Ode to Gordana Gehlhausen

Dear Blogosphere,

This is the first post of what will hopefully be about 10 per week, every week, for many years. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take a step back and explain who I am, why I think I have anything interesting at all to say, and why the internet should be subjected to my thoughts and opinions.

I PROBABLY WATCH TOO MUCH TELEVISION. I’m not one of those people who will sit in front of the TV, flicking through and trying to find something to watch. Since the age of around 13, however, I have always had a pretty solid roster of shows that I look forward to and watch every week. I am aware that this is not the most productive use of my time and I try to combine my television viewing with mundane activities that need to be done (cleaning, folding laundry, answering emails, typing out notes for school, etc) so that I don’t feel like too much of a slacker. Some shows, however, don’t lend themselves to this kind of multitasking. Some shows require active viewing. Active viewing means that you have to think critically about what you’re watching, try to make connections between what’s happening on screen and the larger themes/questions that the people who made the show might be addressing/asking, try to answer some of these “big questions” and think about what the show is saying about the human experience or maybe how it relates to other works of art or fiction, and most importantly engage in discussion. Discussion can be casual and with friends: perhaps a series of Facebook Chat and Skype conversations  about how annoyed we are with NBC’s Smash, or me at the bar asking Laura if she thought it was too heavy-handed on Girls when that doctor literally proclaimed “You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again” (to which Laura responded, “but the good part was ‘Well they’re not paying me at all!'”). Discussion can also take the form of engaging with a larger community: reading reviews or recaps, listening to podcasts, and of course participating in the dreaded comments section of many blogs, websites and online videos. Through exploring this community I have really come to appreciate people who, through a combination of television blogging, blogging about things other than television, appearing on podcasts and even radio, manage to “do this full time, for a living.” Yes, there are “full-time” television critics, who publish the majority of their content online. I will come back to this later on. But first…

ONE PARTICULAR ATTITUDE REALLY IRRITATES ME. People have a tendency, when faced with my “passion” for television (I’m going to run with that rather than going the self-deprecating route of calling it an “unhealthy obsession” or a “hindrance to my capacity for world domination”) to get awfully self-righteous and condescending. I am surrounded by a lot of people who are either “artists” or who appreciate “art” and I am baffled by their inability to include television within the jurisdiction of this magical three letter word. There’s this weird hang-up lingering from some point in the 80’s which is the  “television will rot your brain” conceit. The idea that someone who hopes to make his or her living from maybe a combination of critical writing, graphic design and performance art (this list can be replaced by any number of other “serious” artistic pursuits) doesn’t see the connection between their own passions and interests and the amount of work and creativity required to produce a good television program (of which there are many) is absolutely shocking. Not to mention the fact that there’s such an obvious connection between television and the more mainstream art forms that these people aren’t nearly as dismissive of (such as film or fiction writing and mainstream theatre). I can confidently say that one day I would like to work in television, film or theatre and I don’t think that these three realms are entirely alien to one another. Part of my reason for pursuing my thoughts and putting them online for anyone or no one to read is to try to force myself into that relatively small group of people who are writing really thoughtful and insightful pieces about television. I’m not talking about the countless bland entertainment websites that post weekly soulless recaps of shows, complete with spelling mistakes, incorrect facts or plot points, and a weird “extra extra read all about it” language pervading the whole thing. I’m talking about people who have managed to bring the critical writing domain to the world of television: people like Maureen Ryan of the Huffington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg of thinkprogress.org and Tom and Lorenzo of tomandlorenzo.com. I tend to over-think things and a lot of the items that cross my mind as “oh that’s an interesting point, but I don’t particularly have anyone to share it with” have to do with television. Hopefully, I can turn these thoughts into somewhat coherent posts and become a part of this community which I think is going to be responsible for finally and firmly proving that television is an art form.

I AM NOT GOING TO DEFEND BAD REALITY TELEVISION. I am, however, going to defend GOOD reality television (and there is plenty of it). I am particularly interested in the shows where people are passionate about a specific set of skills that they have developed over a number of years and they’re basically competing to be able to do that skill for a living. Some of these shows that I vehemently defend are Top Chef, So You Think You Can Dance, Work of Art, and the holy grail of competition shows – Project Runway. Something that has stemmed from reality shows in a way that it hasn’t been present in scripted shows is the soundbite. Sometimes the people on these programs say the most fabulous things in way that is some strange combination of too perfect to have been candid but too hilarious to have been written for them. My head is buzzing in a kind of “revolving-door” style with the infectious, brilliant and often ridiculous utterances and declarations that I have heard over many episodes, of many seasons of many shows. My current favourite comes courtesy of Gordana Gehlhausen, a contestant on Season 6 of Project Runway who, in her first scene on the program, confidently told us all “If you give me a sheep, I can make you a sweater.” Not only did this soundbite give the entirety of the online blogging/recap community a ton of mileage, but it made me think a lot about the differences between me and this fabulous woman from former Yugoslavia who I was suddenly so drawn to (example 1 of my tendency to overt-think things).

SHE CAN DO SOMETHING VERY SPECIFIC THAT NOT EVERYONE ELSE CAN DO. As much as what she said became a funny little catchphrase it stuck with me as a kind of poignant and simple description of the value of tangible skills. She has a virtuosic ability to transform raw materials into garments that people want to buy and wear. I don’t have any abilities like this. Sure, I am a competent enough (although way too wordy) writer, I play the piano, I have trained in an introductory way in a few different fine arts disciplines and I know how to run amateur theatre productions/how to lead a group of people in general. I don’t, however, do any of these things well enough to have anyone pay me to do any of them (at this point I will now avoid a painful discussion about several summers working as a cook/dishwasher and the fact that that is a tangible skill set that I had that is now slipping away from me). I have frequently thought that in order to do any of these things at any kind of employable level I need to do more formal training which means paying a lot of money and taking major chunks of time (both of which I don’t have at this particular point in my life). It has been occurring to me over the past few months that while this notion is certainly true, it’s also missing an important concern/element. I realized that whether or not I am able to pursue more formal training in any of these areas one thing that I can do either in the meantime or possibly instead is to practice them.

I WANT TO DIFFUSE A VERY PROBLEMATIC SUBTEXT THAT IS FORMING AS I WRITE THIS. I don’t in any way think that this blog is going to be either my ticket away from finding a real or conventional job or my ticket into finding an amazing real or conventional job (as much as my favourite pop cultural conventions would have me believe that it is – thank you Lena Dunham, Julie Powell and the fictional Betty Suarez). This blog is instead a way for me to actively pursue and practice writing, as well as a way for me to chronicle the pursuit of my other interests and endeavors. It is going to be somewhat experimental as I learn to make my writing less wordy and stiff, express myself in a style more appropriate to blogs and other online content, and become comfortable writing quickly and frequently. My relationship to those people I mentioned early who write online “full time, for a living” is very much of the “someday, maybe” nature. I ask you then, to please be patient as I try to figure out my writing style, how to plan around school and (hopefully soon) work in order to post at least once a day, as well as the logistics of the blogging format. Hopefully, through your patience and my persistence, I will be able to express some interesting ideas while becoming a better writer.

Sincerely,

John

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