It happened today - November 21, 2015
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZV3365a7Ew On November 21, 1980, millions of people turned on their TVs to discover who shot JR. I was not among them. In fact, I still don’t know despite spending much of the 1980s in Texas with the initials JR.
In case readers who type with their thumbs know even less than I do about the matter, it happened on a very popular prime-time television soap opera from 1978-91 called Dallas. Huh? Oh. You don’t know what prime-time television was? It was this deal where you sat like victims of an alien experiment bathed in blue light subjected to whatever came on including things called “advertisements” or “ads”. Now we have Facebook instead. But I digress.
It might seem that ignorance of popular culture is a bad thing, especially in a cultural commentator. Certainly it can quickly shade into snobbery. And it’s perilous not to have your finger on the popular pulse because the Zeitgeist matters. Oh, did I mention snobbery?
The point is, you need to know what people are thinking, how they understand themselves, their society, the meaning of life and its opportunities. That means understanding popular entertainment, which has a far greater immediate impact than abstract treatises and ruminations. Even when it is bad, especially when it is bad, you should pay attention.
On the other hand, you don’t want to rot your brain or waste your life watching bad television, a surprisingly broad category. You don’t want to get to your deathbed with a shelf of great unread books, a long list of important unlived experiences, and a vast knowledge of sitcoms and soap operas. I know who committed the murder on the Orient Express and it’s good enough for me.
Recently a friend observed in conversation that far more people watch South Park than the evening news and that it’s probably a good thing. In one sense he’s right; South Park has far less politically correct cant than a newscast and is far more likely to talk about things that matter, including culture, than about political ephemera and cat-fights. On the other hand, South Park is clearly vulgar and dismal and if it’s where people seek refuge from the chattering classes we’re in trouble, mate.
I say that having watched very little South Park. I find it so grating, so wilfully base, that I cannot sit through it and do not want to try. It may be pushing back against prissy political correctness, and it may sometimes be clever. But on the whole it surrenders to the debasement of life around us rather than standing against it.
Dallas wasn’t even pushing back. After the failed idealism of the 1960s and the sour backlash of the 1970s, it stood for the empty hedonism on which people seemed to reach an exhausted compromise and that rather jumped the shark when Arnold Schwarzenegger bought a Hummer. Of course, with Dallas as with Mad Men, you were allowed to watch because of course you disapproved, well naturally, I mean you didn’t want to be Don Draper or be underneath him depending. But he was just so sexy and successful and … where was I?
Oh yeah. J.R. Ewing. Same story. Rich, ruthless, cynical, successfully lecherous and treacherous. The audience disapproved and, that established, stared and salivated.
It’s important to know that. But to know more is to plunge into the problem not observe it. So yes, I can tell you endless trivia about the Lord of the Rings, a profound as well as lavish morality tale. But I still don’t know who shot JR.
Anyone would have done was my opinion then, and still is.