Bad TV does not really save us from boredom
Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our dependence on mass entertainment
Oscar Wilde famously said that he could resist anything but temptation.
If there's one thing Hong Kong viewers can't resist, it's bad television. It came as little surprise, therefore, that they fell head over heels for Inbound Troubles, TVB's drama serial which ended its month-long run a few weeks ago, making it the highest-rated network show so far this year.
There's nothing extraordinary about this typically bad television drama serial, except that it's overloaded with stereotypes of mainland visitors who are now blamed for all sorts of problems in the city, from the shortage of infant formula to skyrocketing property prices. In the show, when the cousin from Dongguan isn't making offensive comments on locals, he's shown littering, running red lights or parking illegally.
I suspect Hongkongers' addiction to television and why they never seem to get enough of such tiresome television personalities as Nat Chan and Eric Tsang have everything to do with their fear of boredom.
If Bertrand Russell were right and half of mankind's sins were indeed caused by boredom, watching bad television must own a special place among these sins. People need the instant gratification, pleasure of recognition and sense of normalcy provided by television to distract themselves from the unresolved loss and profound disappointments that life has in store for almost everyone.
Boredom is terrifying because, deprived of distraction, we are compelled to take a hard look at the way we live and confront the realities of our trivial existence. Those who are most afraid of boredom are usually those who do not know what to do with themselves on their own.
For those well-versed in the wise use of solitude, boredom is seldom a problem. Author Edward Gibbon once said, in smug satisfaction I imagine, that he was never less alone than when he was by himself.
Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our pathological dependence on mass entertainment. It can step up our capacity to appreciate the higher pleasures of the intellect, imagination and emotion. When we don't have to spend a large part of our time and energy trying to keep ourselves busy and entertained we'll be better able and more inclined to lead an examined life and to learn to construct meaning from our existence.
The late American writer David Foster Wallace was one of the few contemporary serious writers of fiction who tackled the subject of boredom. His best-known work, Infinite Jest, describes Americans' "pursuit of vitality at all costs", and how they end up killing their own souls in their bid to kill boredom. His last novel, The Pale King, which he never finished, tells of a group of tax office employees and how they deal with the tediousness of their work. Perhaps it's time we learnt from these characters, who are portrayed more often as losers than heroes in popular culture.
Perry Lam is a local cultural critic