TV Back Talk, by Elayne Riggs
Many people in this country are experiencing the age of interactive television for the first time. In other countries such as the UK, they’ve had a version of this for some time, in the form of a curious informational additive known as teletext, a useful imp that lives in the bands of the picture that we don’t normally see, and which can be accessed by Brits wanting to know the local weather, transportation timetables, sports scores, and lots of other stuff that most of us in the US can only get online or through cable systems. Here in the US I’ve just discovered my digital cable system has interactive channels that can personalize my weather, traffic, pretty much whatever I want. And that’s not even counting the on-demand entertainment, a tiny percentage of which is available at no extra charge!
And bully for the 21st century and all, but I’ve been interacting with my TV since I was a kid. And I’m not just talking about Winky-Dink.
Romper Room aside, I think I always suspected the people on TV couldn’t see me or talk to me. I understood the idea of shows being recorded for anyone to tune in to, or not. The shows were still there even when I wasn’t watching them. But none of that prevented me from talking back, from letting what I saw affect me to the point where I had an immediate, visceral reaction. As I recall my Dad couldn’t stand it, he’d be there constantly reminding me "they can’t hear you!" Then again, maybe that’s Mom. Dad was the first person on his feet cheering whenever the Yankees took the lead, and yelling about what a bum the umpires or managers were when the game wasn’t going well. So it’s not like the apple fell very far from the tree there.
One of the great things about being married to Robin is that we have many of the same pet peeves about what we see and respond to on TV. One of my biggest annoyances is the increasing use of subtitles when the person being subtitled is speaking English. Occasionally the speaker will have something of a thick accent, but I’ve seen subtitles used with Scots and Irish and even Americans from southern states. Now come on y’all, a lot of that down-home drawl does get to be a bit much, but it’s not a foreign tongue! The only thing subtitles have in their favor is that they, like news crawls on the 24-hour cable stations, encourage reading. Even when they’re misspelled.
Mispronunciations also get me going. Of course, being married to a Brit, I often find that they lead to mock arguments, particularly when we’re watching a show with a British narrator. "Why can’t he pronounce it ‘glay-sher’ like normal people? What’s this ‘glay-see-er’ crap?" These discussions usually end with Robin muttering some version of "colonial heathens!" under his breath and despairing of America ever attaining civilization.
We both get frustrated by science shows wherein the CGI outstrips the actual science. Just about every show we watch concerning dinosaurs contains so much speculation it may as well be about UFOs or Bigfoot. How the narrator can decry all the silly theories that came before the latest one in one sentence, and intone in the next sentence how "we know" this or that as an established fact as opposed to the latest theory which may be disproven within the next decade or so, constantly makes my head spin. Given how the radicals currently in power despise anything having to do with science, facts, reality, etc., I don’t think it’s the wisest decision to present your findings as though they’re some sort of immutable truth, rather than interesting guesswork open to revision, or the result of finding exactly what you’re looking for to make your sums add up correctly. Oh, give me and Robin a show about "dark matter" and watch us mercilessly and gleefully tear it a new black hole every minute!
I don’t know if it’s a top-down thing, if the radical ineloquence of Worst President Ever has given American media tacit permission to sound like a bunch of bumbling idiots, but lately it seems like newspeople and pundits who have one job, to talk (mostly with help from a teleprompter), can’t even accomplish that simple feat, and thus earn our eternal derision. With the smarter ones like Keith Olbermann, the mistakes are usually a matter of their brains getting ahead of their mouths. With the dumber ones, well, it’s anyone’s guess. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve shouted at the idiots on the idiot box, "You have one job! Look into doing it right!"
Commercials have always come in for justified mockery. Among the worst are the ads for various pharmaceuticals that never existed when I was a kid, to supposedly treat diseases that also didn’t seem to exist when I was a kid. Anyone surprised by the periodic findings that "this medication whose made-up brand name almost always contains an x, y or z turns out to be deadly!" has never paid attention to the quick patter of disclaimers that whizzes by amidst the visuals of healthy people romping in fields of daisies. And it keeps getting more and more dire. "Stop taking this medication of you have thoughts of suicide!" Rightee-ho, will do! "In rare cases, this can lead to death." Why is it that in almost all these cases the "disease" sounds like a better alternative than the "cure"? And golly, but you’d think by the 21st century we’d be beyond the sometimes appalling sexism purveyed by corporations desperate to increase their market share. Here’s a hint, I shout at the TV — pissing off half your potential audience ain’t gonna do it.
I do think we as a consumer-viewership are getting smarter, realizing we don’t need most of the stuff they’re shoving at us as mandatory, but perhaps that’s just a function of most of us no longer having the disposable cash and not wanting to get into debt buying stuff that won’t make us as happy as the actors in the ads.
And oh, those actors. Ranging from as fake-cheerful as a Disney sitcom to downright robotic, particularly in local ads. Always emphasizing the wrong syllables as though everything they’re saying is an epiphany. "NOW that the KIDS are OUT of the house, WE can MAKE pancakes and TALK about LIFE inSURance!" And the ambulance-chaser ads featuring remunerated "normal" looking folks of varying ethnicities. "I-suf-fered-pain-I-need-ed-law-bee-dee-bee-dee-Buck…" I suffered pain watching your bad acting, bucko! You don’t need law, you need thespian lessons!
Two of my biggest events for verbally responding to my TV are fast approaching. This coming Sunday is the Oscars. I haven’t seen most of the nominated movies, so I have no real emotional investment in the event. But I always like to hear how silly and self-absorbed some of the acceptance speeches are, and see now nicely the actors clean up. I want to see gowns that don’t make their wearers look like tramps, possibly even dresses with hints of bras underneath them. I yearn to see women walking that red carpet in sensible shoes and sandals instead of creating massive foot and calf problems later on in life. I root for the fat gals dressed sumptuously and gorgeously; yes, there are some to be had on Oscar night! I applaud the men and women who’ve discovered this wondrous new invention called The Comb. And I utterly and loudly deride the pretentious pundits for whom the event is somehow All About Them and their utterly useless opinions on whether people far more famous than them measure up to their arbitrary standards.
And this summer brings us the next Olympic games, where we’re all supposed to feel great about the venue being a country that is becoming the economic powerhouse of the 21st century whilst simultaneously continuing to oppress more people around the world than even the US under George Bush. Why do I always wind up rooting against US athletes in these contests? I think individual American athletes are just as worthy of a cheering section as anyone else. That’s it, really — just as worthy as anyone else. Not worthier. God didn’t especially bless them; if that were the case, then couldn’t it be said God hated all their competitors? So I tend to have a very low tolerance for whichever networks are narrating the Olympic stories in such a deliberately controlled and manipulative manner, and that disgust often manifests itself verbally as shouts of "enough about this cult of personality bullcrap, just show me all the athletes and let me make up my own mind who’s the best!"
And oh, yes, all of that goes double and triple for this year’s political shenanigans. As a registered Democrat I’m delighted my party has an embarrassment of riches this year, putting forth two competent, intelligent candidates from which to choose, even though neither would have been my first choice and they’re both way too centrist for my personal taste. But the way the TV people are putting it during this drawn-out hell wherein all actual important news, both world (what’s a Kosovo?) and local (more school shootings? never heard of ’em) gets utterly ignored in favor of the latest breathless horse-race pronouncements, you’d think it were the most important thing in the world to Choose! The! One! American! Idol! We! Want! You! To! Like! NOW! My gosh, take a chill pill, pundits. And could we please have some election reform laws that say campaigns cannot actually begin until at least early spring of the year the election will be held, and primaries can’t begin until late spring? That’d sure save everyone a heck of a lot of money, and lots of us a fair amount of viewer burnout.
I’m not saying talking back to the TV is as productive as a good blog comment exchange (add yours below, hint hint). But given how many others I suspect do it, I’d say it serves a necessary purpose of letting off immediate steam and practicing your snark without having to be as articulate as print often demands. It’s as — wait a minute, what did that bozo just say? Hey nimrod, there’s no such thing as "very unique," something’s either "unique" or it’s not! And did you actually say "literally" to describe something that in fact isn’t literal at all? Grr…
Elayne Riggs can be found blogging about politics, comics and whatever else strikes her fancy at Pen-Elayne on the Web, and most decidedly does not drink your milkshake.