We’re all focused on what’s smart these days. Smart ways to fix the economy; smart ways to cast your vote. But who’s looking out for the broad landscape of what’s not-so-smart? Where does dumb go when smart is hogging all the attention?
Well, it goes to television, in part. Sure, much of television is very smart: your “Mad Men” and your “House”; your “30 Rock” and your “Planet Earth.” But there are parts of TV that richly explore the taxonomy of stupidity in a way that few ever pause to appreciate. Let us salute the many kinds of TV dumb.
The dumb that’s in the title: The WE network recently debuted a show called “Sex Change Hospital.” It may be a good show. It may be an interesting show. Nevertheless, the title sounds like an imaginary soap opera that would have been Joey’s worst job ever on an episode of “Friends.” Close your eyes. You can imagine it right now, can’t you?
Names can be misleading. “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” was not, as the title made it seem, a nightmarish tabloid explosion, but a revealing portrait of troubled and surprisingly sympathetic C-listers. But more often, when the title is dumb enough – “Married By America,” “The Littlest Groom,” “Cop Rock” – it’s an indication of what’s to come. Where there’s a lack of smoke, there’s a lack of fire.
The dumb you cannot kill: The twins of the dumb undead are “According to Jim” and “Two and a Half Men.” For years, “According to Jim” was shorthand for “mindless shows that many people obviously watch for reasons unknown,” until it was unseated by the arrival, two years later, of “Two and a Half Men.”
“Two and a Half Men” is even more durable, because not only do a lot of people watch it; it’s consistently nominated for Emmy Awards. It represents, essentially, the decaying leftovers from the age of the cranked-up laugh track, wilting like the cake left out in the rain while the rest of comedy moves on to the laugh-at-your-own-discretion joys of “30 Rock,” “The Office,” and “Samantha Who?” Hate the "Men" if you want; they are going nowhere.
The specific dumb that can only come from Tyra Banks: Tyra Banks should not be underestimated. She’s gone from Victoria’s Secret model to host and queen of “America’s Next Top Model,” which is in its eleventh season despite not having had a new idea since the first time Tyra pointed out the emotional heft of squinting.
But ultimately, “Top Model” is sneakily addictive partly because of the degree of dumb that comes straight from Tyra. Every time she looks with complete seriousness at two young pretenders to her crown and savors holding their fates in her hands, as if winning will make you a superstar and losing will make you a nobody, she reveals that either she never watches her own show, or she figures that when it comes to actually making the winner of “America’s Next Top Model” become America’s next top model, the eleventh time will be the charm. Tyra’s total lack of perspective is what lends the show drama and phony importance. If it were called “America’s Mostly Obscure Temporary Cover Girl Spokesperson,” what kind of ratings would it get?
The dumb with “90210” in the title: “90210” and “Dr. 90210.” Two shows. One zip code. One I.Q. point between them.
The dumb you can wink at: “Dancing With The Stars” is the dumbest show to be in on its own joke.
The tango to the “Star Wars” theme, the Cloris Leachman paso doble — these are not moments of genius. They are moments to set a simpleton’s toes a-tapping, but what’s good is that the show knows it. Host Tom Bergeron is the MVP for this very reason: he knows that silliness is next to godliness if you do it right, and his perfectly balanced performance as the master of the smirk that somehow isn’t smug lets the show get air under its sequined, spray-tanned wings.
If you want to understand how good Bergeron is, consider how much better “Deal Or No Deal” — which is also profoundly dumb — would be if Bergeron headed it up instead of Howie Mandel. Howie can’t resist the attempt at actual drama; Bergeron would never take the banker so seriously.
The dumb that falls in mud and comes up smelling like roses: If you watch “The Hills,” you know that what makes the show feel magical is that no matter how ridiculous the behavior of the principals, nothing bad ever really happens to them. Push them down, they get up. Mire them in scandal; they start a clothing line. Unlike competitive reality shows that live on the joys of schadenfreude by teasing the comeuppance of villains, “The Hills” gets its punch from the absolute confidence that no one will get what’s coming to her. Lauren and Whitney burn a borrowed designer dress with a curling iron, and — poof! — they get another. Heidi abandons her job during a business trip to go home with Spencer, and — poof! — all is forgiven. It’s one thing to display stupidity; it’s another thing to shamelessly glamorize it as something that has no consequences.
Also in this category: “My Super Sweet 16,” also from MTV, which shows that you can abuse your parents, harangue your friends, demand holograms as invitations and a Jay-Z/Amy Winehouse duet as the entertainment, and you can still get a BMW at the end of your birthday party. See also: “Bridezillas,” which often feels like “My Super Sweet Wedding Day.”
The dumb that makes the show: “Survivor” is not a dumb show. But it does rely on people doing two fundamentally dumb things to keep the plot moving. If neither of those two dumb things happened, there would be no show.
First, it counts on people to forget that other people also are attempting to win. This is how you get alliances that make no sense, decisions to “trust” that someone else will put your interests above his own, and the repeated exposure of soft underbellies. Second, it counts on its contestants to take everything far too much to heart, personalizing what should be no more emotional than a long poker game.
But it needs all this stupidity. Without regular freak-outs about betrayal and loyalty, “Survivor” would just be a lot of people walking around in dirty bathing suits and periodically running through obstacle courses.
The dumb that hides behind serious drama: There’s a good argument to be made that the dumbest fictional characters on television are on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Nevertheless, the way they conduct their personal lives suggests that, if one of them accidentally put her head up the sleeve of her shirt, she could not find her way out and would have to wear it around for all eternity, asking for help and then bumping into the furniture. Cheating on your spouse? Great idea! Casual affairs with people you work with? Why not! Restarting your failed relationship for the seventh time on the theory that this time will be different? Of course!
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington. D.C.