What is culture? By definition, it is a collection of the values, beliefs, behaviors, and symbols that are generally accepted and passed to later generations through communication and action. Culture acts as a representation of what we believe. It is the toppings and condiments in our life sandwich. Without culture, we would be a boring lot of organic molecules. We would not be connected to one another, and we would not be able to appreciate the differences that make us all unique. Culture is the lens through which we view the world. It dictates our speech patterns, our perceptions, and our considerations of other people. But what makes up our culture? What fills the pool? Art is almost a universal aspect of culture, but culture is fluid. It changes every single day and in about a hundred different ways. Where pictures were once an integral part of our culture, videos have nudged themselves into that space. A single frame is no less important, but more and more value is being attributed to movies and, especially in recent years, TV. The quality and content of television have exploded over the last 20 years. It is no longer just the sunny utopia of non-issues, it is the raw underbelly of human depravity, and the people have voted their allegiance to the deranged and depraved. TV gives us a representation of all the things that we find interesting and important to our current age. It is a representative part of our culture, plain and simple.
What was popular in the 90’s? Tamagotchi, frosted tips, and chokers were staples of course, but what about on TV? Friends, The Sopranos, and ER would certainly make the list. These shows, to simplify each, were about relationships, crime, and hospitals. Consider TV just one decade earlier. The most popular shows of the 80’s were Cheers, The Cosby Show, and Full House. All three of these shows were good in their own way, but they also seemed to orbit the same universe. Enter a group of friends or family, all relatively happy, who face some minor challenges and perhaps a couple of major life obstacles, but always find time to tease their hair at the end of the day. The shows of the 80’s were light and fluffy compared to the shows of the 90’s and are especially tame when contrasted with television today. Several factors account for this change in programming. A big factor is the prominence of channels like HBO, Showtime, and Starz. Though HBO launched in the 70’s, it was not very popular until the mid-90’s. The Larry Sanders Show garnered acclaim from both audiences and critics alike though it did not break into the viewership levels of programs on Fox and ABC.
In the late 90’s, however, HBO launched The Sopranos. With this show, HBO was finally able to reach a level of mass public and critic reception. The Sopranos was nominated for an insane amount of Emmys, ran for six seasons, and is widely considered one of the best TV shows of all time. Why was this show so popular? Well, obviously the writing was phenomenal, the acting was top notch, and the hour-long run time felt perfect, but let’s not ignore the fact that this was an HBO show, and as such, did not have to comply with the regular levels of censorship that cable shows were subject to. A greater amount of explicit content was needed for a show like this, and HBO allowed that content to be realized. Would this show have been as powerful and affecting had it been censored to cable standards? I think that most people would agree with me when I say that no, it wouldn’t. Perhaps it would have been in the early 80’s, but by the late 90’s, times had changed. We were entering into a period of exposure to violence, sex, and foul language, all things that TV viewers love. The Sopranos was clearly a hallmark for that leap into the darker side of television. Consider shows like True Detective and ask yourself if that could be as popular as it is today without The Sopranos. Maybe, but The Sopranos certainly opened the door for shows with mature content. Why? Because the people wanted it, and mature content became more and more ingrained in our culture. Viewership responded to an hour-long program that showed the licentious parts of life. It felt raw and engaging, and as our society became more used to the idea of “more,” so did our television.
Consider the social interactions you engage in today. I’m willing to bet that if you attend a party of young people between the ages of 20-40, the topic of TV will come up. Someone will inevitably ask someone else if they have seen such and such, and then the conversation battle will begin. People love to talk about TV now because it’s reached a level of such artistry and accomplishment. House of Cards and Game of Thrones, two shows that have been very popular and received a lot of attention, are so successful because they are excellent shows. They are beautiful to watch and endlessly fascinating, especially to me, a millennial, but when my parents watch these shows, they usually can’t help but comment on the brutality and explicit nature. They view these programs with a certain level of shock because they just can’t believe they are on TV. My mom was born in the 50’s, and has never been particularly comfortable with sex and violence, so I certainly understand her disinterest in a show like GoT, but what is it that has me and my brothers so hooked? Well, we entered our adolescence at the time of the Internet, and since then have been more accustomed to constant stimulation. We can get on our computers today and see anything we want to, for free, with the click of a few keys. To compete with that beast (the entire Internet), TV shows have to be serving up something special. They need to bring their A-game and shock their audiences. What scenes in television and movies do you hear about most? Probably the more brutal or disturbing ones, right? That’s because our culture is now so used to content like that, that it takes a level of violence that is almost unimaginable to catch our attention. Look at Hannibal, a show that airs on NBC. I’ve seen a couple of episodes, and in every one I watched, there was a crime scene displaying a body that was totally mutilated. This is on cable TV. Children could easily access that, but it’s not a big deal because our country is obsessed with violence, especially that of an extreme and callous nature. I’m guilty of it—Oldboy is one of my favorite movies, and it features an excessive amount of gore, but damn that tracking shot with the hammer is just so badass.
If you really want an example of how TV represents culture, just compare television programs in America to those in Europe. America features violence prominently but seems to consider nudity as more taboo. You won’t ever see a boob on NBC, that’s for sure (though you might have caught one accidentally on CBS a few years ago). Europe, however, chooses to take a different approach. France, for instance, is more lenient with nudity and comes down harder on explicit violence. This seems to me like a reflection of the values of each country. France accepts sex and nudity as part of life. They have topless beaches and co-ed steam baths. America has not quite reached that level of comfort. Also, consider the length of TV series. It’s not uncommon for an American TV series to run for 12 seasons though that type of longevity is very rare in the UK. Most television shows there are capped at 3-5 seasons. Why do they do this? Probably to preserve some of the quality of the show. America will continue to run a successful show into the ground, only giving up when absolutely necessary. It is consistent with our capitalist nature, but it can often ruin a show that had a promising future because eventually the show must rest on cheap tricks and insane antics to receive any type of response by the later seasons.
If you are at all invested and interested in the growing culture of today’s young people, you would be foolish to dismiss the influence of TV. I mean, come on guys, everyone’s talking about it. More money is being put into TV production every year—you can tell by the growing number of advertisements they stuff into commercial breaks. Binge culture is also a growing aspect of the influence of TV. With sites like Netflix, you can choose to sit down and watch an entire season of a show in just one day. The willpower needed to drag yourself away once you’ve started is incredible, and most give in to their urge of “just one more” until they look up and find that seven hours have passed and they haven’t moved from the same position on the couch the whole time. It’s a great and terrible thing, binge watching is, but it’s also a perfect reflection of where we are as a culture. We constantly want more, but at what cost? What do we sacrifice for round the clock entertainment? And is TV’s omnipresence ultimately a good thing? Those are questions that everyone must answer for themselves, but let’s not lose sight of our own lives, because the real thing is always so much better than television.