I spent the better part of 10 years in New York without a television. At first for financial reasons and later as a conscious choice, I grew to savor the soft, tranquil void that would’ve otherwise been bloated with David Caruso’s pasty mug and witty CSI wordplay. And although I love me a good infomercial, let’s admit that almost anything provides more mental nutrition than pondering what kind of hanky panky they used to fake that time-lapse footage of the side by side tomato plants.
For this reason (a.k.a. my snobbery), I was moralistically torn as my father-in-law showed up to our apt with a gift in the form of a gi-normous LG flat screen. I opted to just accept it graciously, mostly cause I couldn’t summon the proper vocabulary to refuse a gift tactfully without hurting feelings. Trying to navigate such delicate subjects in French at this point would be like trying to slip into the 32” waist of my high school Levi’s. Also, maintaining my boycott would be shutting the door on way too much French culture that I need to be absorbing on a daily basis. Fire it up.
One huge plus chez moi is that half a dozen channels offer captioning for the hearing impaired, i.e. French subtitles. This gives me just enough of a booster seat to see over the table and follow what’s going on in these shows. We also have a built-in DVR which lets me pause or replay certain phrases that I may not have heard (or read, in most cases). What’s lovely about this is it’s turned the act of vegging out in front of the tv into a more honorable, study session type of vibe. And it’s like Miracle Grow for the little tomato plant that is my language cortex. Because I’m mostly in it for the French lesson, I’ll watch anything, and Charlotte marvels at the impressive range of subject matter I’ll allow. From mollusk photography documentaries to Spanish prostitution exposés to reruns of the A-Team, it’s a veritable ratatouille of broadcasting flavors. Cute movie if you haven’t seen it yet, Ratatouille by the way.
I hesitate to say one of these “of course he’s saying that” kind of statements, but it’s true that pound for pound the television programming here seems to outshine America’s. Don’t get me wrong, we still have game shows, a French Jerry Springer-type offering, and at least one US crime drama on at any given moment (Caruso you haunt me). But otherwise, there’s a delightful spattering of shows that seem to put the TV’s powers to good use, for example: colorful documentaries about French monarchs and castles. Travel guide shows about Cairo and Scotland. Theater productions of plays. Jazz concerts. I even found a show where two Parisians stroll through a gallery having a lively discussion of each modern painting they pass, one of them even whipping out a book of philosophy and quoting from it to support his particular critique.
Now before your PBS gag reflex kicks in, let me add that most of these “intellectual” type shows are tastefully done in a modern, approachable way that tends to keep you engaged. Even if you’re not one to geek out on the goings-on of the 17th century royal court, it’s worth a doff of the cap to the programmers who are still willing to produce this stuff, and even more so to the viewers who give it the ratings to stay on air.
Also of note is a high tendency toward cuisine-related material, which should be no surprise. I’m loving the reports that follow grape growers, olive farmers, honey producers, etc. You can see through TV programming that the French care about where their ingredients come from, not just what it looks or tastes like on the plate. It’s considered top news if a hidden camera exposes a dishonest market vendor passing off regular eggs as free-range. It reminds me of the prominent bakery in Montmartre that displays in its front window the certificate promising traditional high quality bread-making techniques and nothing less.
I suppose every country’s TV channels provide a window into its idiosyncrasies, and all in all I’m pleased with the French package. I suppose somewhere there’s a Parisian right now in a New York suburb falling in love with Rachael Ray, Ryan Seacrest, or Uncle Joey from Full House. And more power to him. Luckily there’s enough boob tube to go around for us all.
Because when it comes to TV, (insert Caruso pun here). Am I right?