If you want a textbook illustration of the dangers of valuing quantity over quality, take a look at network television — and, to be honest, a lot of streaming programming as well. We’re supposed to be in the ‘golden age of television’ and if golden ages are counted by sheer volume, that might be true, but if they’re about substance and quality, not just form, we most certainly aren’t, and I’d like to know what’s become of television in the US, and why such a beautiful art form has sunk so far.
Television is a polarising subject as an art form — many dismiss it as trash, make comments about television ‘rotting the brain,’ say that people should limit their screen time. These arguments sound a great deal like those used to denigrate certain literary genres, and they betray ignorance and superiority, telling the listener more about the speaker than the other way around. Television is an art and it has been from the start. It allows for episodic storytelling. It allows for complex, beautiful plot arcs that unfold over the course of entire or even multiple seasons. It requires a great deal of craft, and in recent years, more and more programmes have also focused on visual aesthetics as well, with absolutely gorgeous costumes and sets as well as compelling soundtracks. Television, at its finest, is beautiful, complicated, splendid. It’s Hannibal, Top of the Lake, Gracepoint.
So what’s happening? At the start of the 2015-2016 television season I wasn’t really struck by very many shows, though I promised myself that I’d pick up at least a few. By midseason finale time, I had stopped watching all of the new shows I’d taken an interest in. I’d long since stopped viewing a number of older shows because they’d become drawn out, repetitive, dull, relying on tropes, rehashing old stories, boring narrative conventions. Even on streaming, where the offerings are definitely better, I wasn’t impressed by very much going on, with the exception of some outstanding outliers like Sens8 and Miss Fisher. Standbys like House of Cards have begun to fade, with the bloom thoroughly off their roses thanks to being driven into the ground.
This is a tragedy, for several reasons. Simply put, I like many viewers enjoy being entertained, and that’s why I watch television — to slip into another world and deep into the minds of the creators. If I’m not getting that, if I’m futzing about the house and distracting myself with other activities while watching a show, there’s clearly a problem. Television for me shouldn’t be a background experience or something to put on while cleaning. It should be immersive, it should hold my attention and leave me craving more, like all good art. It should recognise itself as art and take itself seriously, in the case of shows with a clearly aesthetic drive, or it should relish the opportunity to entertain audiences, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, one of the consistently best comedies on television, does. It doesn’t have pretensions of grandeur, but it is one of my favourite programmes, and I don’t look away for a minute while I’m watching. That’s a mark of good television.
It’s also a disservice to the genre, which has been around for less than 100 years and is already fading. Film, by contrast, is older and still going strong — yes, there’s a great deal of schlock coming out of production houses, but there’s also some really solid film, including from major studios. Say what you will about Star Wars, for example, but the most recent episode did include compelling storytelling, and it directly challenged conventional wisdom about the marketability and bankability of women and people of colour in leading roles. Other films in recent years have played with narratives and pushed at the boundaries of filmmaking, social attitudes, and more. They may not necessarily receive critical acclaim or bring in box office receipts comparable to Star Wars, but they’re there, and studios are investing in them.
The model of television I’m seeing right now is an increasing desire to pick up shows that follow proved, established formulas known to perform reasonably well, throwing some money at them, seeing how they do, and then canceling them if they fail to meet expectations. Typically shows have only a brief period of time to establish themselves, and that time is even more brief for high-concept television, with networks seeming almost afraid to give slower, more complicated shows time to build up and grow an audience that will support them. Programmes like Hannibal, for example, were really just getting started when they were yanked off the air in favour of more procedurals and thrillers.
BBC America is playing with some old favourites like Doctor Who in addition to its usual stable of costume dramas, but to be honest, many of those aren’t very compelling either, which is saying something coming from someone who is an absolute sucker for a pretty frock. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are all experimenting with original programming, but most of it isn’t very engaging, despite the early success of shows like Orange is the New Black, a programme I’m actually not very enamoured with. The kind of programming that is gaining attention is laden with serious social flaws — take Transparent, which is raking in critical acclaim even though it’s deeply transphobic. For those seeking innovation, wild storytelling, strange beauty, monstrous creatures, television isn’t the place to find these things these days.
And that makes me incredibly sad, because it feels like a part of our storytelling canon is being slowly choked off.
Image: Old TV, Ale, Flickr