19 January 2012

Television in the 21st century

I'm amazed by how artistic television has become in the last decade. Critics say that this trend started with HBO's The Sopranos in 1999. This kind of television, with its heavy serialization, deep characterization, and overarching themes, has found its niche on cable TV, especially on HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX. (There aren't as many network shows of this kind; the outstanding examples are Lost and 24.)

New York Times film critic A. O. Scott argued that TV is just as good as film now and there is really no reason why films should be higher in the pecking order. (Unfortunately, film's prestige still lingers. Compare the coverage of the Oscars to the Emmys.) Some even think that TV is better than film now! Patrick Meaney wrote a very long piece citing the advantages of the TV format over the two-hour film. He pointed out that the length of the TV series allows more creative freedom and time to explore characters. On a TV series, with good material, an actor can showcase his/her diversity and range. More and more big name film actors are jumping into TV. Here's a sampling: Martin Sheen (West Wing), Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), Sally Field (Brothers and Sisters), Glenn Close (Damages), Claire Danes (Homeland). Recently, Dustin Hoffman signed on for HBO's Luck. He told the press that
You cannot get a shot at doing your best work in the studio system. There's committees, there's meetings, they're on the set ... they get involved in a quasi -- at least I think it is -- creative way. They buck heads with people they shouldn't be bucking heads with. And with HBO, once they give a go, there is no committee, there's no meetings, these guys are allowed to try to do their best work and they then give it to us.
Famous film directors are getting into TV, too. Martin Scorsese directed the pilot for Boardwalk Empire and Michael Mann is directing and producing Luck.

The biggest changes have come for writers and their audiences. If anyone is happy about the state of television, it's got to be the writers. Can you name any film script writers? In television, the showrunner (head writer) is truly the boss of everything and (provided that the network doesn't interfere) can realize his/her creative vision. The public has heard of David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire, Treme), Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica), and the nerd favorite Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse). Many playwrights are writing for television, to gain experience (and to put bread on the table, so they can go back to the theatre).

The audience has become a greater, more vocal participant in television. Fans gather on forums to extol the virtues of actors, or trash showrunners for clumsy plotting. By its nature, Serial drama invites discussion and analysis. TV criticism websites have proliferated, for instance, Television Without Pity, AV Club, and HitFix. (Again, TV criticism is still lower status than film criticism, but hopefully that will change.) There are wikis to keep track of complicated plot threads and numerous characters. Writers monitor forums and occasionally go onto boards to personally talk with fans. On learning the audience's reaction, they can adjust the series before the fans revolt. (Some crazy fans have actually become a nuisance for showrunners and networks -- demanding changes as if they own the show.)

Personally, I enjoy watching a great TV series unfold. Every week, I watch an episode, read the critic reviews, and participate in forums. It's a heavy investment of time, but well worth it, for the enrichening experience. I learn so much about the human condition (e.g. endurance in Battlestar Galactica), archane topics (e.g. horse racing in Luck), acting (Claire Danes in Homeland), and writing.

The massive serialization and strong audience participation remind me of the Victorian novel. Back then, authors like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy wrote in installments. It's hard to remember this, since we read these works as complete (and very thick) novels in our literature classes. Writing in installments meant that the lower classes could afford fiction and that writers had to keep their readers interested. In Dickens's Great Expectations, there's a line of dialogue where one character brings up another character out of the blue in the dialogue. My high school English teacher explained that the reason was so the reader wouldn't forget the named character later. Supposedly, Thomas Hardy inspired the term "cliffhanger"! Nowadays, the cliffhanger is a standard trope in modern television. Large ensemble casts and intricately woven plot threads in TV series like Battlestar Galactica remind me of my favorite novel, George Eliot's Middlemarch (which was also serialized).  The serial television drama really is the 21st century's version of the Victorian novel.

TV isn't the end of the story. New players are emerging in this media game. Felicia Day stars in and produces The Guild, a web series about gamers fully funded by donations. Netflix just committed $100+ million dollars to two seasons of a Kevin Spacey drama without even seeing a pilot. YouTube is trying to become more than just a streaming video site and commissioning several original series.

The only danger now is that we'll have so much good material to watch that the audience will splinter into niches. I actually know a substantial number of people who've watched Battlestar Galactica or The Wire. That's because there were only a few shows of that caliber at the time. It's a little like how everyone watched Walter Cronkite because there weren't any alternatives. In the future, there may be so many good TV shows that everyone will watch their own thing or be desperately trying to catch up on the huge list of "classics." (Exactly the situation we have with books.) The last decade of television has proven that there is no shortage of talented writers, actors, and crew. I look forward to see where we go next.

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