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Two Shows We Try to Watch as a Family

Monk is gone. The most reliable family entertainment to appear on television disappeared last year. Occasionally (ahem!) even our family likes to watch television and when we do we wish to watch it together. Tony Shaloub knew how to keep a diverse Reynolds room engaged in a series.

He was a rare and blessed actor and producer.

At some point, the members of the culture without an Arab Christian heritage or working for Pixar decided a “General Audience” (G-rating) meant a show so stupid only a five year old could live through it. Those doubting this never sat through the Piglet Movie. Compare it to the original Disney classic, or better the books read aloud, and think what this says about the estimate of your intelligence and attention span on the part of the respective studios.

Apparently in our culture the choices are childish or gross . . . as my priest, of blessed memory, discovered when he tried to get cable. The fellow putting it in suggested he get some “adult” channels. When Father said he was a pastor, the cable guy suggested the Disney channel. That might be alright, but the Disney channel gave up on Walt’s vision of family entertainment a long time ago to pander to tweens.

Zack and Cody did not have parts written to entertain us all.

The USA Network was the home of Monk and so we have been trying out two new shows there. The first is White Collar and the second is Covert Affairs. Both shows feel like they were written by the same people with White Collar being designed as the male fantasy with a good looking guy as the lead (think Bond meets Oceans 11) and Covert Affairs empowering a woman with the type of woman networks think is good looking. My grandmother would have worried that the poor soul was starving.

Both shows are entertaining, though neither show has the mix of humor and mystery that made Monk special for most of its run. The writing at the end of Monk relied too much on formulas, but both of the new shows embrace formulaic writing from the beginning in an obvious way.

Both shows rely on the “lost love” story arc to tie together the shows from each season though most episodes contain a complete story for the week as well. Think: set up story, climax of story, conclude story, and reveal something about the series story arc.

That is it.

Formulaic television can work. When you want to rest mentally, the old Perry Mason is a great friend. Full of solid acting and some decent stories, there are rarely any surprises. Perry will win, he will not marry Della, and Paul will not get (or hardly ever get) the last word.

Covert Affairs is burdened; however, with a leading lady one dimensional enough in her acting that she makes Raymond Burr look positively emotional. A fun family game is to count her three (and there are only three) facial expressions: smirk, wounded, “sultry” . . . though sultry may only count as a combination of wounded and smirk.

On the other hand, the blinded vet is one of the more interesting characters to appear on television. He is hard to predict and shows strong range. It is easy to see him taking over the series as the Spock in the cast. The women of the house assure me that this would be no bad thing from their perspective. Also enjoyable is the married couple that works in the CIA and the dynamics of their relationship, though she always wears an evening dress to work.

Be warned: everyone not married on the show thinks sex before marriage is part of the courtship process. The shacking before packing hasn’t made anyone on the show happy and it may be the way most folk in this generation now act, but that doesn’t make it right.

Covert Affairs gets one more season to develop wit, encourage the women on the show to eat, develop a story line that is less predictable, or it will not be worth anybody’s time.

White Collar is a different, if predictable, story. It features a “white collar criminal” with Bond looks who has gone sort of straight and works for the FBI. His FBI handler and his wife are the most attractive married couple on television. They make being married romantic and she looks like an actual woman!

On this show too non-married people shack before packing and acting on your sexual orientation is the way things are. That is fertile ground for conversation in our household. I think it generally good for my (almost grown) kids to see that people who make wrong choices are not obviously “bad” and are often attractive and “good” folks.

One can accept the way some people are without condoning their actions.

The plots of White Collar are more intricate than those on Covert Affairs, have taken more risks with the series arc, and there is more genuine humor. The character chemistry is better, though the show has been on the air longer giving the actors time to develop rapport.

It is more “adult” than Monk, which in our culture means less virtuous. It isn’t obvious from the show that crime does not pay. The main character still seems willing to reap many of the wages of his sin . . . and none of them are death. He is manipulative, but an endearing part of the long line of “lovable rogues”in fiction that made Cagney and Harrison Ford stars.

It is worth a look, though it does raise an interesting question: what is the value of trivial television?

Why Bother?

There is always something better to do than watch Perry Mason or White Collar. My IPod could read the Divine Comedy aloud. There are concerts to attend and Southern California to explore. Better still I could kiss my wife. I could help the poor. Heavens, I could read my Bible and pray.

And we should do all those things, but sometimes we are not fit for the better or best. Plato deserves attention that my weary mind cannot give him and my prayers would be vain repetition if I approached God in certain attitudes. They are not bad attitudes, but they are attitudes unfit for the sublime.

In a homely mood, there must be homely activities. Great saints and sages may be able to live in an exalted state at all times, but history shows great saints and sinners are hard companions and are rare. Since I am neither a great saint nor a sage, I can at least be a gentle companion.

It is better to discuss Plato than to watch Gilligan’s Island, but sometimes I am not my best. I am fit only for the company of Gilligan. We are the men and woman God has made us to be and we do not live in Paradise quite yet. So there is a place for the lesser loves and the lesser pleasures, if only because we are less than what we could be.

Beyond this hard fact there are four good reasons to watch trivial television, read trivial books, or play some trivial board game.

First, there is rest that only comes to me when my mind is just engaged enough not to “churn,” but not so engaged that it cannot fall into a happy almost-slumber. This is a bad way to live, but it is a good way to rest. It is not sleep, which is also necessary, but it is restful.

To live in a fog is a bad thing, but to wonder about in it can be fun! This is no guilty pleasure, because there is not guilt in it, if we are exercising our minds, our hearts, and our bodies in our daily life. Living in a fog is only proper in Holmes’ London, but visiting is fine.

Second, much that is trivial acts as a good window into the rest of the culture. Much as I might wish it, most of what I enjoy is not universally consumed. My favorite book of the last week was a Dr. Thorndyke mystery and my favorite activity was listening to a lecture. These pursuits are not widely shared in American culture.

If I want to love my neighbor, I need to broaden my experiences enough to include some of them in my play. Sports helps . . . my love for the Packers has broadened my friendships considerably, though it has alienated me from folks from Chicago.

This was no great loss.

Of course, unlike the “greats” there is no duty to read or view any given piece of pop cultural ephemera. You should read John Locke if you are an American voter, but you don’t have to watch American Idol. Why? Because in another decade, if this essay is still read, most of the pop culture references in it will require an Internet search, but Locke will still be ruling our lives from his writings.

He is a constantly grave matter, but White Collar is less lively the week after an episode is aired.

This illuminates a third value of trivial things. There is almost no better window into the way most folks thought at the time it was made. My children and I love to read magazines from the 1890’s because it balances our image of that time. If your image of the 1970’s is all drawn from present stereotypes, go watch Adam Twelve.

One recent speaker at Torrey challenged us to watch Green Berets and The Graduate and realize they are the product of the same period. Watch both and you learn something about the last fifty years of history and the nature of the folk who now interpret it to you.

Finally, the trivial engages one part of self and allows other parts to shine. Playing Risk is no great pursuit in itself, but it allows a social setting where fellowship can take place. Playing the card game “hearts” was one of the great learning times of Bible College, though “hearts” should never appear in any curriculum.  While we were dealing the cards, we talked about everything and somehow achieved an honesty that would have escaped us if we had nothing to do but sit and talk.

“Let’s talk” shuts many of us up, but “let’s play cards” opens up many a mouth.

Trivial television does the same thing in my family. By this I don’t mean the dreaded, “What is the philosophy behind this show?” question forced on a room by a well-meaning parent who spoils the fun. I mean the organic, often random talk that a show can inspire. In our house, this might include sartorial, soteriological, and spiritual insights. Sometimes we simply laugh at shows like Sponge Bob.

We don’t have to do anything but share a wholesome laugh to make the time well spent.

Being What We Are and Enjoying It

This could be summed up with the practical advice: Don’t ever sin, but don’t try to be more than you are.

Youth groups are constantly telling my student to try to live out the “mountain top” experience they had at camp. This is nonsense. Mountaintop experiences are precious, but they are not work-a-day ready. Students can give an intensity of attention to hard intellectual work at a camp like Wheatstone Academy and experience the deeper things of God as a result.

This intensity and commitment would be out of place in the rest of life. Camp, or the mountaintop, is no less real than the work-a-day world, but it is no more real. It is a time and place, but not every time and place.

The same principle applies to marriage. The expectation that we can have a constant honeymoon is a form of greed and a failure of love. When we marry, we marry the whole person as they are on a Monday as well as the way they are on holiday.

Holidays are good times, often the best times, but they are not the entire substance of life.

So my family will continue our trivial pursuits and hope that your family finds your own. If you are looking for a suggestion, you might try watching White Collar together.

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