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TV for entertainment's sake - shouldn't that be enough?

Dale Roe, On TV

Staff Writer
Austin 360

‘I never read books; I don't even own one. They're just filled with garbage. They're an endless, time-sucking vortex. What a waste of time."

That's something you never hear, right? But I'll bet you've known people who have described television that way.

I don't get it.

Telling me that you don't watch television confuses me in the same way as if you were to tell me that you never, ever read books or you don't listen to a note of music. Certainly there are trashy songs and lousy reads, but that hasn't put you off wholesale of those activities, has it? And I don't understand how it's possible to function, much less thrive, while intentionally disconnecting yourself from pop culture in a society that is so immersed in and affected by it.

I'm not saying we're not watching too much TV. The New York Times culled 2010 Nielsen Co. data and reported in January that the average American watched 34 hours of television per week. That's a lot, and it's probably worthwhile to consider cutting back. But I'm more interested in the mind-set that leads a person to go cold turkey and swear off TV for good.

So I asked my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter who claim they never watch television to tell me why. The answers ranged from the odd — "It messes with your brain waves" — to the expected: "TV takes up so much time. Then you get sucked into watching more. It's a waste. I'd rather learn, create, exercise, etc. When I do have spare time, I've better things to do."

Others indicated that poor programming was the culprit.

"I stopped watching it when I was in college and working full time," one responder wrote. "When I turned it back on? It was all crap. Then I just got busy with other things, and I can't imagine doing that now."

There were technical reasons, too. "My aversion to TV and movies may be because I'm a text-based person. Can't process visual and audio narrative all that well," one friend wrote.

I even heard from self-loathing TV fans.

"Man, I wish I didn't watch TV. I think I would do more useful/interesting things with my life — but I do love turning on and tuning out," a responder wrote.

Let's ignore the fact that people who spend so much time on the social media site that brought Farmville to the masses decry television as a waste of time. Their comments float on an undertow of disdain. "Being a passive consumer of culture," one person tweeted, "makes me feel a bit depressed."

There's something wrong, the responses seem to suggest, with just being entertained.

Viewers aren't alone in thinking that way. In advance of 2010's Austin Film Festival, I asked David Simon (the brilliant writer who created "The Wire" and "Tremé") if it was tough for him to balance his pointed and political storytelling with the reality that he had to be an entertainer.

"Yeah, I carry that one with a certain degree of shame," he replied. But being entertaining, he explained, was a price he was willing to pay in order to "have his say."

Austinite Noah Hawley, who created ABC's short-lived "My Generation" and is currently developing future projects with the network, says viewers didn't tune into Simon's crime drama because it was a fascinating thesis on the modern American city. "They watched it," he says, "because it was great storytelling about characters that you invested in, and there was crime and violence and sex and human beings at their best and their worst."

It was entertaining. And what's wrong with that?

Looking back, I can't think of a single instance when I was entertained by anything — a book, a play, a concert, a stupid Internet video featuring cats or, yes, even a TV show — and considered it wasted time. Maybe it's because I write a column and have some background as a performer (I have spent years writing and performing live sketch comedy), but I think entertaining people is a noble pursuit. It looks easy, but it's not. And it makes people happy.

"I consider the title of entertainer to be a compliment and responsibility I wear with pride and humility," says actor and Austin native Mehcad Brooks (son of the American-Statesman's Alberta Phillips), currently appearing on the USA Network's "Necessary Roughness."

"To entertain is to give a piece of yourself for the benefit of others, whether it is sacrificing your pride for the sake of laughter or providing camaraderie to heavy hearts. To be entertained is to receive a pure gift. It is a beautiful thing, and I'm flattered to be considered (an entertainer)," Brooks says.

So there's one person in my corner. But others in the industry I contacted agreed with Simon and Hawley, who said his philosophy is that if you're entertaining people — if they're along for the ride — then "they give you permission to educate them or raise a controversial issue."

"The goal, of course, is to create something that not only entertains, but enlightens, questions and expands," agrees Kyle Killen, the Austin writer who penned "The Beaver" for the big screen and the intricate and wildly entertaining drama "Awake" for NBC (you'll see it in spring). "Lots of TV misses that mark. The best TV hits it in a way no other medium ever has."

Sigh. That's true, but still ... Sigh.

I might be alone on this one. I understand the urge to "enlighten, question and expand," but I believe it can be worthwhile to simply entertain people (and I found Jim Carrey's performances in "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Dumb & Dumber" vastly more entertaining than his sober, more serious turns in "The Majestic" and "The Number 23").

But maybe I'm wrong. Say you don't feel the same way as Brooks and I do. Say you're a self-loathing viewer or a writer, like Simon, who seems to feel as though entertaining viewers is an ugly byproduct of the opportunity to share his thoughts with others.

Television — even bad television — must have some good effect, right?

"At its best, TV lets us be part of an ongoing narrative that we not only can't wait to see more of, but can't wait to share with those around us," Killen says. "It's not rocket science, brain surgery or charity, and I may be crazy for thinking it, but to me there's something noble about trying to get millions of people to show up at one place at one time to experience something together."

There you go.

I can't finish this column without telling you about Blair Smith, an Austin woman whom I met as a result of my Facebook query. Smith loves TV so much that she has four receivers in her house and has constructed a swiveling wall-mount so that she can watch shows via Netflix on her iPad while she lounges in the bathtub.

"Are you going to make fun of me in this article?" Smith wrote to me on Facebook. " 'Cause I'd almost understand ... but honestly, I don't care. I do NOT get people who don't watch TV."

The co-owner of five shops in Austin, Smith obviously finds time away from the tube. And she imagines there must be other successful people who love television. "Because (what) do people talk about at networking cocktail parties," she asks, "if not the latest episode of ‘The Real Housewives'?!? "

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923

Signing off

After more than two years of writing about television, I'm changing channels. I will miss the conversation we have developed around the subject of TV, but I will continue to write stories for the American-Statesman that I hope you will find useful and, yes, entertaining. I'll be contributing an abbreviated version of my weekly TV picks every Monday in Life & Arts and will deliver a TV preview story to share my thoughts on new shows in advance of the fall television season. Coverage of local stations and their personalities will be handled by business reporter Gary Dinges (gdinges@statesman.com). My column is going away, but my love of television and appreciation for your input reruns into perpetuity.

Click.

— Dale Roe