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Black Lamb


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Reality avoidance

March 1st, 2006


Everyone in prison does time in his own way. Depending on the anesthesia of choice, we can work out pseudo-time reduction programs, which we jokingly call “half-time.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, a parody of this state’s occasional offers to grant legitimate half-time reductions for specific criminal classes: dopers and meth lab contractors, for example. Some inmates are doped up on prescription medications, some on smuggled drugs. Some sleep half or more than half their time away. But by far the preferred half-time, or half-life, is watching television. Actually, “watching” is too active a verb to describe the non-engagement of brain synapse required by sitting in front of a television.

We have a cable contract at this prison, which provides over fifty channels of mind-numbing dreck. I haven’t had a television in my cell in quite some time, and I don’t miss it one bit. It’s entirely too irritating. Not to mention, most fights between cellies are over the television.

In one sense, it is naïve to blame the fights on the television, an inanimate, brainless object. It isn’t really about the electronic device at all, it’s about control: controlling our environment, being in control because we are real men (or so we believe); controlling others because we know how to do that, and it has much to do with why we are in prison. Even on the outside, the TV is at the center of many control controversies. The most horrific family reunion I’ve heard about included adult silbings (males) fighting over the remote control. “Strained” doesn’t begin to describe what remains of their relationship. If control of the TV remote is that overwhelmingly important in the “normal” world, imagine the raw and raging emotions connected to TV in this violent arena, where, by the way, we don’t get remotes.

Sometimes the fight for contol is in a public area. Some of the most impressive have been in the day rooms, which are large enough for a certain amount of running and chasing. Usually the arguments are over volume. One irresistible large-screen TV just screams to be turned up, to one inmate’s satisfaction and to the annoyance of thirty others. Oddly, the most spectacular fight involved a “man” who wanted to watch cartoons on Sunday morning. Body of a man, mind of a child. He was winning when the goon squad broke up the fracas.

Most beatings take place in the cells, though, and they are universally about programming. It is always about My Show — you can hear the capital letters and the possessiveness of tone. As incomprehensible as it may seem, the viewer believes in his own inflated importance, based only on being an audience.

Of the shows tha are most popular, prison and cop shows top the list. Perhaps the appeal lies in discovering more innovative ways of committing crimes. Perhaps these give us a sense of superiority, to see even dumber criminals caught by equally dumb cops. Whatever it is, the attraction becomes an addiction too easily. In our exceptionally sorry existence, we invest the TV with the power to live our lives for us. I honestly have nothing good to say about television programming. Even the supposedly “educational” programs are suspect and take far too much debate and justification to be convincing. Real life and genuine imagination are too much of a sacrifice to make to cause me to yield my live to Days of Our Lives or any number of contrived ersatz reality shows.

Many inmates watch Comedy Central exclusively, believing that its programs are uplifting and funny in healthy ways. This is a mystery. If it weren’t for a canned laugh track, there would be no laughter. Nincompoops are not inherently funny. Incompetents are not funny. Degradation, bigotry, sarcasm are not funny. Belittling others is not funny. Lacking intelligent plot or script, the usuall fall-back is to holler and yell at one another. Also not funny. Small wonder the inmates who self-medicate with Comedy Central are irritable, sad, and not a little pathetic.

Game shows, a particularly sycophantic genre, are hugely popular. One of my cellies watched several, faithfully yelling out advice and answers to the unheeding contestants. Columnist Leonard J. Pitts recognizes this as “the idiocy of making my team win by wearing my lucky shirt and yelling at the television.” Somehow, my cellie was deluded into thinking he was an active and integral part of the glory of said game show. As if Bob Barker gave a fig for him, his life, or his faithful viewing of whatever mindless, greed-based show Bob hosts. I’m more inclined to throw my hat in with the contestants on the old Queen for a Day show. At least they were honest in their pathetic appeal for worldly good and public affirmation.

God forbid the real world should interfere with the shadow life of the television addict. One day a welcoming sun peeked in our slit window. “Damn it. There’s glare on the effing TV. I can’t see an effing thing. Effing sun. Effing pig cops who don’t let us pur a towel over the window. Now I’ve effing missed the effing Daily Double, dammit.” As for me, I was glad of the sun, as well as the opportunity to move out of that cell in fairly short order.

I’m a little afraid of television programming, afraid of the brain rot it infects us with. In Paul Monette’s autobiography Becoming a Man, he writes of the gradual intrusion of television in the 1950s:

“The lurid banality… the slumber of the soul, turned to whatever was easy. Now that the radio had an eye, it would do all the seeing for us.”

He writes further of the boredom created by the insidious malaise of television addiction, “a sameness decreed by advertisers, and the white bread fantasies of the tube.”

I don’t believe I’ve misread the slack-jawed dull-wittedness of the television viewer. In a way, we’ve chartered television with the job of living our lives for us; keeping us at a safe distance, it turns us into mere spectators, voyeurs perhaps. In his essay “Pornoviolence,” Tom Wolfe identified the “television viewpoint as that of the perpetrator (e.g. watching JFK’s head explode through the ‘very hairline cross’ of Oswald’s telescope sight.” Ah! Perhaps this, then, is the appeal to a prison population: we get to be the perp without doing the work.

However you view it, television offers the prisoner much in the way of avoiding, even denying, reality. It is one further remove from the painful, real world — as if cell blocks and razor wire weren’t enough. And television confers on us its own unique gift: the anonymity and utter lack of participation in its shadowy, half-time half-life of the disinterested and the dispossessed. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Suess | Link to this Entry


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