and the DVD. Even if people at the time called TV “the idiot box” or “the boob tube” it was possible to find network progams that told interesting stories and even challenged us to rethink our preconceptions:

M*A*S*H* showed the destruction and banality of war;
The Mary Tyler Moore Show showed life from the point of view of a single career woman;
All in the Family found comedy in bigotry and U.S. attitudes toward blacks and other minorities;
The Twilight Zone used satire, science fiction, horror and comedy to tell morality stories and portray dystopic futures.

Other shows, especially dramas like Magnum P.I., The Rockford Files and Hill Street Blues had well-developed characters and engaging stories that are still worth watching.

Now, to borrow a petroleum metaphor, we are now living in the time of “peak TV,” where good shows are increasingly harder to develop and expensive to produce. Every drama about cops, doctors, private investigators, reporters, lawyers or Star Trek has been done, and the best sitcoms were made 20, 30 and 40 years ago. TV has nothing left to say, so no wonder writers are not respected the way they once were. TV is swallowing its tail, bastardizing its archives and pandering to our basest, prurient instincts with “reality” shows.

Scripted TV used to co-exist happily alongside game shows, talent shows and spectacle like America’s Funniest Home Videos, Real People and Jerry Springer because these shows appealed to a niche audience, and had limited appeal. With the arrival of Survivor in May 2000, TV began its speedy descent into prime-time voyeurism, and diminishing the value of programming.

The show spawned a virus-like proliferation of sequels and other spectacles—a more honest term than “reality” shows—and made TV even more closely resemble the Coliseum. People tune in to Hell’s Kitchen, The Apprentice, Survivor, Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance?, Big Brother, American Idol, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? or The Bachelorette, for example to endure the same 50 minutes of formulaic foreplay just to see who gets screwed: “The Tribe has spoken!” “You’re fired!” “Please leave the runway!”

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Even if the strike were settled tomorrow, television would not change appreciably for the better, since the dumbing-down has already set in. So far, the biggest concern about the strike concerns the fate of the Golden Globe Awards presentation. How fitting that narcissism should be at the top of the list.

Even spectacles themselves are resorting to ever desperate measures. Donald Trump’s ego-driven The Apprentice has resorted to hiring 14 has-been celebrities to compete for the coveted title of Trump Chump. This is supposed to be entertainment? How long will it be before we are subjected to ”So you wanna be an executioner” or “Project Hooker”?

Plato observed that democracies degenerate because people become lazy, preoccupied with their own wants, and lose interest in political life. From this point of view, TV is a distinctly undemocratic force. Don’t forget that more people voted in the last American Idol popularity contest that in the 2004 presidential election.

(Okay, technically it wouldn’t have affected the result since the Bush junta rigged the vote count in Ohio and Florida and stole the White House (again!), but the point is still valid.)

Moreover, the hours of dross being shoveled through cable lines and satellites every day serve to distract viewers from issues and stories that really matter. It is difficult to write a police, hospital or lawyer drama without referring in some way to the Sept. 11 attack. TV reflects the culture of the day, and the cult of terrorism permeates the psyche of the U.S. Mac Taylor, the lead character on CSI:NY lost his wife in collapse of the World Trade Centre.

Of course, the event is never investigated or treated with any intellectual honesty. It’s just presented as innocuous background, but subtly so that the audience will internalize the effect not the cause.

Among Project Censored’s 25 most censored news stories last year, # 18 concerned physics professor Steven Jones, who proved that the WTC was deliberately imploded, but his evidence will not likely find its way into a script.

The toxic consequences of Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide and its genetically modified food (#11 and #13) are well-known but outside of courageous documentary filmmakers, nobody will touch the subject. Similarly I doubt that we will see a drama based on a band of republican rebels trying to wrest control of the U.S. from a fascist junta led by pro-Israel warmongers. Any new show based on real-life events under Bush would require massive falsifications of history and defences of official narratives, so any show that portrayed contemporary U.S. society accurately would stand little or not chance of getting aired.

The same is true of politicians. Texas Congressman Ron Paul is by far the most popular candidate for president but he is all but shut out of mainstream coverage and denied the right to take part in primary debates. In a Survivor-like attack, the producers voted him off the podium before he had a chance to compete for immunity. In fact, doesn’t the primary race look a lot like Survivor? Nothing not even thoughtful questions about Israel, torture, Iraq, Iran, the dollar, or homelessness will be allowed to ruin the game. It’s all an illusion, as contrived as Survivor itself.

Whether it be in news or entertainment, TV is in the business of short-circuiting our critical faculties. It would be great if all writers, entertainment and news, went on strike, since by covering up real news they are contributing to the decline of our democracy.

Since this scenario is unlikely, the least we can do is stop rewarding spectacle with attention, but a narcotized society is hardly capable of thinking rationally.