Weekend Herald - Canvas
Diana Wichtel on the relevance of television
“Television? But isn’t it dead?” If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me over 30-odd years as a TV critic, I could … buy a new television. Our 3-year-old huge smart TV — it was on sale, I screamed when I saw it in our living room — was outdated as it was installed.
Television: it’s among many more or less useful inventions that have been prematurely declared finished throughout history, including history itself. Radio, movie theatres, print media, physical books, God … Why bother painting pictures once the camera came along? The seduction of the medium that delivers the message has been consistently underestimated. This year vinyl records outsold CDS. What goes around is always plotting its comeback. Except, surely, cassettes and planking.
No one wants books to disappear. But television has always been viewed with suspicion in Aotearoa. It turned up late, in 1960, to a small nation of nervous nellies. “Television invades the home. It commands the lounge. Its great hypnotic, sightless eye extends into coffee bars and pubs,” fretted current affairs show, Compass, five years later. Sixties’ horror movie classic, The Day of the Triffids, might have been a parable about the arrival of the idiot box, “When the solid world of everyday reality disintegrates and the whole population is driven by fear towards insanity!” The talking dead: television will suck out your brain or, at the very least, collect your data.
The battle to control television’s wild messaging from the borders of reason — it’s the medium that created breakfast television, Sean Hannity and Paul Henry — never stops and ultimately fails. The snob’s refrain — “I don’t watch television” — was a pioneering form of virtue-signalling.
So TV: not pining for the fjords just yet. Once a masterpiece like The Sopranos screened free, if censored, on TV2. Now there’s Sky, Netflix, Neon, Amazon, Youtube … The tyranny of too much. Sturgeon’s Law still applies: 90 per cent of everything is crap. Some of what I watch — Coronation Street, Fox News, Cake Wars — might have been beamed in from Mars but has as much to say about the culture as Q+A with Jack Tame.
It’s just content. Some of it is art. You could spend a fortune at theatre or cinema without encountering the diverse, multi-layered brilliance of shows like Succession, Shtisel, I May Destroy You, The Casketeers … Once success for an actor meant graduating from television to film. See Bruce Willis, George Clooney, the Muppets … Now a drama like Big Little Lies can snap its fingers and Meryl Streep will pop in some fake front teeth, slap on a menacing bob and come running.
With pay streaming services and social media hoovering up eyes and wallets, linear television struggles. But no one can live by Bondi Rescue alone. For … reasons, we don’t have public service television. We do have NZ on Air and Te Mangai Paho funding, Maori Television … Cue a grab bag of local culture — Grand Designs, Scotty Morrison’s Origins, 7 Days, Westside, dear old Country Calendar — that speaks to where we came from, the tenacity of blokey humour, the follies people insist on erecting on climate-change-threatened sand and the mysterious ubiquity of Nigel Latta.
In times of triumph or crisis television is most alive. Tune into that unending reality show, 2020: FFS! Tonight, like a tribe around a campfire, backs to what lurks in the surrounding darkness, people will gather around their freakishly big screens. The 2017 election coverage drew 1.5 million people for 1 News and 1.2 million to Newshub. We’ll flick through the channels with a drink in hand — or two, depending on how things go. Because television’s randomly curated running anthology of the human condition, reflecting back the madness and marvels of life lived minute-tominute here on planet Earth, is still the place to be.