Friday, May 03, 2013

COLUMN: Idiocracy

Vladimir Zwoyrkin and Philo Farnsworth aren't a likely pair to be found sharing the same space in the annals of history.  One was a Russian transplanted to Pittsburgh, the other a Mormon with a small lab in California. But they DID have a shared dream. Farnsworth built a photocathode tube able to focus a visual image onto a layer of photosensitive material, resulting in an electron image capable of being multiplied via a positively charged detector. Zwoyrkin saw Farnsworth's invention but envisioned a different model where cathode ray tubes could be used to both create and display images. These two men, working on opposite ends of the country, laid the blueprints for what we know today as television.

Zwoyrkin and Farnsworth had different approaches to their work, but they did share one important thing in common:  Not once did either ever utter the phrase, "...and with this discovery, it is my distinct hope that one day, mankind will be able to harness this technology to enjoy watching bearded rednecks make duck calls."

Have you ever seen Mike Judge's brilliant satirical movie, "Idiocracy"? In it, a man and woman are accidentally frozen alive and revived in the future. When they awaken 500 years later, they discover that, thanks to the dumbing down of pop culture, the world is populated exclusively by morons. In this future world, the top-rated TV show is the aptly titled, "Ow! My Balls!"

"Idiocracy" was released in 2006 and supposedly took place in the future world of 2505. In the real world, it's now 2013, but as I scan the TV dial these days, I'm scared that we're already broaching "Ow! My Balls!" territory. Everywhere I look, there's some new "reality" show seemingly intent on dumbing down America. Once upon a time, A&E stood for Arts & Entertainment Television. Now their programming consists of Duck Dynasty and Stuff People Watch While Waiting For Duck Dynasty. Once upon a time, MTV showed music videos. Now I'm pretty sure all they air is a 24-hour montage of drunk girls fighting. TLC WAS The Learning Channel. As I sit here typing, it's currently devoting an entire show to a man who owns 8000 bottles of mustard and is conquering his obsession with something called "ketchup therapy." The only thing I'm learning is that cable is a waste of money.

Where did it all go wrong? I'm not sure, but I have my suspicions. If I had to trace back the dumbing down of this generation's idea of entertainment, I'd say it was a three-pronged attack: American Gladiators, America's Funniest Home Videos, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Once we started sacrificing scripted programming in favor of embarassing home videos, dudes fighting each other with giant Q-Tips, and Jim Carrey talking out of his hindquarters, culture was doomed.

Back in my day -- you know, when we had to walk a mile barefoot through the snow to watch "Fantasy Island" -- if we enjoyed a particular celebrity, we tuned in to watch a show they starred in. But nowadays its not enough to watch celebrities act and sing. Nope, now we need to watch them dance, work for Donald Trump, swap wives, and dive into pools. When that's all over, we can switch to "TMZ Live," which is pretty much 30 straight minutes of celebrities trying to walk away from cameras in a hurry.

So why get all worked up over this? After all, bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment has been all the rage for the better part of a decade now. But I just read an article that proves we're about to eat THROUGH the bottom of the barrel and descend to an as-yet-undiscovered subterranean level of trash.

Familiar with the DIY Network? Once upon a time, it was an educational home improvement channel with hands-on shows that guided you through the pitfalls of home remodeling and restoration. Their programming was top-notch, but there was just one problem. In their hurry to make quality television that actually stood a chance to educate folks, they neglected to include even ONE D-list celebrity. Tsk, tsk.

That all changed a couple years ago when "The Bronson Project" debuted. The one thing better than a home improvement is, of course, a home improvement show starring TV's Balki Bartokomous -- and, because the world sucks, the show was a ratings triumph. This was followed last season by "The Vanilla Ice Project," where our favorite washed-up rapper was back with a brand new invention: the remodel of a mansion -- and, presumably, if there was a problem, yo, he solved it. More specifically, his "team" did. He pretty much stood around and checked out the hook while his DJ revolved it. The ratings, naturally, were gold.

This week, the DIY Network announced its new shows currently in production. First up? "Vanilla Ice Goes Amish," where our hero joins an Amish colony in order to stop, collaborate, listen, and raise a barn. Then there's "The Rev Run Project," where the chubbier half of Run-DMC updates his family home (spoiler alert: it's tricky.) And yes, a third show wherein Hall & Oates fix up an old farmhouse.

Look, folks: It's my JOB to sit around and think up funny stuff, and I'd never be able to come up with a premise as ridiculous as a Hall & Oates fix-it show. But maybe this is a cash cow I need to learn to ride. If the key to success is merely matching up a mundane activity with a washed-up musical act, it's high time I launched my OWN network. I'll call it Crummy Recording Artists Performing on TV, if only it had a catchy acronym. Here's some ideas I'm mulling over for programming:

• HVAC Maintenace with Air Supply - They might be all out of love, but they're rife with knowledge about energy efficient ways to heat your home.

• Preparing for the LSAT with DJ Jazzy Jeff - Okay, here's the situation, your parents have you worried about your law school examination. Perhaps a nice refresher would do you some good. Well, maybe you shouldn't... yeah, of course you should.

• I'm Alright, You're Alright: Self Esteem Building with Kenny Loggins.

• Cooking Meat Loaf with, umm, Meat Loaf - Duh. It's cold and lonely in the deep dark night, but I can see paradise by the oven light.

• The Captain & Tennille + 8 - Let's see how much love can keep them together when they're paired with 8 precocious orphans.

I'd share more, but they're MY intellectual property. Plus "Welcome to Myrtle Manor" starts in a minute, and I am NOT missing that. You know, so that I can continue to report on the degradation of modern entertainment. Not at all because the trashy girls are super cute. No sirree.

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