TV's golden age

The idiot box has gained some serious IQ points in the last decade. So let us behold: Television as fulfilling as anything at your local multiplex.

Published August 21, 2006 12:45PM (EDT)

Remember the good old days, when TV was the favorite whipping post of the cultural intelligentsia? When we bemoaned how "television was not invented to make human beings vacuous, but is an emanation of their vacuity" (Malcolm Muggeridge)? When we tsk-tsked that the boob tube "tells a story in a way that requires no imagination; the picture on the screen and the sound provide all we need to know -- there is nothing to fill in" (Witold Rybczynski)? How it was really just an idiot box with "the bland leading the bland" (Murray Schumach)?

TV even turned Pauline Kael, with her populist appreciation of the guiltiest of trash pleasures, into a bit of a snob. "Movies are a combination of art and mass medium, but television is so single in its purpose -- selling -- that it operates without that painful, poignant mixture of aspiration and effort and compromise," Kael wrote in "Movies on Television" in 1968. "We almost never think of calling a television show 'beautiful,' or even of complaining about the absence of beauty, because we take it for granted that television operates without beauty."

We'll never know what Kael would say about the "Narm" episode of "Six Feet Under" or the tense aftermath of nuclear annihilation on "Battlestar Galactica," but we do know this: Television has become a more reliably fulfilling and commercially uncompromised medium than film. This is largely due to the rise, in the last decade, of the serial drama, with its season-long arcs, slow-simmering character development, and diverse permutations, all of which have allowed TV writers more creative range than ever before. Instead of concise, often formulaic, self-contained episodes, we're treated to rich, complexly plotted stories about tortured Mafia families, soulful Muslim CIA agents and intergalactic spirituality crises that we end up caring deeply about.

Beginning with shows like "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and "ER," which experimented with developing characters over the course of a season or several seasons, and peaking with "The Sopranos," which dedicated its creative muscle as much to character study as it did to the plot, TV writers have slowly been redefining the modern drama and pulling in viewers like never before. Finally, "24" introduced the suspense-driven series, in which each episode -- and sometimes each act -- ended with a cliffhanger. Today's most popular dramas, and many of the upcoming pilots, blend these elaborate, nail-biting stories with artful character studies and meticulous editing, a combination that has done nothing short of revolutionize the television-watching experience.

And while, of course, filmmaking has been influenced by the monetary interests of studios since day one, and television has always aspired to be more than just a means of selling laundry detergent, the latter medium suddenly feels much less compromised than the former. While Kael may have been accurate in her assessment that "when our wonder or our grief are interrupted or followed by a commercial, we want to destroy the ugly box," the mitigating agent of TiVo, along with commercial-free premium cable channels, have rendered the interruptions of advertising less egregious than they've ever been.

Meanwhile, most movies are preceded by five or 10 minutes of commercials before the previews even begin, and are positively littered with product placements. As Charles Taylor argued, the marketing machine behind big releases has undermined the quality of moviemaking considerably, with studios focusing on "increasing the size of the product, the size of the hype, and, of course, the size of the process -- all the while reducing the time anyone has to savor or respond to what they're putting out."

But since commercialism will always pollute both media to a certain extent, let's consider some of the most dramatically taut, unforgettable scenes from "Brokeback Mountain," "The Constant Gardener" and "Million Dollar Baby," and then recall some of the very best scenes from "Six Feet Under," "The Wire" and "Deadwood." Did that final, plaintively poetic scene in "Brokeback" cause you to ponder the constraints of mortality more than those final, flash-forward scenes of "Six Feet Under"? Did Hillary Swank's boxer death in "Million Dollar Baby" really mean more than the Shakespearean murder of Frank Sobotka in season 2 of "The Wire"? Were you really more engaged by the foggy political games of "The Constant Gardener" than those in "Deadwood"? Really?

When we compare our experiences watching TV shows or movies, we notice television's shortcomings far less than we do the restrictive nature of a film's relatively brief narrative arc. As any screenwriter will tell you, character development and plot structure in film are both so pruned down and concise that writing a screenplay sometimes feels like writing a haiku. The background information, motivations, quirks, qualities and flaws of any character must be telegraphed through the briefest bits of dialogue and action: Our heroine drinks three espressos in the morning, leaves a mess in the bedroom, leaps over the dog and dashes out the door; she chooses to stick up for the underdog at work, then she storms out when the boss compromises her ideals -- all within the first five minutes of the film. She's go-getter with strong moral fiber and a heart of gold, got it? Contrast that with TV dramas that last from 13 to 24 hours over the course of just one season. With so much time on their hands, TV writers can reveal each character patiently and thoughtfully. Every trait or flaw doesn't have to be encoded in the spilling of a cup of coffee or the offering of a hanky to a stranger on the subway.

Consider Matt Dillon's cop character, Officer John Ryan, in the best picture Oscar-winning "Crash." All we learn about him, over the course of two hours, is that 1) he's a racist and 2) he's heartbroken over his father's declining health, the second point clearly aimed at dampening slightly our disgust over the first. These two points are telegraphed through a few short scenes: Ryan appears frustrated while speaking on the phone with his father's doctor; Ryan pulls over an innocent black couple and harasses them; Ryan tells his partner that some day he'll be just as jaded; Ryan watches as his ill father sits, in agony, on the toilet, suffering from a urinary tract infection. These scenes form our limited understanding of Ryan, an understanding that's fairly superficial and hardly evolves over the course of the film.

Compare that to the far more subtle, slowly unfolding depiction of Detective McNulty on the first season of HBO's "The Wire": We aren't offered details of McNulty's past, his motivations, or his demons for several episodes, and even when we're given clues, they aren't as big and obvious as they have to be in a film. After six or seven hours, we can guess that McNulty loves his kids but isn't the greatest dad in the world, that he's ambivalent about his ex-wife and former lover, that he probably has a drinking problem, that he's hopelessly stubborn and idealistic, but we're split between caring and being bothered by the guy. In other words, instead of being forced to telegraph McNulty as A Cop With a Checkered Past, as any two-hour-long crime thriller would have to do by necessity, creator David Simon allows us to experience McNulty the way we might experience him if we met him in real life: We don't quite know what to make of him, don't quite understand why he does what he does, but we're eventually able, over the course of several episodes, to empathize and develop a fondness for his subtle quirks. Unlike the concise, flatly manipulative signals we receive about Officer Ryan, as viewers we're patiently exposed to McNulty's various shades and left to feel however we want to about him. Over the course of a season, the relationship between the character and the audience becomes far more intimate and, arguably, much more rewarding.

Of course, great movies can achieve the same subtle shades of character, and the very best films never feel time-constrained. The spare story in "Brokeback Mountain" probably even benefits from the natural concision of film. Instead of being treated to lengthy, tangential, unnecessary subplots or repetitive illustrations of the two main characters, Ang Lee presents us with a story whose elegance arises from its economy. We're not meant to understand fully what's happening in the lives of our protagonists, nor are we expected to emerge with an extensive, detailed analysis or deep insight into why these characters behave the way they do. The lyrical, slightly mysterious feel to "Brokeback Mountain" emerges in part from its spare treatment by Lee. And certainly the limitless time afforded to character development in televised serial dramas can work against the shows over time. After seven seasons of "The Sopranos," we're a little too aware of Tony's strengths and faults, and having been treated to the same therapy sessions, in which Tony refuses to acknowledge his anger at his mother, over and over, a time limit starts to look like a very good thing.

When it comes to navigating a thriving, vibrant microcosm like the ones depicted in "The Wire" or "Deadwood," though, a longer format enables the writers to roam freely between various layers of the environment, giving us insights into the motivations of all of the different inhabitants. While the intersecting stories of "Crash" often feel superficial or gimmicky, the complex dynamics of the better serial dramas offer a unique canvas for writers to explore elaborate webs of community, interpersonal relationships, and competing philosophies and approaches. The wide gap, philosophically, between Al Swearengen, Sheriff Bullock, Cy Tolliver and George Hearst of "Deadwood" adds a layer of meaning and complication to David Milch's town and stokes a feeling of foreboding that such diametrically opposed forces will inevitably collide.

Of course, not all of this year's pilots have the breathtaking dynamics or depth to hold our attention. As the weaker seasons of "24," the second season of "Veronica Mars," and the first half of the last season of "The Sopranos" have all shown, keeping the audience focused on a season- or series-long mystery or impending crisis is no walk in the park. (Today's TV writers must sometimes long for the old days, when, in order to resolve almost any crisis on "Dynasty," you just threw Krystal and Alexis into the nearest pool.) Investing in a show that will resolve itself after 22 episodes, only to see it canceled after eight episodes, might scare viewers off from making the same mistake again -- and that's not to mention shows that are incomplete after a full season, as fans of ABC's critically lauded "Invasion," which didn't have the ratings to justify a second season, know all too well.

This new breed of show requires a major investment of time and energy to appreciate fully, and those who superficially flip through but don't have the time or interest to take the plunge don't get a very good sense of the richness or complexity of what they're seeing. If you don't know the characters on "Lost," the music and cinematography, always amped up for maximum impact, might strike you as melodramatic. Similarly, the odd dialect and strange machinations of the characters of "Deadwood" are easy enough to take as completely incomprehensible foolishness, unless you've come to know them over the course of several seasons and appreciate the way the town's various citizens and power dynamics form a complex organism that lives and breathes and struggles to survive.

The big risk that the serial drama faces arises from the TV industry's bad habit of following the latest trend over the nearest cliff. Last season, creepy sci-fi serial dramas were all the rage; this season, character-driven serials involving crime mysteries are the big thing. Yet when there are six shows with similar premises on the air, everybody loses. And that's too bad, because the quality of a lot of these shows is remarkably high: Whether we're introduced to a rich family whose son has been spirited away (NBC's "Kidnapped"), a team of criminal masterminds (CBS's "Smith"), a gaggle of superheroes (NBC's "Heroes"), or a cop who's been framed for murder and has to repeat the same day over and over until he discovers what really happened (ABC's "Daybreak"), there's a sense that the writers and creators of these shows are experimenting with entirely new ways of telling complicated stories.

This uncharted territory means that we're presented with tales that are often less predictable and more suspenseful than most action and suspense movies, which have been following the same formula since "Jaws" hit theaters 30 years ago. On shows like "Prison Break" or "Sleeper Cell," viewers can be led down a number of dead-end roads and treated to as many empty clues, false resolutions and complete reroutes as it takes to keep them on their toes. Just as we think we know who the bad guy is, or who's betraying the American people, the writers pull the rug out from under us. The blame is constantly shifting, characters are killed off, false leads turn to dust, end-game scenarios are thwarted, but most importantly, we don't know what's coming next. As a result, we're taken on a wild, relentless ride, and along the way we're exposed to characters more nuanced and real than any we've met before.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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