Almost everything worth knowing I learned from TV. I taught myself English by rewinding and replaying old, scratched-up VHS tapes of The Honeymooners. When my own childhood was derailed by a string of very bad decisions, I found comfort in the Keatons and the Cosbys and the Conners, families whose every quarrel was amusing and resolved within 22 minutes. I remember rushing home one afternoon in 1993—a prehistoric era in which humans, having yet to discover the DVR or Netflix, had to sit in front of their sets at a particular hour to watch their favorite shows—eager to make it in time for Beverly Hills 90210. I ran into my room, and as I was about to grab the remote I noticed a brown envelope lying on my bed. It was a letter from the Israel Defense Forces, into which I was to be inducted the following year, and I knew that it contained the verdict about where I would serve and at what capacity, the Israeli equivalent of the American letter from the college of one’s choice. It was heady stuff, and I was eager to find out, but I was also eager not to miss a second of my beloved show. I stared at the envelope, then at the TV. It wasn’t really a fair fight. The IDF could wait; Brandon, Dylan, and Kelly could not.
My infatuation with television has since grown into a more mature and nuanced love, which is why the news last week that Fox will soon allot a stretch of its Saturday-night programming to a new, off-beat animation strip made me more despondent about the future of the medium than I’ve been since that low moment in which the aforementioned Kelly, forced to choose between her two aforementioned lovers, announced “I choose me” and set a new record in terrible TV writing. It’s unfair to judge any work of culture sight unseen, but if reports of Fox’s new endeavor are any measure, the future of American television is grim.
As we live in the age of The Wire, Breaking Bad, and other peaks of TV genius, that last sentence requires some explaining. Isn’t television now as good as it’s ever been? Aren’t we amidst a small-screen renaissance? We’re not, or at least not entirely. And we’ve cartoons to blame.
Starting in the mid-1990s, animation studio executives, led by Hanna-Barbera president Fred Seibert, aggressively pushed their genre up the age range, producing content increasingly targeted at young-adult or adult viewers. One by one, shows like Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, and Dexter’s Laboratory featured saltier language and rowdier ideas than anything Bugs Bunny and his pals could’ve ever imagined. Being just the sort of concoctions our perennially adolescent culture is primed to admire—two parts self-referential humor, one part punning, stirred and served in small and potent shots—these shows were all hits, producing anything from Primetime Emmy nominations to an endless stream of merchandise, DVD compilations, and video games. But they were, at heart, traditional shows, with characters and story lines and emotional arcs, a sensibility hardly changed since the 1950s. And then came the Internet.
Like all media, the Internet, too, contains multitudes that are difficult to reduce to short and simple definitions, but it isn’t too much of an injustice to argue that the Web reserves its greatest rewards for the brief and the obvious. Post a 5,000-word essay analyzing the root causes of the riots in Brazil, say, and, no matter how well-written or erudite, you’re likely to get no more than one reader per word. A listicle of the 30 greatest one-hit wonders from the 1980s, on the other hand, is the stuff Internet dreams are made of. Which means that the television shows that could now make it rain online were the ones with an abundance of lightning flashes, quick and furious bits of content that needed neither context nor explanation to spread widely and rapidly online.
Into this digitally enhanced universe walked Family Guy, a show whose plot lines were nothing more than shotgun shells containing small and cutting pellets of vignettes spoofing bits and bobs of pop-culture detritus. Family Guy’s approach to storytelling was so stark that South Park, an animated show from an earlier era, mocked it by suggesting in one episode that Family Guy scripts were generated by a tubful of manatees pushing around balls with random words printed on each one.
Family Guy premiered in 1999; by 2002, it was canceled, decimated by Friends running against it on NBC. Two forces, however, united to bring it back to life: One was the Internet, which turned many of the show’s random gags into viral videos, and the other was Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s nighttime animation strip. Launched in 2001, Adult Swim was everything the new wave of adult-themed animation always wanted to be but couldn’t before the ascent of the GIF, the meme, and other forms of rapid transmission of small portions of content. To describe the shows that have made Adult Swim a monstrous hit would be futile; they exist to mock television’s very need for definitions. Instead, imagine a show about a clan of anthropomorphic Appalachian mud squids who live in Georgia and whose paterfamilias, crudely drawn and badly voiced, is fond of giving speeches like this one: “Lord, please allow these scratched lottery tickets with their slivery seasonings to nourish our bodies as they were unable to do the same to our wallets. And thank ya fer the untimely frost which claimed my bananer orchard. Oh, I was a fool ta plant bananers on a mountain! You made sure of that. So, in short, thanks for nothin’.”
That last nugget is taken from Squidbillies, one of Adult Swim’s crown jewels. It doesn’t make more sense when viewed in context. It’s not supposed to: Like all the shows in that strip, it is a celebration of the random, the bizarre, and the unpleasantly surreal. The monologues these shows throw together—and they’re mainly monologues, as dialogues require fully fleshed characters to deliver them and fully fleshed characters require plot lines, and plot lines are, like, not cool for the gaggle of young men and women at the center of Adult Swim’s creative universe—sound like the fevered dreams of smart but unmotivated junior-high students walking home alone in the heat: They’re grandiose and sweet and silly and senseless and entirely too solipsistic to be taken seriously. Once upon a time, these kids used to grow up, go to college, then put in time in a writers’ room, learn the craft, and only then get the green light to make shows of their own. That temperate pace is no longer in vogue: On the Internet, as on Adult Swim, instant stardom is not only sexy but the way we now do business.
Family Guy is a case in point: When the show first aired on Fox, its creator, Seth MacFarlane, was 26, with nothing more than a few Hanna-Barbera cartoons to his name. The network eventually balked at his sensibility and pulled the plug on his show. That, in the traditional television life cycle, would have been that, but the show’s reruns were picked up by Adult Swim immediately after its cancellation, generating a crescendo of ratings boosted by robust fan traffic on the Web. Fox had no choice but to pay attention, bringing the show back from the dead and surrendering most of the network’s Sunday-night lineup to the same 20-something it had unceremoniously fired just five years before. That gambit worked so well that Fox decided to fashion its entire new strip after Adult Swim, opening the door to a cadre of creators who fit the mothership’s feverish sensibility. When the New York Times, for example, profiled a host of these new show creators, the paper noted that a few “still come off as if they’re just talking to one another, not for public consumption.” In the new Internet-powered TV landscape, that’s precisely the point.
And that’s a shame: This new strange sensibility is a complete reversal of everything that American television used to be and of everything that has made it great.
There are many things, good and bad, one can say about American TV in the last 30 years, but no matter its shortcomings, the medium has repeatedly succeeded in delivering a candid and uncynical affirmation of the need we all have for community and the sacrifices we all make to preserve it. Odd as it may sound, this remains a rare sentiment in American popular culture: As the movies, always vehicles for leading men and women, turned louder and more spectacular in the aftermath of Jaws and Star Wars, TV remained small and personal and dedicated to ensembles of talented actors and diverse characters. In 1985, to take one random example, movie-goers had both the second Rambo and the fourth Rocky to feast on, but at home they watched the debut of The Golden Girls and Growing Pains, two shows that weren’t just well-written but that also affirmed that life was less about punches and explosions and more about an endless stream of small and mundane moments that were meaningful only because they were shared with friends and family and loved ones.
This, I suspect, is why TV has meant so much to me and to so many others. We all know that we will never be as tough and resourceful as Rambo, but we all hope to one day have friends as loyal as Blanche, Rose, Sophia, and Dorothy, or to become wise and loving parents like Steven and Elyse of Family Ties, or to enjoy a marriage as stable as Archie and Edith’s. And we loved these shows because they taught us the greatest and most difficult spiritual lesson—namely, that we should look for redemption not in great heroes who come and fix everything and sweep everyone off their feet but in everyday moments that seem insignificant as they happen but that, taken together, make up a tapestry of a rich and well-lived life. Television, to paraphrase a sliver of wisdom from another medium, taught us that heaven was a place on earth.
Which, of course, is a very Jewish sensibility. It is no coincidence that all three shows mentioned in the paragraph above were created by Jews. While different in look and tempo, these shows, and others like them, shared a similar approach to storytelling, deeply humanistic and profoundly Jewish. This approach was best captured in a sadly forgotten novel, The Second Scroll, written by a sadly forgotten Canadian Jewish poet, A.M. Klein. In the novel, Klein argued that Jews owed their survival to their ability to make up compelling stories—that they are chosen people, say, and that there is a promised land awaiting them at the end of days—and believe in them while all the while ignoring their actual, grim history, which tumbled from one terrifying massacre to the next. Had they focused on the facts of their lives, Klein claimed, the Jews would’ve been traumatized beyond relief; it was their ability to turn their tales into a religious reality that saved them at every turn.
Norman Lear, Susan Harris, the late Gary David Goldberg, and TV’s other Jewish pioneers subscribed to the same logic, creating television shows that gave a battered America better stories than the harrowing ones that stained the front pages of its newspapers each morning. Like all masterful myth-makers, they understood that a myth works precisely because it combines the banal—family dynamics, petty jealousies, common lust—with the fantastic—gods and monsters and miraculous transformations—with each element making the other more believable.
The Adult Swim approach, already prevalent in many corners of TV and soon to be considerably more so once Fox debuts its new strip, is the antithesis of this approach. It believes not in communities but in individuals, and it rewards the personal incoherencies that set us apart rather than the far more universal desires we all share. It can think of no greater commodity than the random, GIFable chuckle. It has no interest in or use for the glory that is ordinary human life. That is probably also why so many of these shows are animated: Cartoons have traditionally shown little interest in life as it is lived by actual people.
Fox’s new flight of programming may prove a dud, hastily forgotten amid more and more excellent and serious TV storytelling. But if Adult Swim is any indication, that’s not likely to happen. We’ll soon have more and more characters on TV that resemble the squidbillies much more than they do the Golden Girls. And that’s not only an artistic decline but a moral one as well.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.