Dog Shows and Cat Boxes

I begin with a broadcasting history anecdote but bear with me. In Britain in the late ‘80s, a debate was held on what constituted quality television ahead of a broadcasting White Paper proposing the introduction of television outside public service regulation in the form of a satellite service to the UK. Unsurprisingly given what would go on to happen with Downton Abbey, business won over art and the agreed-upon definition of British quality television was pseudo-literary period drama with an easily exportable ideal of British national identity based on our imperial past. But during the debate, a definition of quality television offered by scholar Geoff Mulgan was ‘usable stories’, an idea consonant with broadcasting that television should tell its viewers something that could help them personally or collectively in their society. This understanding of quality in television has always stuck with me and it’s come to mind recently as a way of defending several American TV programmes I’ve been watching that are otherwise badly made, poorly written and artlessly executed. But is that justification enough?

Dog Daytime TV

Dog Daytime TV

I’m a dog-owner and I used to be a cat-owner. Hence I’ve been watching a lot of Nat Geo Wild’s The Dog Whisperer and Animal Planet’s cartoon riposte My Cat from Hell. Both shows tackle the same premise but are – quite literally – very different animals. In each, pet-owners call in behavioural specialists or PWCs (Psychologists Without Credentials) for their animal, Cesar Millan for the dogs and (apparently on return from the 23rd Century) Jackson Galaxy for the cats. The pets in question are usually engaging in dysfunctional behaviour, although the sub-Scooby Doo twist is always that it’s the owners who are really screwed up. Cesar controls the dogs by making them more obedient, calm and submissive and Jackson makes the cats easier to live with by compelling owners to hand over the entirety of their house to their new feline landlords. Different strokes for different pets. Both programmes are shoddily constructed, replete with ham-fisted set-ups, and full of duplication, laboriously eeking out a handful of choice moments into an hour of blink-and-you’ll-never-miss-it television.

That said, there’s more here that’s relevant to my daily life than in all the shows I’ve ever feted as quality TV. And I’m not just speaking selfishly. I’m a better citizen because of these shows, and with the possible exception of The Wire there’s not many ‘quality’ programmes you can say that about. My dog (by marriage) A is by no means a handful but nor is he entirely obedient, and sometimes he has to be because he’s a big boy and a breed that ignorant people (and that’s large sections of the public) mistakenly think of as a vicious dog and so there’s less chance any harm will come to him if he’s never out of our control. Thanks to The Dog Whisperer, I know that I can subdue A in any situation by calming myself first and that dogs need to respect as well as love you before they obey. Thanks to My Cat from Hell, I know that if I get a cat, I should just hand them the house keys.

Marriage Boot Camp is a truly awful TV show by anyone’s reckoning. Everyone involved is a horrid caricature (self-made or portrayed) of their social type and their relationships ugly distortions of what marriage is really like. The format and its ‘exercises’ (we should say games) don’t help anyone, and the whole debacle is thickly lacquered in anesthetized self-help dross. G and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary and we’re both ecstatic about each other and the institution. So whereas once I would see Marriage Boot Camp as a simple lie perpetuated by a periodically lazy medium, I now see it as a cautionary fable of what happens when married couples become grotesque circus-mirrors of loving unions. It’s the same old shit but my relationship to it has changed. Perversely, the show may even help our marriage, not because of the guidance it offers but because I now have a high-definition image in my mind of what a bad marriage looks like and I refuse to ever let myself resemble one single pixel of it.

Balls and Chains!

Balls and Chains!

I never thought I was that concerned with the use-value of the TV shows I watched. Then I think how little British TV I now watch compared to when I lived in Britain. Sure, it’s harder to get British programmes here and much easier just to go with the flow (50 television academics just telepathically high-fived!) but frankly it’s very possible these days and the shows themselves are no less for me being here. It’s only because they don’t seem relevant to my life as it is now that I don’t watch them as regularly. Most of the British shows I’ve lost in translation are the ones I used to sync myself to the national calendar. You can tell that from the titles: The Great British Menu, The Great British Bake-Off, Coronation Street. What remains is everything I watch for content and style (Doctor Who, The Fall, Peep Show) not because they speak to me in my immediate surroundings. I don’t think I’ll ever completely confuse useful programming with good TV, but it’s tempting sometimes.

 

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