Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Question About TV

I've been on the westeros.org forums a lot lately, looking for news on A Dance With Dragons. While doing so, I came across somebody asking for advice on good TV shows to watch. People gave their recs. The kicker?

Most of the shows were produced in the last ten years.

TV gets a horrible rap as a form of entertainment. Most of it is junk food, it makes people docile, it contributes to social conditioning. A bastion for repetitive, comfortable garbage like the various Law&Order spin-offs and talent shows. This doesn't change the fact that, since The Sopranos came out in 1999, television has increasingly become a format for visual serialized novels that tell compelling stories. In the forum I was reading, The Wire was held up as the gold standard, as it should be. Its one of the seminal works of American literature, a five-part Greek tragedy about the very nature of this country. Television's finest moment. Other recs: Mad Men, Rome, Boardwalk Empire, The Killing, Deadwood, new Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, Carnivale. All shows that tell/told long-term, adult stories. For my dark horse, I would add Futurama to the list, particularly when you consider its well-developed mythology.

Which makes me wonder: did television only get good in 1999?

When I was a boy, I really loved Homicide. It was gritty and intelligent, compelling most of the time, but did not have the nuance and long-term planning that made The Wire a classic, even though it dealt with many of the same themes. Were there any shows prior to The Sopranos that could hold a candle to the best of these serialized novels? Hill Street Blues? St. Elsewhere? The Prisoner? The Twilight Zone? First eight seasons of The Simpsons? I'm really curious to know. For years I was led to believe that Lucy stuffing chocolates in her mouth, Carol O'Connor ranting about Mexicans and the "Chuckles the Clown" episode of Mary Tyler Moore were the height of the genre. I can't see how they compare in quality to a show like Mad Men. God knows there's been plenty of garbage on the tube, from tolerable to Green Acres level awful, but are there any older shows that can be enjoyed on an intellectual level? Or is TV a storytelling artform that finally came to adulthood after a 50-year infancy?

1 comment:

  1. "Or is TV a storytelling artform that finally came to adulthood after a 50-year infancy?" Kinda. The Prisoner's pretty great, though not arc-wise, as you mentioned. And Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Twin Peaks, Star Trek: TNG, and miniseries (also not meeting the big arc criterion, but great art) like Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective & Karaoke/Cold Lazarus. Longer-running BBC shows I have loved that seem to fit the criteria are Red Dwarf (though the collaborative novelizations by the show's creators are actually better) and The Tripods (may be a guilty pleasure & not actually that great; also, it's unfinished & being an adaptation disqualifies it). As a kid I loved Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and the Ray Bradbury Theater, but they're also disqualified. As for anime, Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan and Anno's Nadia and Evangelion I dare say all fit the bill. Basically, though, you're right in that the form has just blossomed insanely this past decade.