Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Language of Television is Universal

...no, not NBC/Universal, which is about to be acquired by cable giant Comcast, pending approval from the gummint. I mean, I'm as excited and confused by The Event as the next soul pining for the next Lost, but one analyst recently valued the company's flagship network at negative $600 million. At least they still have Sunday Night Football...

No, the appeal of television transcends any one network, provider, or conglomerate. As last year's Super Bowl showed, TV is still the best way to reach millions of people at a time, even in this age where pretty much everyone has an alternate way to access digital media, be it a computer or a phone or a gaming console or a microchip implanted at the base of the skull that projects content onto the backs of one's eyelids.

The point is, even in today's world where DVRs and Hulu and online streaming directly from the networks, gathering around the television set to watch a weekly program is becoming less and less of an acknowledged ritual. So what suddenly inspired me to magic together-bringing power of TV? Why, the season premiere of the hot new season of CBS's Undercover Boss (Sundays at 9pm), of course!

I first saw episode 201 (starring Steve Joyce, CEO of Choice Hotels) while it was on in the background of our sweet premiere party. (That's right, when you do screen credit-worthy work, you get invited to all the hot Hollywood shindigs!) I had helped cast the show, so I knew the basics: the Boss's story, the jobs and personalities of the contributing employees, and the general arc of the whole episode. But what I couldn't possibly have anticipated from a casting perspective were how the emotional elements of the show would play out.

As I sat with other members of Team Casting watching the finale of the episode - that heartwarming moment where the Boss reveals his true identity to everyone he's worked with and subsequently heaps glowing praise and life-changing rewards on each of them - the sound was all but completely muted by the chatter of the party. The speakers were equalized for hot jammz rather than TV dialogue, so all we could make out were the lowest registers of Steve Joyce's soothing baritone. But there was no mistaking the look of utter shock on the faces of the contributors when they found out that their co-worker for the day wasn't who they thought he was, or the tear-stained joyful expressions when they learned what benefits they would receive.

Last week, while musing on the most recent episode of The Jersey Shore (which is, in a lot of ways, the opposite end of the reality non-competition spectrum from Undercover Boss), I surmised that what drew us to television is the aspect of storytelling. And for reality television, it's specifically the emotions inspired and churned up by these stories. Narrative is great and all, but I'll bet more people than not tune in to reality TV to see how people are going to react in emotional situations - and then possibly have some emotional reactions themselves.

Something else that draws people to TV is the community it inspires. I doubt very much that I would have teared up if I had watched that episode alone in my apartment or on my computer. But being in that room with the rest of the crew (or even watching it a second time on DVR with my girlfriend) I'll admit that I got a little misty watching these deserving people get some recognition for their hard work and relief from their hardships. It really is an inspiring show (I would say that even if I didn't have to), but in order to feel the full emotional weight, you have to experience it in a group.

So keep watching television, all of you (in moderation of course), and above all, try to experience how it was meant to be seen: socially.