Author:Gillespie, Nick

What TV can teach us about TV.

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, television shows, especially sitcoms, have become increasingly self-referential, increasingly willing to poke fun at and highlight their own genetic conventions, pretensions, and limitations. While some programs, such as NYPD Blue, strive to transcend the medium by being "serious," "gritty," and "true-to-life," more and more shows seem willing to consciously play with TV's history and forms, borrow widely from a variety of high-brow and low-brow sources, and create new cliches while referring to old ones.

This is a roundabout way of saying that TV is becoming--or perhaps has already become--postmodern. And, despite the many negative connotations of that troublesome term, that's not such a bad thing. Consider a few distinctive features of today's vast wasteland:

* Comedy Central's most original and most popular first-run show is the delightful Mystery Science Theater 3000, now in its sixth season. MST3K is a rather odd spectatorial experience: It revolves around watching other people--actually, two robots and a human being--watching such indescribably bad movies as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Robot Monster. The characters shout widely allusive wisecracks at the screen; somehow, that act of critical viewing makes horrible films incredible fun to watch.

* Virtually every episode of Fox's The Simpsons comments on the act of watching television itself or on shop-worn conceits endlessly recycled by movies and TV shows. For example, in the most recent Halloween special, which parodies The Shining (pronounced "shin-ing," one character notes, to avoid copyright infringement hassles) Homer goes berserk after being denied the symbiotic pleasures of watching TV and drinking beer. Mere seconds away from killing his family, Homer picks up a small, hand-held TV set in the snow. "Urge to kill fading," intones a soothed Homer. "Come, family, sit in the snow with Daddy and let us all bask in television's warm glowing warming glow," says Homer. The last shot is the family, literally frozen in front of the TV, unable to move or even close their eyes, screaming in horror as the TV announces the next program: "Live from Broadway, it's the Tony Awards, with your hosts Tyne Daly and Hal Linden!"

In another episode, Bart and Lisa tour the studios where their favorite cartoon, Itchy & Scratchy, is made. As the show's producer is explaining to them that the animators save time and money by reusing the same...

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