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TV: The opiate of adults who want to be treated as such

Yesterday in this space I was jawing on - in the kind of sarcastic manner that only a man frazzled and writing on a Friday can muster - about the often absurd complaints of the Parents Television Council. The idea run up the flagpole was that in its regular lists of shows to condemn, the PTC actually has a good nose for interesting TV.

The PTC's reason for being, now diluted, is the protection of children from things on TV that might have an unhealthy influence on them. The mission has been diluted because it has largely focused on issues that make it a combatant in the U.S. culture wars. The stridency of its broadsides at "Hollywood" undermine its own message.

It is also a relic of the past, when there was less TV and everybody was watching the same handful of channels and shows. These days, thanks to a number of cable channels, there is television for adults, television for the young and television for everybody. Television that is watched by kids who are still under adult supervision is a category unto itself.

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At around the time my jawing-on was going to press, there appeared online a teaser for the new season of Dexter, which will arrive this fall. It features blood, murder and mayhem. You know, I was once told by a mother that her kids loved Dexter. That is, they really liked the character of Dexter Morgan, the serial killer with a heart of gold. They didn't understand much of what was going on, but Dexter seemed a really nice, kid-friendly guy. They'd seen it by accident, really, and she stopped their access to it. But the kids' reaction raises an interesting point - what defines television for adults?

Television can no longer be called with any justification "the opiate of the masses," because the "mass" audience no longer exists. In fact, I put it to you that, thanks to the existence of a long list of sophisticated shows, television is now the number-one opiate for adults in search of compelling, grown-up storytelling.

The TV landscape has splintered, and that's a very good thing. Some broadcasters have ceased to aim to appeal to everyone and offend no one. Okay, perhaps in this neck of the woods, the CBC is still trying to appeal to everyone.

Right now we've got a ton of shows that are clearly for adult consumption. The Killing on AMC is adult - not because it features profanity, sex and nudity (it doesn't) - but because it's about grief and the basic principles of truth and loyalty as grown-ups understand them. It also has a very grown-up weariness about the world. The Borgias, airing Sundays on Bravo!, is probably a puzzle to anyone under 30. It's about power, manipulation and ruthlessness. It's not about being popular.

True Blood, which returns on HBO Canada in June, is another show that appears to be all sparkle and fun, but it's often a vicious and subtle satire of all sorts of sexual politics and more. The Twilight movies phenomenon is for kids. True Blood is way over their heads.

By the way, True Blood is one of the few of those adult shows that's back this summer. Dexter and Mad Men won't air until later. In recent years, we've seen an interesting trend develop - summer movies are for kids but summer TV is essentially for grown-ups.

Now then - this week and for the next while there will be a number of shows about the ritual of the high-school prom. Both teenagers and adults will watch a lot of these shows but for different reasons. The kids will watch for information about the ritual and older viewers will watch with a sense of nostalgia. Tonight's episode of Glee (Fox, Global, 9 p.m.) is all about the Prom. Both adults and teenagers watch Glee, and the adults watch for those moments of irony, humour and heartbreak that younger viewers don't care about or recognize.

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Very few shows achieve this, and even in the case of Glee, it's unlikely that anyone over the age of 60 is watching. Very few shows manage to draw viewers from 8 to 80. Almost no TV entertainment manages to be elastic enough in its content to appeal to all ages, to be the "big tent" show that draws multiple demographics into it. American Idol is it.

Another hallmark of adult TV is, I think, the viewers' concentration on the actual storytelling content. Shows that ostentatiously include standalone webisodes, Twitter accounts, phone apps and other digital gimcrackery are for a younger audience. Adults just don't have the time or inclination for the frippery. And they know that Dexter is unsuitable for children. They just know.


Frontline: Kill/Capture (PBS, 9 p.m.) looks at what it calls "a covert campaign that officials have credited with taking out thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan." The program claims to have "gone inside the military's 'kill/capture' operations to discover new evidence of the program's impact, and its costs."

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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