Around the time the David Foster Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, came out, heated discussion of its representation of Wallace's views on irony and entertainment led me to reread his long essay "E Unibus Pluram." The majority of the essay focuses on the effect of mass media on literature and the prevailing literary mode of irony for irony's sake, and how this mode is becoming inadequate. It also makes some observations about how we interact with television, the first being rather self-evident, that we emotionally invest ourselves in the characters, which provides a sense of belonging, of camaraderie, and that this vicarious version of these emotions comes at the cost of real interpersonal relationships. The second point, one that Wallace doesn't follow up on, is the idea that television flatters the audience. Referring to a Pepsi ad making fun of mass consumerism, Wallace writes that "[the ad] invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of. It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him." I would argue that this method of flattery is endemic in the majority of television programs, both scripted and 'reality.'
Flattery, simply put, is telling someone something nice about themselves, with the connotation that what's being told is exaggerated, effusive, undeserved, and/or simply false. It's also lovely to be on the receiving end, especially if you think the flatterer is sincere. Beyond the vicarious relationships mentioned in the first paragraph, I think most television programs, and a large portion of all entertainment, falls into one of two categories, positive flattery and negative flattery. Positive and negative here referring not to a moral or practical good/bad judgement, but rather a statement about a quality the consumer possesses (e.g. "You're smart, just like the detectives on this show") or a statement about a quality the consumer lacks (e.g. "you're not narcissistic like these real housewives"). What both of these forms of flattery do is provide the consumer with a sense of accomplishment, of being a good person, of figuring out a mystery, all by doing nothing more than staring at a screen for thirty minutes to an hour. And the concerning thing is that we are naturally inclined to like accomplishing things. Solving puzzles, finishing a task of any kind, it gives us a nice little mental boost of happiness and contentment. And much television is produced with this goal in mind.
The best example of positive flattery in television I can think of comes from the crime procedural. Anyone who has watched a handful of episodes will likely be able to figure out who the bad guy is before the show is even half-finished. That is, you figure it out before the detectives, or the scientists, or the math genius, or whatever gimmick the particular procedural has, regardless, before the successful and brilliant protagonist figures out what's going on, you've already figured it out. So, first you get that little burst of happy brain chemicals for solving a puzzle, then you get the satisfaction of watching the brilliant people trying to figure out what you already know. What feels to me to be particularly disingenuous about the whole thing is that these shows are edited and filmed in such a way as give the viewer clues early and often, but this is done in a way that tries to hide itself. Unlike Columbo, which started by explicitly telling the audience who the bad guy was, most modern crime procedurals do essentially the same thing, but more subtly. The most common method is one I call Chekhov's Shoehorn. Whereas Chekhov's gun is an admonition to remove any details that won't be important later, producers of crime procedurals work backwards and shoehorn in long dramatic shots of objects or people in the background precisely because they'll be important later. When paying attention to this, there might as well be bright yellow subtitles flashing the words "IMPORTANT!" throughout the scene. This information is in reality handed to the consumer on a platter, but is presented disingenuously, with a false nonchalance, as if the camera just happened to linger on the fireplace grating or the special guest star lurking in the shadows. This is far from the only means by which the crime procedural quietly gives the solution to the consumer. Timing and formula are important; the bad guy isn't going to get caught before the first commercial break, the detectives' first theory is always wrong, etc. etc. There are rules built into the genre, and these rules are picked up intuitively by the consumer, creating a framework in which they can know more than the brilliant detectives, solve crimes faster, and feel a sense of accomplishment. But these rules are only valid within this framework. All that is accomplished, all that can be accomplished, is a better ability to navigate and use this framework and its rules. Thus watching it gives you a sense of achievement, but what you've achieved is only useful for watching more procedurals.
Negative flattery tends to be primarily in the realm of "reality" television. People talk about watching television ironically, or of watching it for the same reason people slow down to see a gory car wreck. The Jerry Springer Show, Jersey Shore, any of the Real Housewives franchises, while there are those that fully identify with the casts, many watch to ridicule. There are more blatant examples, series of essentially clipshows titled "World's Dumbest..." where the ellipses is filled with everything from criminals to holidays to tourists, all of whom are mocked by C-list comedians. In my view, these shows can be broken into two categories: those that inspire mockery, and those that inspire righteous indignation. World's Dumbest... is a good example of the former, because the whole point is to mock, to laugh at how stupid other people are. But of course the consumer isn't stupid, not like these guys. The show promises that there are a whole lot of morons out there, so join us in laughing at them, because after all we aren't stupid. The other category, righteous indignation, can be seen with something like the Real Housewives, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Jerry Springer, or The Simple Life. This last is a the epitome of a pretty major reality tv subgenre: Terrible Rich People. The whole point is that they lead a life of extreme wealth and privilege, yet are shallow, callous, and condescending to those they consider beneath them. With Jerry Springer or Maury we can be disgusted with people who cheat, or we could just look at Cheaters. Toddlers in Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo are as geared to an audience looking to jeer the child beauty pageant industry as it is to the industry's devotees. The dangerous thing about righteous indignation is that it lets us feel righteous when all we really are is indignant. That merely finding something awful can be transmuted into a feeling of personal goodness is a powerful tool when used to inspire action, but here it is used only to get you to watch the next episode.
I mentioned earlier that these trends are not exclusive to television, which is true. The internet is rife with this, but with a major bias towards negative flattery. Countless blogs, "news" sites, special interest forums, etc., are dedicated to deriding those of opposing opinions, and they operate in the same fashion. The message: Look at how stupid, disgusting, or evil these other guys are. We see this on every side of every spectrum. Like tv shows, websites live and die based on the number of consumers.
I don't mean to imply that all television is flattering entertainment, or even that entertainment is necessarily bad. To bring this back to The End of the Tour, Wallace compares watching television to masturbating:
"I’m not saying TV is bad or a waste of
your time. Any more than, you know,
masturbation is bad or a waste of your
time. It's a pleasurable way to spend
a few minutes. But if you're doing it
twenty times a day, if your primary
sexual relationship is with your own
hand, then there's something wrong."