The Fast Food Age Of Television

Recently I got a little nostalgic for 2005 era Grey’s Anatomy. I enjoyed the first three seasons while navigating the deluge of college flashbacks associated with the show. And then something weird started to happen. I found myself getting angry at Grey’s and its perennially dour cast of characters.

These eyes emote for no man.

These eyes emote for no man.

Now that I’m half way through season 5, I find my interest in the show again waning just as it did when I first watched. It could have something to do with the loss of all my favorite characters. Kate Walsh’s delicious Addison Montgomery made the transition to her own spin-off and Isaiah Washington’s Preston Burke proved to be a better person than the actor playing him. Against these fantastic actors, Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey seems bland and whiny. And at some point I realized I can’t remember anything that happened in more than the last three episodes. Not that it matters because whatever happened three episodes ago was like nine plot twists prior. Who can keep track of all that betrayal?

And I find myself agreeing with Soren Bowie. I’m an unapologetic viewer of The Vampire Diaries and a full ten-year veteran of Smallville. These shows, while delightful, resemble the kind of generic fast food-style processing we’ve come to expect from network television’s corniest modern dramas.

Like fast food, this kind of television is good for momentary elation with zero effort. And like the most delicious chain restaurant items (looking at you Arby’s #14 with large curly fries and a massive sweet tea) it makes me bloat… emotionally.

Let me be clear that while Grey’s Anatomy is taking the big hits today, I’m talking about character mysteries like Lost/Revolution, teen dramas a la Glee, police procedurals, medical dramas, all reality television, and everything on the CW.

Emotion As Consumer Product

Drama is what you get when characters you care about face challenges that can meaningfully change their lives. The operative words there are care and meaningful. Grey’s Anatomy, a show that I hate the idea of almost as much as I love watching, covered a single year in its first four seasons. In that time the doctors of Seattle Grace Hospital experienced an impossible amount of drama:

  • 4 Marriages ended
  • Titular character Meredith Grey died.
  • Titular character Meredith Grey came back to life.
  • Everyone got syphilis
  • Doctors Grey, Yang, Bailey, Weber and Burke received life-threatening/life-saving surgery
  • Both of Meredith’s mothers, George’s father, Izzie’s Fiance, Chief Weber’s niece and a million patients died
  • Seattle Grace Hospital experienced its first shooting
  • Seattle Grace Hospital was bombed
  • One character had a child
  • Every character failed at a stable relationship. Every one.

Those are the highlights of what had to be the hardest year in Seattle’s history… until the next year. At some point there’s a second hospital shooting and a plane crash, but I’m only in season 5 and all the characters I liked were smart enough to get out. My other favorite show, The Vampire Diaries (TVD), is the same way. The first two seasons cover a single year… which means everyone’s parents and relatives die in like an 18 month span.

These folks are the casualties of dramatic tension. Every episode of TVD is the most intense episode of the series. It’s like in Office Space when Peter tells his therapist that every day is the worst day of his life. It’s unnatural, wrong and like the therapist, we the attentive audience, have a heart attack over it.

A Distinct Lack Of Critical Acclaim

If you don't know why this is here, you need to pay better attention

If you don’t know why this guy is here, you need to pay better attention

Many of these shows will get nods, critical reception, and an Emmy here or there during their first or even second season. These kinds of shows generally have one trick; their gripping character conflicts and betrayals. And we eat that up for a while. But after a couple days eating the Arby’s Philly Ultimate Angus you realize you’re kind of a shitty person. During its first season Desperate Housewives won 6 Emmy’s, two Golden Globes, two Screen Actor’s Guild awards and was the 4th most popular show on television in 2004.

That’s as many Emmy’s as friends Keith Szarabajka‘s had killed by the Joker! That’s nine spots higher than Lost during its premier season, and we were obsessed with that shit! It’s seven spots higher than CBS’s freak-unkillable-juggernaut Two And A Half Men. And in spite of all of that, by the end of its 8 seasons it had lost more than half of its viewers.

To be fair, 8 seasons (or 9 in Grey’s case) is rough. Even the best shows experience attrition over time. Still, Bryan Cranston over at Breaking Bad is pulling down almost as many Emmy’s as seasons of his show. The dad from Malcolm In The Middle is the only man to ever win 3 in a row because his show has more than one gimmick. Also because it’s a fascinating deconstruction of becoming a villain. And he crushed it in Drive… but I’m sticking by the gimmick comment.

Immediate Satisfaction Without Long-term Nutrition

After 4 years of The Vampire Diaries, I can say that I have no idea what the story is. I know that it’s about vampires in Virginia, but the reversals, betrayals, and surprises happen with such frequency that I only have a vague sense of the the story. Above I mentioned that only one child had been born in Grey’s. That’s because, of the 5 seasons I’ve watched so far, no one has gotten married and stayed married. No one has decided to have kids (unless it turns out they are infertile, have HIV, they lose the baby, or it somehow threatens their life) because there are no stable home lives.

Nothing in these shows matter because it’s all going to be different in seemingly random ways 3-5 episodes later. And we (by which I mean me) are not in it for the story.

Sated But Never Satisfied

Anyone that has ever cooked an amazing meal and shared it with someone knows how supremely satisfying it is. Aside from using quality, non-pink-goo components for your dinner, there is a sense of accomplishment and pride. These are things we can’t get from fast food. Things that, based on my varied fast food career, not even the employees get from fast food. And while it’s true being sated but never satisfied aptly describes all of TVD’s characters, I’m talking about us.

Fast food does its job. You go from hungry to full in less time than you had to talk to the person who made it, but its a forgettable experience.

These shows are the most selfish endeavor. Not only because all the characters do the most selfish things in the name of love. Not because of the false expectations I fear these shows teach our youth about living relationships. Not because we probably deserve better for all the money we spend. It’s because, in the face of all of that, we can’t stop.

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One thought on “The Fast Food Age Of Television

  1. […] like my friend John, I probably watch too many shows on the CW: The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Arrow, The Flash. […]

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