Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's Not Just HBO. It's TV.

Did Congress ever pass health-care? Seriously. Lately, I've been trying to cultivate my own ignorance of all things "political." The news stories are just getting too bizarre: ongoing sagas in the wake of major earthquakes in Haiti and Chile; racial epithets that serve as soundtracks for Tea Parties; sex scandals that allegedly implicate, quite directly, a sitting Pope; Sarah Palin telling protesters to "re-load" in the context of actual violence linked to congressional votes and Tweets calling for Obama's assassination. With that as the backdrop, I've decided to issue my own self-moratorium on watching CNN, FOX and the evening news programs.

Instead, I'm using my television for more otherworldly fare. And TV has never been better. Although it is the quintessential site for sensationalized news-mongering, it is also the best place to spy complicated fictional tales about human life.

When (and why) did TV become so much better than motion picture film? I feel like that undeniable fact just kind of snuck up on the nation's couch potatoes. One minute we were awash in nothing but schlock melodramas and uninspired derivatives of Friends; the next, The Wire, The Chappelle Show, Mad Men, and The Sopranos drastically raised our televisual expectations.

In Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television, John Thornton Caldwell argues that a show like 24 radically altered the way television shows get made and further nuanced/complicated the narratives they deployed, a claim that anticipated part of the argument made in Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You.

Last year, my colleague Elihu Katz used The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science to wonder aloud about TV's potential demise. His query: are we currently witnessing "The End of Television?" Katz's point is hardly reducible to the "repertoire of output (call it content)" that one can watch today. That was just one element in a much more nuanced discussion he facilitated about the place of the "old" medium in a changing (new) media landscape. But if we were to go by content alone, we'd probably have to say that TV is far from dead. It has probably never been more alive.

Indeed, most people consider 2009 one of Hollywood's better years with respect to the quality of movies produced, big-budget fare (Avatar) and more independent/low-budget films (District 9 and The Hurt Locker). But I'd argue that the best of TV in 2009 was still far, far better, by leaps and bounds, than Hollywood's most celebrated offerings.

Of course, TV is a mixed bag, but at its best, it can sometimes best Hollywood, even the latter's most impressive stuff. And I say this as a filmmaker and an enthusiastic film watcher.

For one thing, the complexities of character development that one can witness over a TV show's entire season dwarf the best 2-hour attempts at cramming specificity into a protagonist's portrayal.

TV (even network TV) also allows for taking more chances than Hollywood filmmaking currently affords. Precious is a "controversial" and "daring" little film by Hollywood standards, but it would just be another HBO gem, and an even more impressive adaptation if we had gotten a chance to see Lee Daniels actually unfurl the other nuances of the book (over several weeks and months) that were bracketed out of the the powerful film. (The irony, of course, is that TV adaptations of motion pictures are usually uninspired and short-lived, sometimes even unwatchable. But that's because the TV-makers with the most nerve and talent are more interested in bringing their own projects to the air.)

In fact, you know how people say that movies are never as good as the books on which they are based. I'd go so far as to claim that TV series (at least the very good ones) have the potential of seriously rivalling novels in terms of nuance and artistic virtuosity, even upstaging them.

It is probably reasonable to say that TV is no longer simply Hollywood's mistreated step-child. More and more Hollywood actors, directors and producers are using TV as a venue for their wares. That only makes a good situation better. One potential downside, I think, is what I'll call the Mad Men effect: a too-short commitment to the slow-burn that weekly serials provide (maybe, in part, because it is hard to serve two masters, film and TV, at the same time).

My concerns about its treatment of race notwithstanding, AMC's Mad Men rewards "close reading." It is a well-crafted show. But it also seems to air something like eight episodes a "season." That isn't a season. That's a fairly long movie broken up into a few pieces.

Even the shows with more episodes a year tend to broadcast them in ways that destroy the continuity of their narratives and frustrate fans: two-, three-, even four-week breaks (sometimes more) between new installments. Now FOX's 24, which has just announced that it will not have a ninth season next year, is TV's gold standard: a weekly unfolding of 24 episodes. That's a season! In fact, it spans two.

HBO's How To Make It In America feels like it just started yesterday, and this coming weekend is already its season finale? Did I hear that right? If so, give me a break! The producers might as well have just made a movie. (Of course, the networks sometimes only order a certain number of episodes, less not more, because they don't want to over-commit to a bust. But HTMA just started. I say, bring back True Blood already, and make it last. If not, I might be forced to watch more of contemporary TV at its worst: those dreaded "news" shows. That's one thing that theatrical film clearly has over TV. It got rid of newsreels long ago.


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