In Defence of Trash TV
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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