Monday, June 28, 2010

“High Concept”

In the 1960’s there emerged in movie / TV land the concept of “High Concept”, this was the idea that TV and movie shows had to have a single simple concept in order to hook in the viewer.

The end result of this as been an enormous amount of sheer crap and nonsense and in many respects a serious dumbing down of popular entertainment.

Why so? Because anything complex was deemed not to be simple enough and therefore had to be avoided at all costs. One of the further results was that it was so much simpler to rip off ideas that already had been shown to work than to think of new ideas. Creativity or being difficult is just too much of a bore so let’s avoid it.

Let’s now go into examples of “High Concept” idiocy.

From game shows we have three examples:

1, The Price is Right. This show simply involves people guessing the prices of items and those getting closest, (without going over), winning some rather over priced merchandise. Now basically the show was nothing more than a one hour commercial for merchandise, during which there were gaps for more commercials. It was watched mainly to see people go nuts winning a new washer or having a multiple orgasm on stage winning a new living room set. The show was frankly terminally boring only the fact that Bob Barker was basically a class act as host made it even remotely more than complete crap.

2, Wheel of Fortune. Watching that wheel go round while contestants have withdrawal symptoms from forgetting to take their tranquilizers while air head in chief Vanna White, who at first turned and later touches letters so they appear, is a nice way to induce a coma. The show is indeed simple and it is also relentlessly boring. It is basically MacDonald’s food, full of fat, sugar and starch and virtually nothing nutritious.

3. Deal or No Deal. Probably the most boring game show ever. With its metal cases containing money and contestants making dull exchanges of one case for another. The show requires no ability on the part of contestants and no thought on the part of the watcher. Of course it is fun to watch germaphobe Howie Mandel cringe whenever a contestant tries to hug him. This is a show where basically nothing happens.

One can contrast this with Jeopardy! A game show that actually requires real skills and knowledge. In this case it is a show that requires you to know an enormous amount of trivia. Of course you must frame your answers in the form of a question. The show is enormously popular world wide. So I guess that sometimes people want something challenging occasionally.

From sitcoms here are three examples.

1, Webster. A show about a white couple who adopted an adorable black kid. The show was an obvious rip-off of the show Different Strokes. With Emmanuel Lewis, playing Gary Coleman. Like Different Stokes the show had an adorable character played by a real life midget with a disability that helped render him “cute”. The “High Concept” was not just the blatant rip-off but the centering of the show around a “cute” atrocity to bring in the mindless. The scripts lived down to the mindless idiocy of the idea.

2, Friends. A Seinfeld rip-off. Instead of having four wastes of space whine about nothing for thirty minutes this show had six wastes of space whine about nothing for thirty minutes. Of course the “High Concept” is six beautiful, but vapid, things complain about stupid shit.

3, Family Affair. A sitcom from the sixties. In it three lovable waifs are raised by their uncle after their parents have been killed off. At the time this was a common concept in TV land. Mad Magazine actually did a parody called Familar Affair. It was also beautifully boring. In an era where you couldn’t have a divorced woman in a sitcom you could kill off parents and stick children with relatives who barely knew them. Well whatever.

In contrast there are shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show which centered around a man working on a comedy show as a writer and his family. It was funny and it enabled the writers to poke fun at TV.

Now for some so-called Dramas.

1, The Big Valley. A western from the 60’s with Barbara Stanwyk. Instead of having a drama about a widower and his sons in the old west like Bonanza, we have a drama about a widow and her sons in the old west. Yup ripping off an idea that works is so much better than thinking up your own.

2, NCIS. Also known as CSI in the Navy. In both shows a group of eccentric investigators led by a semi-basket case, using cutting edge near perfect forensic technology, much of which does not exist in the real world, along with kicking ass, which forensic pathologists would not do in real life; solve crime after crime in a few days. Of course all DNA tests take a few hours at most. Basically it is police forensic work as fantasy and magic. Of course rather than have NCIS do anything that is real it like CSI takes refugee in delusions of omniscience. Of course ripping CSI adds one more degree of “High Concept” to an already “High Concept” notion.

3. BJ and the Bear. A show about a trucker and his pet chimpanzee. The gimmick is of course the cute chimp; which is also what sells the show. This shows “High Concept” and selling point was how “cute” the Chimp was. Things like plot, acting etc., were of course not important.

Showing that shows didn’t have to be mindless or simple minded there was Hill Street Blues. This was a cop show with a difference complete with multiple story lines and gritty realism it lasted for years and got ripped-off a lot but still remains one of the best shows ever on TV.


Star Wars. The ultimate “High Concept” movie a fairly simple good versus evil story complete with simple-minded dialogue and cardboard characters etc. The show concentrated on action and effects, acting and script were secondary. It was still a lot of fun however. Unfortunately ripped off endlessly by other people. The movie started the trend to have movies concentrate on being huge blockbusters, with lots of action and huge amounts of special effects and serious dumbing down. Just how much the dumbing down had progressed can be seen in the three Star Wars prequels which are basically nothing more that special effect rides designed to dazzle the viewer and hide the glaring defects with script, acting and dialogue.

The Flintstones. A live action cartoon coming from the trend of making movies out of old TV shows. This is another “High Concept” idea. It avoids the terrible trauma of actually thinking of anything new by simply and mindlessly copying an old TV show. In this case it was a live action version of a cartoon show. Not surprisingly it was a disaster in virtually all respects.

Forest Gump. Here the “High concept” wasn’t the originating idea but what they did with it. In this case what they did was take a cynical black comic novel and turn it into a festival of mindless nostalgia and patriotism. The “High Concept” comes clearly in the movies motto which is the mindless feel good banality “My mother always told me ‘life is like a box of chocolate; you never know what your going to find inside”; which is the movie’s version of the following line from the book, “Life is no box of chocolate when your born a retard!”. Thinking that audiences would be unable to take the originating novel’s black comic tone and style they turned it into a “High Concept” bit of feel good schmaltz, with a mega dose of saccharine.

A completely movie is Fargo which is anything but simple minded and involves complex acting, plot and characterization. It makes demands on the viewers and is also both black and comic. Such details as making the Sheriff 8 months pregnant and deliberately leaving loose ends that are NOT cleared up make this movie anything but "High Concept”. The fact that the “Climax” of this movie is most deliberately very anti-climatic is also another violation of the “High Concept” ethos.

In the end the idea of “High Concept” is in the end a refugee from real work on creativity and a escape into easy solutions. It is further based on the idea that people cannot tolerate anything different or difficult. It is also simply cowardly.

Pierre Cloutier

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