Living In Record TV Time

The ’60s was when people first became concerned about television. Social scientists and commentators railed against the “idiot box” that was turning our brains to mush and converting formerly active, intelligent, inquisitive people into soft, slack-jawed shmoos soaking up whatever mind-numbing offering might appear on their TV set.

Those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow survived our constant exposure to the TV set that had a prominent place in our living rooms. But I’ve got news for you, folks: when it comes to TV, the ’60s was nothing compared to where we are right now. As The Hollywood Reporter noted yesterday, the number of English-language scripted TV shows that are available for viewing in the United States hit an all-time high last year. Across broadcast, cable, and streaming services, in 2021 559 English-language shows were available. That’s 13 percent more than in 2020 and 5 percent higher than the previous record in 2019. And consider this astonishing statistic reported in the THR article: “The total number of scripted shows has more than doubled in the last decade; in 2011 there were 266 scripted series.” What’s more, that 2021 record number doesn’t include any of the non-English-scripted shows that people are watching, like Squid Game or Money Heist.

In short, Americans are literally saturated with TV these days. Unlike the ’60s, when there were only three broadcast channels and one or two snowy UHF options, all of which terminated their broadcasts at some point in the early morning hours, you now could watch programming 24 hours a day, every day–and not even scratch the surface of what is available for viewing. And in the COVID era, it’s become increasingly easy to ditch the masks, slouch back on your couch, and immerse yourself in TV, rather than going out to do anything. I’m sure that part of what is driving the TV production boom is the fact that so many worried people are choosing to stay home rather than venture outside into the scary potential omicron infection zone. Rather than take that risk, why not just camp out and watch the latest hot streaming series?

As I mentioned, those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow avoided the confident predictions that we would become a bunch of brain-dead zombies–at least, I think we did– and hopefully that will prove true, again, in the aftermath of the current TV-soaked period. But it is concerning that TV shows have become such a huge part of our lives, to the point where our voracious appetite for programming is driving the TV production industry to new heights. We’d all be better off if we decided to get off the couch now and then, turn off the TV or computer, and get outside to interact with other living human beings.

Squid Game

Squid Game, a one-season Korean TV show, has become a kind of sensation since it premiered on Netflix in September. You know a series has really touched a nerve when people start dressing up as characters from the show for Halloween and speculate about whether there will be a second season and if so what its plot will be.

I watched the show this week, and found it both fascinating and repellant. It’s hard to say anything about the show without offering spoilers, so I will just note that the plot boils down to two depressing commentaries on the human condition: first, that financially troubled people who are separated from their families and friends will do just about anything for money, and second, that non-desperate people will take advantage of that reality for their own sick, personal amusement and will be able to find other people who can rationalize assisting in the whole effort and enforcing the rules for pay. The players are 456 Koreans who are so deeply in debt that they agree to play a desperate game–called the Squid Game after a rough game played by Korean kids on the playground–in hopes of winning a huge and potentially life-changing jackpot, as they are watched on TV by sick “VIPs” who have enlisted legions of masked guards to enforce the rules of the game.

It’s a pretty grim and terribly violent series, and its presentation of the underside of Korean society is incredibly bleak–so much so that, even when the players understand the real rules of the “Squid Game” and have the chance to go back to their normal lives, they quickly realize that their lives are so hopeless and depressing that they voluntarily go back to the game. And there is a certain fascination, from a psychological and sociological standpoint, in watching the players play variations of different children’s games that the masked “front man” has carefully determined will expose and exacerbate the worst aspects of the players’ characters and incentivize them to do whatever it takes to win. There aren’t many characters in the show who retain even a shred of decency as the game proceeds.

The show clearly doesn’t present a very appealing view of South Korea or the human condition in general, and I haven’t decided whether I want there to be a second season of Squid Game or just think about the plausibility of the scenario presented by the series as is. I’m not sure I really need more evidence of the seamy underside of human beings right now.