The recent rise of foreign language dramas proves that it is now a medium for concentration rather than distractionby Lucinda Smyth / December 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Nearly twenty-five years ago, in 1993, David Foster Wallace wrote “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction”—an essay in which he extolled the virtues and pitfalls of watching television (among other things). Wallace saw TV as an essentially low-brow but important cultural force which reflected “what we as Audience want to see ourselves as.”
In other words, he believed that it operated at a level of desire, placating viewers rather than challenging them in the way that good literature does. “TV’s biggest minute-by-minute appeal is that it engages without demanding,” he wrote, also citing a list of characteristics that TV was thought to possess: “hackneyed plots, the unlikely dialogue, the Cheez-Whiz resolutions, the bland condescension of the news anchors, the shrill wheedling of commercials.”
“E Unibus Pluram” was written before the release of The Sopranos, before Mad Men and House of Cards, and before the advent of big-budget streaming services like Netflix. As such, several aspects of Wallace’s essay now seem as outdated as the sweaty bandana he used to wear. In 2017, pop culture often classifies as serious art—Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year—and TV operates at a level of sophistication and complexity that is far from the slapstick melodrama of the early 1990s. (There are, obviously, examples of great TV from earlier decades, including Twin Peaks, but these tend to be exceptions which prove the rule. The consistently high standard of programmes today is unlike anything seen before.)
Part of this shift is down to improved technology, increased funds, and a willingness from networks and producers to take creative risks. But it is also because our attitude toward television has changed, along with the cultural landscape. In a world of constant connectivity and digital distraction, TV is now considered a positive cultural influence. In contrast with social media (which despite its name is usually solitary as well as voyeuristic) TV is often a communal activity, and even when you watch on your own, you are concentrating on something specific. This isn’t usually the case with social media. Though the internet offers a wealth of information, with fifteen tabs open, you are less likely to concentrate on one thing for a long period of time and therefore remember what you’ve been reading.