TV Puts the Me in Media

narcissus

Narcissus loves himself, that’s for sure

In 1976 Tom Wolfe famously called the 1970s The Me Decade.”Ordinary Americans, he claimed, having absorbed the lessons of the free-spirited countercultural 1960s, had decided to throw off the shackles of culture, community, and tradition to seek their own self-fulfillment.

As always, Wolfe viewed this cultural phenomenon through a socioeconomic lens.  He posited that the 30-year economic boom after World War II had so substantially raised the fortunes of what was once known as the working class that its members now too had the time and resources to indulge in the kind of self-actualizing pursuits that had previously been the exclusive domain of the high-born and wealthy. And that was even before smartphones made selfies possible!

I hope Wolfe opines on the state of society’s Me-Me-Me mindset next year on the 40th anniversary of that essay — and that he devotes some space to the role television has played in reflecting and driving the narcissism of modern life.

As the most “mass” of the “mass media,” television has historically been a lagging indicator of cultural change. With a need to attract the widest possible audience, television has historically played it conservatively and embraced fading cultural norms. With the recent fragmentation of the television audience, this is no longer so much the case, but for decades after the ’60s, television continued to pay at least lip service to the eternal verities of modesty, honor, and self-sacrifice.

Ironically, even as TV was supposedly promoting traditional virtues, it was also undermining them with its glorification of the individual. The small screen has always featured solitary heroes. Think of all those Westerns, cop shows and courtroom dramas with their go-it-alone leading men. What’s a poor TV viewer supposed to think when fed a steady diet of protagonists acting on their own, bucking the system and generally snubbing their noses at the establishment? Of course he’s eventually going to think that life is about looking out for Number One.

And now that it’s 2015, TV is awash in narcissism. The genre that burst the damn of the old values was reality TV. Take “American Idol,” which did more than any other single show to celebrate the cult of me. For millennia, the idea of being an “idol” had been blasphemous. You could literally be burned at the stake if you tried to set yourself up as an idol. Then along comes television to tell us that being idolized is not only okay, but that any ordinary person with a dream could achieve it.

But “American Idol” wasn’t the worst. “Survivor” spawned hundreds of contest shows in which the mantra quickly became “I’m not here to make friends.” And “The Real World” led to the phenomena of programs about strangers living together, where the biggest stars were the most selfish, self-absorbed and self-indulgent. Needless to say, there are no reality shows about nurses, teachers, or ministers. No one’s interested in schmoes who devote their lives to serving others.

Scripted programs have also done their part to promote the cult of me, perhaps none more egregiously than “Glee,” a show that fascinated and repelled me over its five seasons. The most overused word on that show was “dream.” The characters never stopped talking about how they wanted to fulfill their dreams, which is fine if your dream is to make the world a little better. But it soon became clear that on “Glee” the word “dream” meant standing on stage belting out show tunes with a spotlight on your face, basking in the ovations of an adoring audience.

On “Glee,” being a diva was a good thing — and all the selfish behavior of the main characters was eventually rewarded. In the final scenes of the series, the prima diva Rachel Barry, who never ceased demanding her solos, ending up winning a Tony for her efforts. By the time the final credits rolled, I’d decided that my dream was never again to hear the word “dream” on TV.

The antidote to me-based shows like “Glee” is “Mad Men,” which also grapples with individuality, but in a more complex and realistic way. In a recent episode, Don Draper even went around the office and asked his colleagues what their dreams were, and those aspirations were very pedestrian indeed. Per the American ideal, Don has reinvented himself, but the consequences are not pretty.  On “Mad Men” narcissism usually ends fatefully, as was the case with the original Narcissus. Now if only the rest of TV would relearn this ancient truth.

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