L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 305, February 6, 2005
"An Unhealthy Obsession"
And the Winner Is... Not Us
Special to TLE
I have a secret. Don't tell anyone, but I actually like watching movie and TV awards shows. Yes, I know they're typically shallow, self-serving, and self-congratulatory programs geared too often to celebrate excess. And yes, I know they often turn into ultra-liberal political statements either via actor comments or the nominated subject matter. I even agree with you that these things aren't particularly admirable. But the truth of the matter is that they're also parades of gorgeous gowns and sparkling jewels (I'm a girl, and I like that stuffso sue me), show business gossip, and sometimes surprising moments of genuine joy or artless exuberance that I find amusing.
The first big awards show of the so-called awards season is the Golden Globes, held this year on January 16. Golden Globe awards are given for both movies and television by the Hollywood Foreign Press. The show is typically well attended by the stars for a couple of reasons (not counting the extravagant gift bags given to presenters and nomineessee "shallow" and "excess" above). First of all, nominees are seated at tables where they're given as much free alcohol as they can drink (often resulting in "artless exuberance"). Secondly, the awards are bestowed by what is essentially an influential group of critics ("self-serving," but understandably so).
While the People's Choice Awards honor those who are favorites of the general public, and the Academy Awards give statues to those most admired by their peers, the Golden Globes are based largely on critical acclaim. It's interesting to note that those actors and films getting the critical acclaim are very often not the same shows that get high ratings or have earned big box office dollars. For example, several awards were given to actors starring in the film Closer, and The Phantom of the Opera was nominated in a couple of categories. Meet the Fockers, on the other hand, wasn't even mentioned. Yet Closer has earned only a little over $30 million in the two months since it was released, and Phantom has earned about the same in five weeks. This may sound like a lot of money, but in the five weeks since it's been released, Meet the Fockers has earned almost $250 million.
Frankly, I didn't really think about this disparity until the award for best TV comedy actor was announced. The winner was Jason Bateman, star of Arrested Development. I've seen Arrested Development a couple of times, though I must admit I'm not a regular watcher. In the case of the episodes I did see, however, I'm going to agree with all of the critical glory being heaped on the show: it's well written, it's well acted, and it's darned funny. It also rarely fares too well in the ratings. Do you want to know some of what was in the Top 10 TV shows of the week when the Golden Globes aired instead? Well, the Golden Globes itself came in at number 10. Football dominated much of the rest of the schedule.
Don't misunderstand. There's nothing wrong with football. I myself actually like football. And you already know that I like the Golden Globes and shows like it. What's wrong here isn't that football or awards shows do well. It's that shows like Arrested Development don't. After some thought, I think I know why that's the case. Football requires little more than tortilla chips and a beer to enjoy (although a knowledge of the game itself can prove somewhat helpful). The Golden Globes just needs somebody who likes to watch stars prance around patting themselves on the back (and don't pretend I'm the only one here that likes that kind of thing on occasion). But Arrested Development requires more of you: attention, and enough intelligence to "get" the jokes.
If you take a look at the box office figures or at the Nielsen ratings, it's painfully obvious that the less we have to do to be entertained, the better it will do in the eyes of the general public. I don't mean to say that every movie should be educational or a work of cinematic brilliance (although I'd like it if more movies would at least strive to meet those measures). And I don't think that all TV should consist of the Discovery Channel or CSPAN. But movies and TV too often appeal to the lowest common denominator, and the ratings bear out the fact that that denominator is low indeed!
Write a clever comedy like Arrested Development, and its loyal fans will worry the show won't be renewed; put dead rats in a blender and make people drink the result (that was, by the way, a real stunt in a recent episode of Fear Factor), and you'll hit the ratings jackpot. Produce a movie that's emotionally just about as real as it gets (Closer) or that's as beautiful to see as it is heart-tugging to hear (Phantom), and you might do okay; but flush a dog down the toilet or make jokes about a toddler saying a bad word (Meet the Fockers) and you've got a box office bonanza!
Unfortunately, the same is all too apparently true where our politicians and our government is concerned. George Bernard Shaw said, "Liberty requires responsibility. That is why most men dread it." And just as so many people seem to dread watching a show that might actually require them to give a little thoughtful consideration to something they're seeing or hearing, vast numbers seem to prefer that the government ease their burden of responsibility.
There was a time when people either got a joband were willing to take anything they could get if they had toor had to rely on relatives or charity for their day-to-day needs. Thanks in large part to FDR, the federal government will now take care of your problems with everything from unemployment compensation to food stamps to welfare benefits and child care assistance. Abuse of the system is rampant. In the past, when people decided to buy a house, they scrimped and saved until they could afford to do so. Now there are government programs that offer everything from free down payments to specialized loans to taxpayer funded mortgage programs. Government foreclosures are so common that there are for sale listings everywhere, and an entire business has sprung up instructing would-be real estate investors as to how to purchase government foreclosed properties.
Farmers used to grow the crop that was most in demand so they could make the best possible living. Now the federal government pays some to grow crops that wouldn't otherwise earn them enough to maintain the farm, and it pays others to grow absolutely nothing. This is in the guise of controlling the markets, but in reality it controls the farmers and makes them dependent. The small American farmer is today an endangered species. America used to have the best schools in the world with students that studied hard and parents who made sure their kids were accountable even as they watched schools to ensure they, too, performed up to snuff. Now parents use schools as babysitters, and government-mandated curriculums and teachers' unions have made American students fall out of the top twenty of developed countries.
Convicted criminals were once put in jail cells where they were fed cheap food, wore ugly clothes, and got out only to serve on chain gangs. Once their sentences were complete, they were given their personal effectsincluding a gun, if they had oneand sent on their merry way. These criminals often took their second chance and used it wisely. Today, we give free college educations and cable TV to prisoners at government expense, and the rates of recidivism are sky high.
In each of these instances, the problem stems from a reluctance to accept responsibility. Or perhaps it's better said that the problems come from a willingness to give up responsibility. The government, which seems to be under the mistaken impression that it is to guarantee us not only life and liberty but to pursue happiness on our behalf as well, is only too happy to take on responsibility for us as long as we pay it for doing so. And we pay all too well! (Take a look at the deductions on your next paycheck if you don't believe me.)
Back in TV-land, people are apparently sick of watching publicity hounds looking for love and of cameras poking into private moments which, even with the permission of those filmed, should probably have stayed private. It looks like they might have had just about enough of alliances and betrayals and humiliating "challenges," too. Complaints about the vast wasteland that is network television have finally resulted in a few shows that have the shocking distinction of being both intelligent and well-received, shows such as ratings powerhouse CSI and the new and wonderful Desperate Housewives (a Golden Globe winner for best comedy and best actress) and Lost (a Golden Globe nominee for best drama and best supporting actress).
In the world of politics, on the other hand, it seems people are still busy looking for the equivalent of being covered in honey and jumping into a vat of red worms (yes, that's another Fear Factor stunt in case you just had to know). Talk of everything from nationalized healthcare to national ID's is once again rampant in the halls of the Capitol. So many are so busy asking their representatives to ensure they get a piece of the pie that they're too busy to make their own pastries. And if that keeps up for too much longer, the only pie any of us are going to get is going to bear a nauseating resemblance to something else you can see on any given week on Fear Factor.
Scary TV shows are one things, even when they're just frighteningly bad. But the rot infesting our entertainment thanks in large part to our own laziness and disinterest is an all too accurate analogy for the malady that's eating away at the foundations of our government. If we expect the product coming from TV and movie producers to improve, we need be responsible enough to stop watching those shows that are beneath our standards, and exercise a little of our intelligence by watching intelligent shows once in awhile. By the same token, if we want our freedoms to increase and our quality of life to improve, we've got to be willing to accept responsibility for ourselves and our families.
Refusing to take advantage of government programs is certainly a good start, but that's not going to be enough. If the dollars aren't used up in one place, you can rest assured that Congress will find somewhere else to spend them. No, it's going to take a little more effort than that! Cutting and then repealing unnecessary and unconstitutional programs is going to be needed, and that means letters, phone calls, lobbying, publicity, and more in addition to refusing to take advantage of the programs. It means keeping an eye on your representatives, and voting them out of office as required. Sure, it'll take some effort. But responsibility is like that. And when the pay-off is in liberty, the incentive ought to beat even the most lucrative reality show prize package hands down.