Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Television today is two things: spectacle and substance

U.S. President Barack Obama was on The View on Tuesday, nattering about this and that. The purpose, one supposes, was to have him explain his "evolving" views on gay marriage.

But what people will take away, you can bet, is his quips and remarks about the Kardashians, the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and who from The View was on Dancing with the Stars. Obama's appearance was a spectacle, nothing of substance. Mainly because his knowledge of spectacles such as the Kardashian phenomenon and Dancing with the Stars is what registers.

Meanwhile, the U.S. network upfronts roll out and it was confirmed by Fox that after much speculation, Britney Spears will join the new season of The X Factor as a judge sitting beside Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid. The X Factor is entirely spectacle, and a disappointing one at that. The addition of Britney Spears with her long and often sordid tabloid history adds yet more trashy glamour.

Story continues below advertisement

Which brings me to my main point, little though it is.

Right now, television can be crudely divided into two genres: spectacle and substance. Britney Spears on The X-Factor is something to gawp at, just as the (also announced at the upfronts) Dancing with the Stars all-star edition coming this fall and the entire Kardashian oeuvre is mere tawdry exhibition. Add to it all the news-sucking coverage of the pregnancy of Jersey Shore star Snooki and you've got a lengthy extravaganza of empty-headed exhibitionism.

Oh sure, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi might turn out to be a first-rate mom. But what's drawing attention right now is her decision to give up tanning during her pregnancy. Accompanied by photos of a pale Snooki to compare with those of a heavily tanned Snooki.

This is not another sign of the apocalypse. This array of spectacle draws attention and for the attention to happen, the spectacle has to interest people. And it's time to admit that, with network TV finding it increasingly difficult to sustain viewership using its traditional model, it turns to cacophonous displays to hang on to its niche. America's Got Talent is spectacle, just as Canada's Got Talent is spectacle, only less weird and less talked about. American Idol is spectacle, less vociferous than The Voice, but it's all showy, sensationalist display.

And then there's the substance. Mad Men is substance. Many would see Game of Thrones as substantial drama. Boss, the sensationally good show about Chicago politics (now airing on SuperChannel) is in the same category – textured drama that has a concreteness in its purpose and transcends escapist storytelling to find a moral purpose.

Mind you, there is a kind of substance in network TV too, away from the talent shows and chronicles of the deluded and fame-obsessed. The Big Bang Theory is a show of considerable substance. The cleverness of the writing, the intricate development of the characters inside their relatively confined outlines, all amount to an admirable richness.

Of course, right now such shows are being pushed to the margins. Also in the upfronts this week came news that NBC is anchoring its Monday and Tuesday night schedules around The Voice. The show will provide a lead-in for dramas and comedies but it's The Voice that truly matters as an attention grabber.

Story continues below advertisement

It would be easy to dismiss all the spectacle as simply corrosive, of no interest to anyone whose taste leans toward substantive television storytelling. But that would be a mistake. All the spectacles are themselves rooted in basic storytelling. The X-Factor is about the underdog performer triumphing in a very public setting. While many viewers simply gawp, awaiting a terrible meltdown or public shaming, other viewers are moved emotionally by the very real people struggling in the spotlight.

And it's worth remembering that it's not so long since any kind of fiction was dismissed as frivolity. There was a time not long ago when serious-minded people believed that indulging in fiction – whether of the Mad Men kind or the Big Bang Theory kind – warped a person's sense of reality. Before reality-TV had a bad rep, fiction was believed to be detrimental, something that diminished a person's true moral sense. It was a kind of poison.

As for Barack Obama, a man who obviously has an innate sense of spectacle, given his use of mass events and public speaking during the 2008 election campaign, he seems to be having it both ways. While he acknowledged he had some familiarity with the Kardashian thing and Dancing with the Stars, he claimed that he catches up with shows such as Mad Men and Homeland on long flights.

Nothing wrong with indulging in both spectacle and substance. No point in condemning one and savouring the other, exclusively. We can learn from both and enjoy both. It's in our nature.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.