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TV, What Is It Good For? (Small Talk, of Course)

It’s certainly no reflection of our politics or, as Game of Throners would hopefully agree, our values.

Shannon Rupp 13 Jul

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

If you’re one of the people who thrills to hear “winter is coming” and you’re saving Sunday, July 16 to watch the premiere of Game of Thrones then I can predict your politics — you lean left.

Well, that’s really the prediction of an American polling firm that did a survey last year asking people to connect their political tastes to their TV watching. Apparently the dragon-lovers are inclined to vote Democrat.

Maybe. But I suspect it’s just another in a long line of American attempts to use TV as a proxy for politics, usually to scorn their opponents.

I first noticed this trend to TV insults in 2004, when Desperate Housewives was the big hit of the Red States. At the time, analysts pointed out the hypocrisy of the so-called family values voters favouring one of the naughtier shows. CSI, with its violence and gore, was also a big hit in the regions that had voted for George W. Bush, which led to much tsk-tsk-tsking.

As the New York Times noted, primly: “The divide between what people accept as proper in public and what they choose to enjoy in their private lives is, unsurprisingly, nothing new in the history of the world or this country.”

They quoted a Syracuse University professor who noted that their Puritan ancestors wrote official documents full of high-minded values that were in sharp contrast to how they behaved. “Then you look at the court records and you see all kinds of fornication, adultery and bestiality,” said Robert Thompson.

I think that says more about what the New York Times thought of Republicans in 2004 than what anyone ever thought about TV shows. It was a sort of schoolyard taunt for grown-ups: “And that TV you watch sucks too!”

If you look at the recent Top 20 lists in Canada, you’ll find that our tastes are almost a mirror image of the Americans, suggesting that TV viewing has little to do with political leanings.

We’re keen on the police procedurals like NCIS, Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods, and long-running reality shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, all of which are supposedly favoured by Republicans. Our Top 20 list includes one significant difference: CBC’s beloved Murdoch Mysteries, about a police detective in late 19th-century Toronto. But again, there’s a law-and-order focus that is supposedly favoured by right-wingers.

I’ll go out on a limb here and wager that’s it’s not because we’re a nation of Republican-sympathizers. As several of my American friends are prone to commenting: we’re a bunch of socialists.

Which means we all love the shows we love for reasons other than politics.

The single most popular show in Canada, The Big Bang Theory, is an American comedy about a group of nerdy scientists. It’s a huge hit in the U.S., where it pulls about 19 million viewers in real time, and comes in on the top 10 lists of everyone but the critics. Professional TV-watchers have despised the show for most of its 10 seasons (and counting).

Apparently we all love the TV we love in defiance of the critics, too.

So if it’s not politics dictating our choices, or quality, then what are we watching for? I mean, aside from using it to sneer at the people with whom we disagree.

Judging by those Top 20 lists, TV still plays the role in our lives that it always has: it serves as an undemanding distraction that provides us with small talk.

But the so-called “prestige TV” of the last 15 years is something different. It’s demanding TV. Following the twists and turns of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad requires the sort of attention previously reserved for grad school seminars. I have a pal who obsesses over the geo-politics of Westeros to the point that he could earn a PhD. Literally.

Game of Thrones is unusually popular for one of those demanding prestige shows. Some of the critical darlings like The Americans or Girls rope in less than a million viewers, which means you may never meet anyone who has watched either. But Game of Thrones attracts more than 8 million U.S. viewers in real time, which is comparable to the audience for a popular soap like Grey’s Anatomy.

That means there’s no escaping chatter about the white walkers for the rest of the summer.

And since I’m as keen on having serious chats about frivolous things as the next 8 million people, here’s my tip for those of you who don’t want to witness winter coming, but do want to be part of the conversation: recappers. Those unsung heroes of the TV industrial complex write detailed plot reviews to keep you au courant on the battles for the Iron Throne.

And just this week I discovered a new podcast that will make me a star at the next seminar... er... dinner party where Game of Thrones will inevitably be mentioned.

Some Associated Press business reporters are dissecting the economy of Westeros. (Really.)

They’re dead serious and it’s dead funny, although not intentionally so. As the reporters point out, Westeros has some unique challenges, like how to feed the populace during those extended winters. Presumably, they’re brilliant at preserving food. But if so, why haven’t we heard from the master picklers?

Sure. There’s a question we’re all wondering about: who is pickling the queen’s herring?

I’ll be bringing that up with the Thronies of my acquaintance.

And here let me admit something no pop culture writer should: while I admire Game of Thrones, I don’t enjoy it. It’s loaded with violent, misogynist characters, gratuitous sex scenes, and it delivers so many beautifully produced shots of slaughtered bodies it gave me nightmares. I stopped watching somewhere around season three. (Which tells you absolutely nothing about my politics, but does hint at my squeamishness.)

Still, I’m with The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick who says that “...television has become the dominant cultural product of our age — it reaches us everywhere and has replaced movies and books as the thing we talk about with our friends, families, and colleagues.”

Which means we can’t ignore a show like Game of Thrones as long as our friends are watching it. But there’s nothing to stop us taking the Coles Notes approach to our homework.

Just because you’re not watching TV, it doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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