Books, Pop Culture

How television breaks class barriers and stays culturally relevant

Who would have thought that TV would democratize culture?

I love the arts. I’m one of those people who would happily spend the entirety of a two-week vacation in a museum, who knows the words of countless musicals by heart, who goes to as many live concerts as possible. Seeing creativity and skill come together to create something affecting is one of the great joys of my life.

But lately, I’ve noticed a few things that have changed the way I see the arts, and how I spend my time engaging with them. First, I’ve noticed that many of the things we might consider “high art” require substantial resources to consume. For example, seeing live theatre on Broadway requires being able to pay the sometimes obscene ticket prices most popular shows charge, just like seeing the most famous pieces of art in person requires being able to get to those fancy museums in those big old cities they’re often housed in.

The fine arts are for the wealthy, their privilege allowing them to travel and indulge in these important markers of culture. These art forms were not intended for the masses.

The second realization I’ve had involves watching television. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t look forward to evenings with my screen, watching characters make their way through stories right in the comfort of my own living room. But as I’ve gotten older, many shows no longer fit the old-timey vision of TV as a mindless waste of brain space – they’re artistic, well-made and meaningful.

When I see a sweeping shot of Cornwall in Poldark, I recognize the mix of wide angles, rich colors and atmospheric sounds as a symphony of its own, a true piece of artistic expression put to screen. When I hear the tense, emotional conversations of characters on Halt and Catch Fire, I am stirred just as I am when I see a famous painting, complete with history and feeling.

A lot of TV is still, as in the medium’s early days, “just for fun.” But much of it isn’t. I watch something like Humans and it would be hard to miss the important commentaries on our future and what it means to be human happening during its scenes. Breaking Bad showed complexities of the human psyche with simultaneous gravitas and nuance. Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I consider the most perfect show ever made, found a rare balance among being funny, moralizing and accessible, while still exploring personal development and emotional weight.

So much of television these days must be considered an artistic endeavor. As such, we should also recognize it as something that is culturally relevant, just as other forms of high art. But what sets it apart is that it is available to the masses, without the restrictions of class and location that dictate who can enjoy those other media.

Most people have, at the very least, a mobile phone, which can serve as a gateway to all those series. Television is getting more broadly accessible all the time. Once, prestige dramas were only available on select cable channels, but now watching TV is cheaper than ever through alternative methods like streaming services.

On TV, we can see themes like race, gender and sexuality explored with nuance and by a diversity of voices. Television viewers are even more diverse, and they can see their stories told in constantly evolving ways, whether that’s through a sharp comedy or a wordy drama. Today’s programming is for the people, by the people. It’s whatever we want or need it to be. And if we see something we don’t like, or not enough of something else, we have the power to call it out and make change.

The point is that television is not an elitist medium. We can all talk about Game of Thrones because we can all watch it, without the pomp and circumstance of having to see it live or in some specific location. We can tune in in our own homes, on whatever device, and watch it without pouring piles of money into ticket prices. This widespread availability of the art form is equalizing, and whether the snooty partakers of highbrow art realize it or not, it’s the future of our cultural understanding. And we’re all the better for it.