No, this post is not about Iraq, or any other political issue I have normally written about. This is about... wait for it... TV! Hooray!
In recent days I have been so fortunate as to be exposed to some quality TV: I´ve spent hours on end watching old Monty Python
stuff, and I´ve also enjoyed watching numerous episodes of the 1967 British classic, The Prisoner
. I must say nothing that has been produced in recent years comes even close to the brilliance of these two classics.
To prove my point, I´ll just remind you of one of the funniest sketches in TV history, and a classic Monty Python´s Flying Circus piece. It´s about the funniest joke in the world. Now the person who comes up with it writes it down, and then he dies laughing, the joke having been just way too funny. People who discover his body also find the piece of paper with the joke written on it, they read it, and they also die laughing. After numerous people have died laughing, the Government decides to explore the military potential of the joke (which they, naturally, do not know; after all, nobody has lived to tell the joke to anybody...). The joke is translated into German, with each translator concentrating on just one word; it is revealed that one of the translators accidentally found out a second word and died laughing. After the joke has been translated into German, British soldiers are taught to recite the German version of the joke, naturally without understanding it themselves. Then, when they engage in a battle, they just start shouting out the joke in German, and all the German troops die laughing!
Now this may not sound incredibly funny, but the way the whole thing was done is truly amazing, and I laughed all through the sketch. When I watch contemporary comedy, some of it can be moderately funny, like South Park was at the beginning (or Ali G, I did like his early stuff), but I don´t think anything as funny as Monty Python has been made for ages. Now we just mostly get sitcoms like Friends, Dharma and Greg, Will and Grace and so on (there must be hundreds of them), and while they can be OK if you´re just looking to pass time, they´re not really that funny.
The difference is much like between Old Comedy (Aristophanes) and New Comedy (Menander et al.) in ancient Greece: Old Comedy was produced when the Athenian democracy was at its pinnacle, and it was very political and indeed part of the political discourse of those days. Then the democracy became increasingly corrupt, which meant that the average citizen had less and less say over public matters, and this is when Old Comedy, absurd, political and disrespectful towards all powerful figures, was replaced by New Comedy, which was very much like today´s sitcoms. Indeed when I was a student, I passionately hated Greek New Comedy and Roman Comedy, because they were completely apolitical and mainly tried to make fun of unrealistic and overdone characters (sound familiar to anybody?). Fortunately I got to study two brilliant and hilarious plays by Aristophanes (Clouds and Birds) for my final exams; I got the impression our professor wasn´t very keen on New Comedy either (Roman Comedy I completely avoided by choosing to do only Greek in my final year, apart from some Latin lyric poetry).
Now my point is that aside from some stuff that can be characterised as at least mildly political (such as South Park), most of the entertainment today is completely apolitical and indeed just tries to make fun of ridiculous and unrealistic character-stereotypes (try Friends, for instance). While Monty Python may not seem very political to the modern viewer, it certainly did offend a lot of people in the 70´s and many of the sketches are based on issues that were hot topics in those day. It should also be remembered that Monty Python always made fun of Anglo-German relations, and it was only thirty years after a devastating war.
Perhaps we do live in an age that discourages public political discourse. If one randomly looks at different blogs, for example, very few of them are overtly political; most are just personal musings, more or less. While it can be said that most people are perhaps not very interested in writing about politics, this is probably a symptom rather than a cause. I ithink the current lack of interest in political issues reflects the fact that an invidual is actually quite powerless in today´s society; what´s the point making a big fuss, when it will make no difference anyway? While one may think it has always been like that, I would venture to propose that in Athens, in the 5th century BC it wasn´t; everybody was interested in public matters, and those who were not were considered, and called, idiots (the etymology suggesting that the person is private, with no interested in the common interests, so to speak).
As for the Prisoner, it´s probably the best TV drama series ever produced. I will probably write a lot about it later, but now I will just say that it also happens to be profoundly political, in a way Orwellian, in another way almost Jungian. It keeps puzzling the minds of its fans (who are many), and each episode is well worth watching almost forty years after it first came out on ITV in Britain.