It all started last week, when handsome, handsome actor Jon Hamm talked to Elle (UK) about the sad decline of public culture:
We’re at a place where the idea of being elite is somehow considered a negative. Whether it’s Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian or whoever, stupidity is certainly celebrated. Being a fucking idiot is a valuable commodity in this culture because you’re rewarded significantly. Incuriousness has become cool... It's celebrated. It doesn't make sense to me.This is what I consider a lovely bit of portable wisdom. It ties in the latest trend in FNC/RNC name-calling (in 2012, "elite" is a GOP obscene epithet, even though the candidates could objectively be called nothing else) with the depths of reality TV, where there is nothing more telegenic and ratings-grabbing than the combination of wealthy people acting like total fools.
The point Mr. Hamm was making was quite clear-- but in doing so he also made a huge tactical blunder: he mentioned Kim Kardashian by name in public. There is no opportunity for public exposure too insignificant or obtuse for her to pursue. So of course, she weighed right in (via Twitter, which is about as thoughtful a medium as she uses):
At this point, you could step back and call this whole thing entirely superfluous-- the opinion of an actor being rebutted publicly by a… by a… I guess you could call her a reality-television personality. Anyway, some might see the antics of the Kardashians are harmless entertainment put out by people willing to make their private lives public in lieu of something that requires actual talent.
(I'm obviously taking Jon Hamm's side here-- especially when Kim claims to be someone who "produces, writes, designs, and creates." There are all sorts of levels of that kind of thing, and her level of reality-TV creativity is risible. The only creative guy in reality TV is that keyboard guy who puts the cymbal crashes on all the bug-eyed revelatory shots-- and, steady paycheck or not, the poor bugger probably contemplates suicide on a weekly basis.)
But that's not what this publicly conducted argument is actually about-- this is the inside view of an epic fight: The Battle for Television's Soul. On one side is scripted television: written and created by studio-level artisans and professionals, expertly produced, expensive and risky. On the other side is reality television: created by pandering cable-level producers, shot on the fly and cheaply, calculated to sensationalize the lives of the privileged and stupid. On basic cable, Reality TV tends to outdraw scripted shows: on the big nets, it's pretty much 50/50, "American Idol" and it's ilk versus everything else.
"Mad Men" is the standard-bearer for Smart TV: Crazy melodrama aside, It takes great pains to recreate the world of the 1960s and explore the societal and cultural changes under way in that era. Watching it is often a history lesson, and we can glean much about how modern society was shaped by the larger conflicts raging in the subtext of every episode. Jon Hamm is the star of that show, and it's obvious to any viewer that the cool intelligence of Don Draper flows from him organically.
"Keeping Up with the Kardashians" and all the other grubby little satellite shows in it's orbit are, of course, the apex of Stupid TV, escapist, disposable entertainment. The intricacies of the human condition are indeed on display on Kardashian-centered entertainment, but in a debased form: envy, backbiting, awe in it's trashy McMansion splendor, and petty conflict. If it has any redeeming social value, it must be at such an ultra-sonic level of irony it's only understood by ironic dogs.
These shows often out-draw "Mad Men" in ratings. This is what motivated Jon Hamm to speak out: he and his show are on the parapets of traditional Hollywood, watching the hoard of Kardashians and Snookies and Real Housewives coming right at them. Notching an arrow in the bow and and letting fly is preferable to being overrun.
Jon Hamm did, in time, realize his tactical blunder, and via "Inside Hollywood" issued a response to Ms. Kardashian's barbed tweet. Don't call it an apology-- He's not about letting Reality TV off the hook anytime soon:
It’s surprising to me that it has become remotely a story… My quote was simply about that version of television and that version of American culture being celebrated. It’s not something that I particularly enjoy. The quote was obviously taken out of context, but I said what I said. I just wish it had been reported correctly. I don’t know Ms. Kardashian; I’ve never met her (and) I would never say anything personally about somebody that I’ve not met. What I said was meant to be more on pervasiveness of something in our culture, not personal, but she took offense to it and that is her right.I'm sure it'll end here-- Too many big words for Kim to possibly match.
ADDENDA: Kim may be done, but apparently her proxies want to get in on this ginned-up "feud." Ms. Kardashian's best friend Jonathan Cheban has gone on the record with this reposte: "Jon Hamm just needs to shut up and stop being such a mad man." Um... zing, I guess.