In Defence of Trash TV


Whatever their individual differences of opinion, there is one seemingly deathless cultural distinction that most TV reviewers in this country are happy to accept without question. It is the distinction between quality and trash TV – with quality counting as a good thing, and trash as a very, very bad thing.


Quality TV is The Civil War, thirtysomething, Six Pack, and anything written or directed by Dennis Potter. For the more enlightened of local reviewers, Cheers, The Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation might also shoe in to the quality category.


There is an even firmer consensus among reviewers as to what constitutes Trash TV: predominantly Hard Copy, The Friday Files, Cops, Hinch and Chances. To the most outraged of the anti-trash crusaders – whether paid critics or letter-writing home viewers – the garbage bin is filled to overflowing by Studs, Married With Children and possibly all TV soap opera.


It sometimes seems as if quality TV is the modern, secular religion of the serious press. The prospect of Pay TV is scorned because, it is claimed, we will be flooded with a tidal wave of televisual trash. Channel 10, especially, is reviled for bringing to local screens American Reality TV shows like Cops. Every week in The Age Green Guide there are pious letters bemoaning the shocking incidence of sexual and violent episodes during prime time.


This almost fanatical championing of Quality TV can be puzzling. Take SBS’ Six Pack, which received a great deal of indulgent media attention. On close inspection of the published reviews, it becomes clear that few of the critics really, deep down, liked much of the series. This did not stop them however, from rehearsing the same old dichotomy: quality is rare and precious, trash is omnipresent and disgusting.


The underlying message sent by the TV critics to their cultured readers is obvious: Six Pack may not be good but, by golly, it is certain to be good for you. One needs a good dose of Art once in a while to withstand the terrible, viral invasion of Trash.


For the generations that have grown up studying John Wayne Westerns in university and seriously reading romance or detective novels, these entrenched attitudes to TV must seem quite alien – a blast from the past, perhaps (estimating generously) the19th century.


What is still at stake in the life-and-death struggle between quality and trash is an old, familiar chestnut. It is the problem posed by mass-produced popular culture to elite standards of art, culture and behaviour.


Are we still meant to believe in 1992 that any commercial product, out to make money or simply entertain, cannot possibly be art? Or that, inversely, self-proclaimed quality programs are always pure and unsullied, aiming only to nourish and refine our higher selves? When filmmaker Peter Greenaway gleefully piles spectacular perversions into his art movies, he at least does us the service of blowing that latter myth to shreds.


Make no mistake, the snobbish estimation of what is truly worthy TV still has enormous cultural power. One sure sign of this power is the rise, among many intelligent viewers, of a fiercely unserious, camp attitude to popular culture. Certain low culture programs can be enjoyed, but secretively, almost shamefully – this is the age of guilty pleasure.


In such an age, open enjoyment of popular culture often hides behind a mask of stern aesthetic judgment – the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ syndrome. Yet this is surely a bizarre, stunted form of cultural appreciation. Why should anyone who derives pleasure from a film or TV show then turn around and treat it as something abject and contemptible?


I am not suggesting that we must now reverse the tables, elevating trash whilst debunking quality. This response, prevalent among pop culture buffs, does little to advance our collective understanding. What we must strive to do is see culture – high or low, classy or trashy – as a whole, and discern its various dynamics.


Ultimately, all the earnest, weekly evaluations of what is good and bad on TV are not particularly significant or useful. Consumer guides for viewers have their place, but they cannot – and should not – function as a substitute for open, exploratory criticism.


Let us wade right into the deep end of Trash TV, those tabloid actuality programs Hard Copy and The Friday Files. TV critics are unanimous in their scorn for these programs. But their arguments have been notably weak.


We have read that these programs glorify the reporter-as-star; that they use sensationalist, melodramatic story-telling techniques; that they blur the line between fact and fiction through the use of dramatised re-enactments; and that they ask Australian viewers to care about issues and events of no local relevance.


To each of these complaints, we could justly respond: so what? The tabloid shows merely exaggerate aspects already present in respectable news and current affairs programs. Star newsreaders – even on SBS – beam from every second billboard. Fleeting dramatised re-enactments are appearing on the nightly news. Sixty Minutes has been effectively turning reality into goodies vs baddies melodrama for decades. Even the ABC’s Four Corners and Lateline use loaded TV techniques – graphics, music, emotive camera angles – to subtly weigh feature stories towards a particular point of view.


High-handedly dismissing the tabloid programs misses what is truly interesting, indeed fascinating, about them. Whether one thinks Hard Copy is good TV – or good for Western Civilisation – is beside the point. The fact that it is vigorous, popular entertainment, which clearly attracts many viewers, should be enough to warrant our serious, respectful attention.


Trash TV has a history, and it is the history of trash culture in all its various forms. Vulgar vaudeville theatre, garish comic books, exploitation movies full of gratuitous sex and violence – these are just some of the proudly trashy art forms of our century. The tabloid news programs have a particular pedigree – they belong to a lurid tradition of Mondo Cane-style documentaries, where an endless parade of unspeakable acts is presented as if ‘in the public interest’.


One of the reasons why quality and trash are still opposed in our world is that, while quality product can seem to edify or ennoble its consumers, trash culture has a pronounced anti-social aspect. It glorifies – as Alan Alda sniffily put it in his film Sweet Liberty (1986) – “defiance of authority, destruction of property, removal of clothes”. It aims to offend respectable citizens – and often, happily, succeeds.


Shows like Hard Copy and The Friday Files in fact have a strange, two-faced attitude, which is what makes them so absorbing. On the one hand, they are almost Old Testament in their moral condemnations. Week after week, corrupt lawyers, doctors, celebrities and average family members are exposed for their sins and mercilessly vilified.


On the other hand, these programs positively drool over the fate of all these sorry, fallen angels. For a regular viewer, there is something undeniably riveting about the spectacle of innocence besmirched, morality defiled and all institutions of law and order smashed. It is a decadent pageant par excellence: no less than the decline of Western Civilisation itself before our very eyes.


Why should this be entertaining? For a very good reason. Trash culture taps into people’s individual and social feelings of resentment, frustration, unfulfillment, exclusion. It blows these feelings up onto a screen and plays them out as melodrama. If everything that some hold to be good and true is mocked and destabilised by such low art, then so be it. What is good and true for one sector of society is probably oppressive and alienating for another sector.


Too often TV critics take – without much self-reflection – the high moral ground on all matters cultural. Trash TV (and popular culture generally) reminds us that, in many viewers’ hearts and minds, there is a low moral ground of equal importance, validity and vitality. The enjoyment of so-called sleaze is not necessarily the sign of a degenerating soul or brain.


I am reminded of a public pronouncement by the British filmmaker Michael Eaton. When confronted with the definition of art once coined by the venerable documentarian John Grierson – that art should be ‘for our own good’ – Eaton responded: “I would rather it be for our own evil”. Trash TV, at least, embraces the good sense of that perverse motto.


© Adrian Martin May 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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