Acts of Television

In the week following terrorist attacks on Paris, Beirut and Lebanon, the response of American television to these events is of little importance. But this is a blog about American television and so that’s what I’m going to talk about. To make this blog about the attacks – as if that had been its dormant purpose all along – would do a severe injustice to what is a complex geo-political situation. Sometimes I wish American television knew its limitations as well as I do. News and current affairs programs obviously must deal with what has happened – unfortunately for those of us who don’t think that refugees are responsible for the crimes of their persecutors – but TV entertainment doesn’t necessarily have to engage unless the latter’s remit crosses over into the former’s. Nonetheless, all entertainment programming, at least that which has been made since the attacks, seems to have an unwritten obligation to comment on the human tragedy. This sounds like an altogether good thing, suggesting that the genre isn’t as trivial as we suspected, but what it actually discovers is that entertainment formats are simply not equipped to handle this level of political discourse. Many of the results have been frankly insulting.


Jean Oliver!

Take, for instance, Chris Hardwick’s gabbled epilogue of pseudo-Churchillian platitudes no doubt compiled from a graphic novel about Dunkirk in the closing moments of AMC’s Talking Dead, a post-show discussion of The Walking Dead. This resembled one of those rushed disclaimers at the end of pharmaceutical commercials. For events of this magnitude, you either have time to talk about them or you don’t. I’m all in favour – as my younger self would not have been – of cancelling scheduled shows in favour of extended news coverage, though this is one of the few times that a 24-hour news cycle is justified in my view. TNT made the decision to postpone the broadcast of an episode of Sean Bean vehicle Legends set in Paris, which though it may appear overly-sensitive also takes into account the fact that a terrorist act is represented. CBS’ Supergirl and NCIS: Los Angeles also shelved episodes that involved bombings and terrorists. Networks tend to err on the side of caution in these instances, reducing TV to a set of trending keywords and then disseminating entire programs that use them incidentally. It’s one of the few occasions that networks admit outright that their programming is not socially responsible.

Some responses were more judicious. As you might expect from our ironic culture of news, parodies of broadcast journalism did far better than the real thing in their treatment of the attacks. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver kept the talk of war cultural, badgering ISIS into taking on the global leaders of art, food and music with their apocalyptic asceticism. While this is one of the few shows on TV that had the time and scope to offer a full account of the attacks and their significance, the suddenness of the events and their proximity to airtime meant that the program was safer – and more effective – to be as schoolboy as possible in its response, exploiting the other boutique quality of HBO: Obscenity. While broader as befits its appeal, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert adopted a similar tact, leaving it to New Orleans-based house jazz band Jean Baptiste and Stay Human to pay tribute to the French origins of their musical culture. Colbert has always played both sides of the American political sphere and, whether scheduled or not, the pairing of Bill Maher and Medal of Honor recipient Flobert Groberg kept the extremists on both sides at bay.

Vive la Rat!

Vive la Rat!

But what made Colbert’s response particularly powerful was its self-reflexive commentary on how to respond to events such as these. There was an affectionate poke at the tweeters who had the combination of compassion and ignorance that makes watching Ratatouille an act of solidarity with the French and a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the dilemma over whether to keep the booking of feline circus act The Acro-Cats on the first show since the attacks. Since taking over from Letterman at CBS, Colbert has made himself a defender of both American high culture and light entertainment, and so the ISIS attacks were a real (surely unwanted) test of his mettle in his dual function as cultural commentator and ringmaster, which he passed with high-flying colours. Colbert is unusually thoughtful for a talk show host, Oliver a journalistic powerhouse. It’s the ones who think they’re being thoughtful through acknowledgment that are the problem.

3 Responses to “Acts of Television”

  1. Interesting piece. But perhaps there’s another perspective.

    I think part of the reason that the comedy/parody shows tend to earn praise in their handling of events such as these is that expectations are in their favour. If they drop the jokes and treat them with solemnity – Jon Stewart’s first Daily Show after 9/11, for instance, or Craig Ferguson on the evening of the Aurora cinema shooting – they have elevated themselves, proving their ability to handle delicate situations sensitively. If they respond with comedy, as above, they’ve done their job, helping their audience to cope with the events and refusing to be cowed.

    They earn praise simply because expectations of them are low, certainly in comparison with the news media, whose stated job it is to handle these things. You didn’t bring up the news very much in your piece, other than to say that 24-hour news is justified on occasions such as this, so I don’t know what your thoughts were on their handling of the attacks. No matter how good their handling, though, I’d argue they have a harder task than the comedians, who enjoy a freedom that the news doesn’t, and don’t necessarily share the responsibility that the news shoulders. That’s worth taking into account when singing the praises of the comedians.

    They can only really ‘fail’ if they don’t address the events (though perhaps people would make the excuse for them that late-night comedy oughtn’t be required to do the job of the news media?), or if they don’t play it safe and thus risk making a joke or giving an opinion that not everybody will agree with.

    You’re being a little too kind to Colbert and Oliver. Funny though their pieces were, they were pretty anodyne; their tones would not have surprised anybody familiar with the shows. I agree that the clamour for anybody and everybody to nod towards the attacks is tokenistic, a little cheap, and slightly silly, but given the context of how late-night comedy has handled similar tragedies for the past fifteen years, Colbert’s and Oliver’s pieces were nothing special. They were exactly as bland as I’d expected, frankly.

    I do think that Jon Stewart tended to react to tragedies better than anybody. Particularly towards the end of his time on The Daily Show, there was a simmering rage beneath his work that would bubble over from time to time, and he always had something to actually say. After the Charleston church shooting earlier this year, he told his audience that he believed that by acknowledging America’s race issues and treating them with honesty… still nothing would change. I didn’t really expect to hear that. I had expected more talk about needing to address gun laws and so on. But I think a lot of people had been thinking for some time that it seemed beyond hope, that nothing would change. He was clearly one of them, and he had the astuteness and confidence to say so. I know that people need hope, and that’s what TV tries to deliver on these occasions, but it’s trite and uninsightful. A reaction like Jon Stewart’s wouldn’t work every time, it would depress the shit out of us. But it’s honest, and arresting, and not the safe option.

    And I kind of think that we should have the shit depressed out of us sometimes.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful response and for offering a different perspective that is completely valid. If I’m being generous to Oliver, it’s probably because I have faith he will offer something more substantial and significant on the issue in time, but I did think his self-consciously immature reaction to the attacks was a fair distillation of how many of us are feeling about the stupidity of it all. Colbert has a broad remit these days – though he’s doing all he can to be elitist within that – and I think he must work within those confines if he is to gain legitimacy as a broadcaster (in the old sense of the word). But making the response about the conventions of the response is not bland to me, it seems very sophisticated. News is a whole other post, but I’m probably not the one to write it. I watch little – just enough to sieve information out of the garbage – as I find the reporting morally abhorrent, especially in the States, and not an attempt to cover the relevant facts, rather make what has happened fit their longstanding narrative, which is about the threat of immigrants to international safety. You wouldn’t hear me say anything kind about them, whereas someone else who has followed the coverage more closely might give news outlets the benefit of some doubt.

      • Once I’d written that I did feel that I was probably being a little harsh, especially considering Colbert’s broader remit, as you say. If you compare anything to what you believe is the best in the business, it’ll come off worse. And Colbert’s piece was cleverer than I admitted.

        You have a point with Oliver, too. It reminds me a little of South Park’s first episode after 9/11, “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants”, which came to the conclusion that the only thing everybody could agree on was that Osama bin Laden had farty pants. It’s okay to react like that. I share your hope that Oliver will do more on it, because when he gets going he’s pretty unstoppable. I have some issues with him, but on the whole Last Week Tonight is a valuable programme and I’m always keen to see the new pieces they release on YouTube.

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