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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Television knows best

But it was never meant to solve problems

March 1st, 2006

BY GENE RYDER

If you were born during the early days of television, then you were born into a time when the respective orbits of reality and fantasy were as far apart as they would ever be. Back in the Fifties, no one felt the need to point out the inherent deceit in Ozzie and Harriet, the violence in Looney Tunes, or the bloodiness of The American Sportsman. We were content to sit in front of the giant eye and let the phosphor glow do its work. Happiness is a warm tube.

It was not until the Sixties (a big, fat reality check if there ever was one) that someone ruined it for us all by suggesting that maybe sitting at the feet of an icon every evening like a supplicant wasn’t such a good thing. Maybe television really was sucking our brains dry, taking away the individuality, the singularity, and replacing it with a billion automatons. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was never the same after that.

You grow up, and you begin to see behind the curtain. Children can enjoy a puppet show so much that don’t even notice the strings. You reach a certain age, though, and you not only see the strings, but as time goes by the whole thing leaves you with a weird feeling. Something disturbing in those puppet’s eyes. The herky-jerky motion, the obvious manipulation. And who, really, is watching whom?

TV is everywhere, omnipresent, an electric lord, a benevolent dictator, a cluttered kingdom of crap, a Sargasso Sea of cultural backwash, and sometimes, sometimes, a glorious medium in which to tell a story. We laugh, we cry, we know Nielsen and his data miners are somewhere behind it all taking note of our every move, but we commiserate the next morning at the water cooler or the construction trailer anyway. And it becomes a shared experience — global even. No matter how remote, whether it be a satellite dish outside a cave in Syria, a tiny black-and-white hooked to a generator in Argentina, or a government shack in Yakutat where three Eskimos sit huddled together watching The Sopranos, you can’t get away. The eye is watching, and so is everyone else. (One day I was walking through a small village on the Yucatan peninsula, the kind of place where people live in huts made of vegetable matter and serve you puppy meat with a smile, and sure enough, over in the corner of an open-air cantina, was a TV blaring reruns of China Beach).

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Aren’t books, movies, the internet (and music, for that matter) no different from TV, in that they are all media through which we lose ourselves for a moment, disengage?

The question is what are disengaging from? Every evening millions of people come down to the watering hole of television to feed. For some of us, it’s the highlight of an otherwise dreary day, the time when we allow ourselves an emotional response, or simply a time when we want our emotions to be anesthetized. Others search desperately for a little mental stimulation, perhaps a history lesson, and by chance they find it. Still others are satisfied by merely finding a reality show, where the showcase this night will be three Tibetan monks pulling a monster truck with their penises.

It’s just a medicine show in a box; it was never meant to solve problems, or make the inherent problems of being human go away. In the same way that a drug is just an inert grouping of chemicals when still in the syringe, TV is nothing but static furniture when it’s off. The problem is, you turn that thing on in a room full of kids, kids who were just moments ago banging symphonies out on kazoos, or painting one masterpiece after another, or enraptured by a good book, and they will immediately stop whatever it is their creative little minds were engaged in and go sit in front of the tube.

This is tantamount to aerial spraying of valium, and it works on big folks, too. In cars, bars, department stores, you can see people sitting or standing there with the proverbial deer in the headlights look. I might be in amongst them, too, caught in the tractor beam, now living under the tyranny of a new world order: FOX CABLE. “Oh cold hearted orb that rules the night…”

It’s all very THX 1138 — if you’ve ever seen that George Lucas movie — in that tactile experience has been replaced by a sort of passive voyeurism: let someone else be angry for you; let someone else exercise for you, have sex for you, cry for you. Yes, take care of all the messy parts. Please.

Recently, I was watching a movie, and I heard one of the characters say that the reason we build houses is to keep our televisions dry. And I had to laugh. Because it was funny. But like all good humor, it had an element of truth to it. Many family rooms in houses are now designed with viewing areas in mind. It’s as if they’ve added a recessed sanctuary in the wall where they plan to put the wide-screen pet, a k a the Plasma TV. Plasma is alive, isn’t it? As I often have to scan blueprints for the houses I work on, I see it all the time, see the thought that goes into it: a life designed around television, the architect having figured out the angle for maximum exposure throughout the room. As if to say, and the perfect perch for the giant eye will be right… here.

Now, open the curtain!

Let there be light!

Enter… three Tibetan monks pulling a monster truck with their penises!

“Cold hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the color from our sight
Red is gray and black is white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.” •

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

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