Monday, November 14, 2011

The Hollow Life

Sarah has recently taken to watching those home shows on cable TV. The HGTV network is dominated by two kinds of programs. On the one hand, shows like House Hunters and Property Virgins show people trying to come into possession of houses. On the other, shows like Bath Crashers and Design on a Dime let people who already own houses remake them in a newer, hipper image. A few shows, like Property Brothers, straddle the line and do both.

Shows of this sort are popular with cable programmers in part because of their low production overhead. Because they don’t involve scripts, sets, or highly priced stars, they come with fairly low budgets. For cable networks that don’t sell much ad space, that must be pretty appealing. But they couldn’t sell any ad space if the shows didn’t have a viewership. And I think the audience draw  for such shows speaks volumes about our current cultural condition.

Back in the Eighties, when media boosterism and the Reagan machine ballyhooed the belief that Americans had grown rich, shows like Dallas and Dynasty consumed the airwaves with images of wealth and splendor. By the Nineties, wealth became less important than the well-scrubbed but libertine parties on Friends and Melrose Place. Both trends represented not just our society’s aspirations, but how we thought everyone else lived, and how we wanted to live.

These myths about our social values did not reflect how we lived. The Eighties were not richer, or more viciously competitive, than anything before or after. In fact, the economic disparity that paid off in the current Occupy Wall Street protests began in the Eighties. Meanwhile, the best statistics indicate that even most people who consider themselves sexually liberated seldom have more than six partners in a lifetime, a number that didn’t fluctuate in the Nineties.

Instead, these shows depicted how we thought everybody else lived. We felt we had missed out on stacks of money and rampant casual sex, so we vicariously sat though depictions of how we thought others lived. And now, as the country suffers through the longest economic doldrums since the Great Depression, we feel like somebody, somewhere, lives in a comfier, more refined house than us, and we want to watch them.

Media professionals, of course, butter their bread with their ability to sell advertising space. The shows, news, and other programming that occupies their broadcast time exist to keep us tuned in long enough to see the ads. While many content creators like to think themselves aloof from such pressures, network execs occasionally admit, sometimes accidentally, that they customize their programming according to what ads they want to sell.

Watching Alexis Carrington devise small-minded plots to seize the family fortune may seem like an odd way to sell ad space. Yet Joan Collins’ undisputed glamour also made people hungry for Dior and Versace in their own closets. A decade later, Ross and Rachel may have lacked Alexis’ splendor, but they convinced audiences that their lives were incomplete until they owned suede living room sets and could spend copious free hours lounging at the coffee shop.

Poet and philosopher Wendell Berry points out that advertisers, by nature, sell a sense of lack. They persuade audiences that our lives have run hollow and that, unless we rush out and buy the latest slick toy, we cannot plug that hole. Blaise Pascal claimed we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. Advertisers tell us we have a product-shaped hole. Unfortunately, in our noisy and cluttered modern lives, God makes a tougher sell.

America has a longstanding ethic of individual home ownership. Like the English and Dutch who founded our culture, we aspire to not have to share walls with anyone not of our choosing. Lowe’s and the Home Depot have compounded that myth by telling us that we can live in a spotless palace. And network programmers, who get paid to find inventive ways to part us from our money, pitch that dream to us in dozens of pre-packaged forms every day.

But just as glamour and sex lost our interest, palatial environs will tarnish, too. Ad execs will invent new dreams to make us feel disappointed with real life. Human being are not, at root, acquisitive creatures. Left alone, most people get more pleasure from friendships, art, or a well-tended garden than from collecting trophies. We have the choice whether to let salesmen blind us to ourselves. I hope we have character enough to refuse what hucksters sell.

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