A thought experiment on “Great Television”

To what extent are the “great” TV shows great television and to what extent are they just great stories, with great characters, etc.? That is to say, which ones contribute the most to television as a specific artform?

One way to get at this might be to ask whether something similar could be achieved if a show was converted to a novel. I think that a novel of Mad Men would be horrible, for instance, but a novel of The Wire would be a natural fit. Though The Wire is a little more self-consciously aestheticizing in its shots, etc., than one may initially realize, I think ultimately it’s like a serialized novel without the novel. It’s a great television series, but it’s not great specifically as television. Just throwing it out there, I think that Breaking Bad and Sopranos are very TV-specific, while maybe Deadwood isn’t.

Then there’s a question of whether we take the “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” slogan seriously. To what extent have certain shows moved beyond the restrictions of television to become a new genre of long-form visual narrative? All of the “greats” seem to challenge the episode format to some extent, as witnessed by the fact that events blend together when you marathon watch. In a way, you have to be watching specifically for the episode structure to catch it — meaning that it may primarily be a discipline for the writers, helping them to organize the material in a manageable way.

Perhaps the two poles are the purely episodic (which none of the “greats” are and virtually no contemporary drama is anymore) and the soap opera, which degenerates into a newspaper from a fictional universe. It’s a rare Game of Thrones episode that feels like a well-structured episode, for instance, so that it leans more toward the soap opera pole. I think the innovation of Mad Men is to realize that you can just put characters on the shelf without following them, then bring them back when you need them. Not every plot needs to be “ongoing” — we don’t need to know how Stan hooked up with the nurse girlfriend, when and why they broke up, etc., etc. The Wire and Sopranos move in that direction, but I don’t think they take it as far. Meanwhile, the small cast and setting of Breaking Bad and Deadwood prevent much experimentation in that regard, simply because it would make no narrative sense much of the time.

In short, some pretty random thoughts. I assume I’m reinventing the wheel to some extent. But all of this is partly by way of explaining why I think it’s basically not arguable whether Mad Men is the most artistically ambitious and artistically successful television show as a television show of all time — whether or not we agree, as we surely don’t, on its enjoyability, relevance, etc. And to some extent, I think that many of the ideological problems with the show — its limited representation, its “first world problems” focus, its objectively low-stakes setting — are features rather than bugs because they let the aesthetic come to the fore. Similar to how Melancholia basically has to take place in a setting of unimaginable wealth to “bracket out” all other problems.

Why Game of Thrones sucks

Whenever I hear someone include Game of Thrones in the canon of the “Golden Age of Television,” I begin to ask very serious questions about that person’s taste and critical acumen. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A plot that’s sprawling beyond all reasonable limits — in some episodes, it seems like we’re watching a series of 30-second shorts pasted together. There is just no good reason to have so many ongoing plots that we’re “checking in on” so frequently. Shows like Mad Men and The Wire showed that there is another way: simply ignore the secondary characters till you need them. Instead of following Brianne of Tarth around for three seasons, suddenly she pops back up, and if you have competent screenwriters, they can fill in the background with a few broad strokes instead of tedious exposition. Game of Thrones seems to have picked the worst of both worlds — soap opera-style “checking in,” but often spaced out so distantly that we’ve forgotten about the character.
  • All the characters look alike — white people wearing black, smudged with dirt. That’s 90% of the characters. It may be okay if they had discernable personalities, but they mostly seem to do what the plot requires at a given time. What drives Stannis, for instance? Which one is he again? No one knows or cares.
  • There’s no interesting thematic content whatsoever — the whole point seems to be that George RR Martin has a sick imagination and has come up with a world where everyone is casually violent, then we are presented with hard truths about how casually violent that world is. Whenever the show tries to “explore” “themes,” the attempt is undermined by an over-the-top presentation. Want to talk about the complex relationship between father and son? I know, have the father be casually abusive to his dwarf son and deride him for visiting prostitutes, then the dwarf son discovers he’s sleeping with the son’s favorite prostitute and murders him! How about the dynamics of abuse and Stockholm Syndrome? Well, one approach would be to spend an entire season showing a man being slowly degraded and tortured, to the point where his dick gets cut off — a sequence that, by the way, is never “shown” in the source material, though it’s implied — and then being enslaved to the torturer through fear. There’s broad strokes, and then there’s crayon scrawls.
  • Danaerys’s plot is an absolute shit-show — in this day and age, you’re seriously going to do a full-on White Savior plot with zero irony or self-awareness? And within that frame, you’re going to try to draw “interesting” parallels to US foreign policy (like the suggestion in the most recent episode that they establish basically a “green zone” in whatever god-forsaken hole she’s decided to “liberate”)? If this is the payoff for having an ongoing plot that still hasn’t directly connected to the main plot, all these many seasons later, I want a refund.
  • Can winter fucking come already?! — I am so tired of vague foreboding and fleeting glimpses at the supernatural menace just beyond the wall. Or am I more tired of Jon Snow’s random moralizing? Tough call.

I could go on, but those are my main complaints. Lest I seem totally negative, though, I must admit that the title sequence is excellent. That’s what keeps me watching, at the end of the day.

On moralizing television criticism

I’ll get straight to it: I didn’t like this Jacobin article on The Americans by John Carl Baker. It’s not so much that I disagree with its point, though I do. What I object to, more fundamentally, is the very procedure: the attempt to find something insidious and ideological to disqualify the show. That’s hard in a show that sympathetically portrays devoted Communists who routinely murder and steal to undermine America. But Baker manages! See, because Elizabeth critiques consumerism, and so the show must be for austerity — apparently for its own sake, in the author’s estimation, even though it’s clear that Elizabeth is not a principled ascetic but is instead devoted to a transcendent Cause — and I guess because austerity is bad, we should be kind of pro-consumerism?

How is this in any way a response to the show? How does this help me to understand what’s going on better? I would submit that it doesn’t. It holds the show up to an artificial standard, finds it wanting, and sets it aside. If we enjoyed it, we’ve been duped into “supporting” something bad. Ideology got us again! My objection to this procedure is twofold. First, of course television is ideological. That’s not some brilliant insight, that’s the very nature of television. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that television is enjoyable in direct proportion as it’s #pureideology. Second, is it really the case that we even have at our disposal some standard for the right way to do it? The confidence with which judgments are pronounced leads me to believe that there must be some kind of handbook that these benighted producers are callously setting aside in order to produce their “problematic” fare.

In my view, it’s inevitable that a show will be “problematic.” A broken society creates broken TV shows. There’s no “right way” to portray people who object on principle to capitalism in a capitalist society. There’s no “right way” to represent blacks on television in a racist society. There’s no “right way” to portray women in patriarchy. What is available is more or less interesting ways, more or less promising ways. And every TV show of any quality does hold some promise, some hope. It’s not just that a spoonful of utopia makes the ideology goes down, because the spoonful of ideology is also what makes the utopia palatable.

At this late date, the ideological portion of The Americans is the overall tone that these are heroic but tragically doomed figures, fighting a futile battle — it never would have worked. And the utopian element is that Communists are magic, able to take on multiple forms, utterly omnicompetent. Could I do all that, if I were somehow “unplugged” from the capitalist apparatus, if I could somehow approach it as a foreigner and opponent rather than a native? (And here the problem of what to do with their daughter becomes an interesting one.)

All of what I just wrote in that last paragraph is a sketch, and perhaps it’s simplistic or limited or — God forbid — “problematic.” But I hope it points in a more interesting direction, gives you something to watch for, rewards your attention to the show rather than castigating you. To have even a chance of doing any of that, you have to let the show be a show — which means to be #pureideology while also being something different or more, at least if it’s worth your attention — rather than rendering it a symptom of something we already knew anyway.

As the man says, les non-dupes errent.

On the perfunctoriness of House of Cards

We had the earnest, though chastened idealism of West Wing. We also had the Office-style send-up of Veep. All that was missing in the genre of White House dramas was the dark, gritty version. House of Cards dutifully stepped into the gap.

The last decade or so has also shown us that TV is more prestigious in direct proportion as the characters are shitty people. House of Cards dutifully slotted into that trend, giving us a protagonist who plots and schemes out of sheer spite — and isn’t even very good at it. This is a contrast from the UK version, at least in its first season, where the protagonist brought a mischievious glee and a relentless effectiveness to his efforts. We knew what motivated the UK protagonist, but Frank Underwood is “complex” (i.e., his motives make no sense).

And let’s not forget how “complex” Claire Underwood is! So complex that she can scapegoat a young activist for getting pregnant, that she can emotionally shatter a dying man who confesses to a lifelong crush by giving him an utterly revolting handjob, that she can [SPOILER ALERT] in the current season! Dark, gritty! Complex! Nuanced? Yeah, let’s go with it to meet the wordcount of our thinkpiece.

And can we discuss the sex more generally? I was never quite sure why I was watching Frank Underwood joylessly fuck an alarmingly young-looking Zoe, nor why Meechum became a prop in the sick power struggle of the Underwood marriage. And in the most recent season, they start to show us an actually attractive couple, bound by actual affection for one another, and they cut away before they even start taking off their clothes. Within the frame of the show, it seems, real passion is the true horror.

The first season might pretend to give us a “realistic” view of backroom dealing, but as things move on, it becomes more and more purely fantasy. Frank Underwood is going to destroy Social Security so that he can implement a socialist jobs program that would make FDR jealous! On a certain level, I guess this is dutifully “centrist,” though it arrives at that result through a different formula than President Bartlett’s impotent hand-wringing over the deficit.

For my money, the only really interesting character is Doug Stamper, the career underling. His plot arc this season was much more satisfying than any of the political pyrotechnics, and I think that’s because the House of Cards premise is fundamentally about a career underling who goes rogue. Perhaps we can’t believe Kevin Spacey as an underling, even from the very beginning. When the UK version addresses the camera, it’s conspiratorial gossip, but when Kevin Spacey does it, it’s the authoritative god’s eye view. And what a tedious, vengeful god he is — addicted to scenery-chewing dressings-down, afflicted by self-doubt only when he restrains the fullness of his cruelty.

This is where the Golden Age of TV goes to die — the graveyard of that era is found in House of Cards, Game of Thrones, True Detective… It’s as though a generation of writers and producers watched the true greats of HBO’s heroic era and could only imagine outdoing them by redoubling their cruelty and nihilism. We may not have liked Tony Soprano or Don Draper, but there was something fascinating about them, and their stories told us something about deep anxieties of the American imagination. We may have been chastened by the despair of The Wire, but that despair at least gave it a unique perspective on our political situation. The political scheming of Deadwood involved its fair share of violence and betrayal, but its setting provided a plausible reason for it all while allowing us to view the show as a thought-experiment in the originary violence of founding a society.

Shows like Game of Thrones and True Detective take all the sadism and despair of those modern classics and strip them of the ideas that made them interesting. To their credit, though, Game of Thrones and (especially) True Detective at least remember to give us an attractive, atmospheric surface — but House of Cards phones that in as well. The most interesting thing about the show visually is the title sequence, and that only highlights how workaday everything else is.

And so, as a television commentator, I have done my duty. I’ve watched all of House of Cards. I served my time and paid my debt to society. Now perhaps I can find a show that handles dark themes and atmospheric moodiness with greater subtlety — like Batman: The Animated Series.

The minimal fantasy of Downton Abbey

We’ve been expecting less from our fantasies for quite some time now. The turning point, in my mind, was “trickle-down economics.” The entire premise was of course absurd — the whole point of capitalism is that wealth tends to flow upward — but even if it worked as promised, it would avowedly be only a “trickle.” I make a similar point in Why We Love Sociopaths about the deflationary fantasy of the ruthless social climbers and lawless lawmen:

What kind of fantasy is it to say that people can get a satisfying job, if they are capable of amazingly ruthless behavior unrelated to the ostensible skill set required to do that job? How reassuring is it to learn that the U.S. will be free of terrorist attacks, as long as there’s one guy willing to take it to the limit and openly defy every law and authority?

And on the latter point, of course, even that tepid fantasy has been downgraded in Homeland, where there’s one woman who truly grasps the terrorist threat and predicts every attack — but no one ever listens to her until it’s too late.

There seems to be a similar minimalism in Downton Abbey, a show that I keep watching more for the pleasures of its surfaces than the intricacies of its plots. Here we have a world with a yawning chasm between social classes, where the majority of characters are toiling day in and day out for the benefit of an idle few. This is of course just like our world, with one important caveat: everyone admits that’s what’s going on. No one in the aristocratic family is under any illusion that they “deserve” what they have due to their intelligence or hard work — they were just born into this family, while others weren’t.

The frank class division opens up a space for the ruling class to feel a sense of obligation toward the servant class and the tenants. After a few plots early on in which it becomes amazingly clear that Lord Grantham has no idea how capitalism works, his concrete role in managing the estate is to put the breaks on the overly “economical” plans hatched by his bourgeois son-in-law and the socialist who marries into the family, to insist there must be some way to ensure the sustainability of the estate without being ruthless in profit-seeking.

Compared to our current system, where the ruling class believes it has “earned” what it has through “merit” and feels a moral obligation to maximize profits at all costs, this system seems positively utopian. The fantasy is similar to that in Mad Men — yes, the postwar ruling class was full of terrible people, but at least they wanted to convince themselves they were making people’s lives better. At least they wanted a space for creativity, or at least sincere sentiment, alongside the profit-motive. And at least they, like the aristocrats in Downton Abbey, give us something beautiful to look at, a play of surfaces that echoes the minimal ideological veneer with which they paper over the brutality of their times.

The work of mourning in contemporary television

Is there a mourning trend in contemporary television? At least on cable, it seems to be a dominant theme, one whose hold is only growing. The Walking Dead and Les Revenants (which will be remade in an English-language version) focus on what happens when the dead won’t stay dead — less an abstract thought experiment than a literalization of the process of mourning — while The Leftovers hyperbolically stages the randomness and incomprehensibility of loss. Recent seasons of True Blood have been dominated by mourning in a literal way, with episode-long funerals in many cases, as might be expected from the creator of one of the most successful “high-quality cable dramas,” Six Feet Under.

Once you notice the theme, it pops up everywhere. Much of the action in The Sopranos stems from the death of the initial boss from cancer, and the elderly mobsters like Uncle Junior could be viewed as something like an undead presence, especially once he develops dementia. The title character in Dexter derives his violent impulses from watching the death of his mother, and inherits his ethical “Code” from a father who feels responsible for her death and who haunts Dexter in the present. Homeland could be viewed as another kind of zombie narrative, as Sgt. Brody unexpectedly turns out not to be dead, disrupting his family’s new life and becoming an obsessive focus of Carrie, who is haunted by the specter of 9/11. Don Draper, like Walter White, is a man who survives his own death again and again, and the most recent season of Mad Men turns him into a kind of zombie haunting the agency. Etc., etc.

Obviously death has an appeal as a “universal human theme,” but I suspect there’s something more going on here. In a moral landscape where love seems like an empty cliche and loyalty is less a moral sentiment than a license for the most immoral possible behavior, the experience of loss seems like one final bastion of something like sincerity — the one unfakeable feeling. Even better, it provides a path toward multi-layered complexity of characterization, which is hard to come by when the assumption is that everyone is motivated by self-seeking pride.

Coming at it from a different direction, the fixation on loss seems to be of a piece with our neoliberal world. The only positive goals that are acknowledged are wealth, power, and prestige, which must be sought in an increasingly narrow range of pursuits by an increasingly narrow range of personality types. In contrast with this zero-sum struggle of individuals, the only space for something like human community or solidarity is loss or the threat of loss. In a weird way, then, there may be something optimistic about the narrative of mourning on television, insofar as it’s a way of gesturing toward connection rather than competition.

(Half-formed thoughts, sure to be dismantled in comments.)

The inertia of the suburbs

The Girlfriend and I have been watching The Wonder Years lately, and it’s striking how generic the setting is — if not for references to news events in the late 1960s, it could be any time period from 1965 to the late 1990s (and I only posit that cut-off point because of the advent of the internet). The suburban model that was built out starting in the immediate postwar era has proven to be remarkably resilient, and even now it has a kind of self-evidence as the “mainstream” American approach to family and community life.

In the immediate postwar years, it seems as though there was a level of “buy-in” across the population, as the prospect of one’s own house, a car, etc., seemed like wonderful luxuries. By now, however, the suburban model has shown itself to be costly, environmentally destructive, and in many cases isolating and community-destroying. Further, the concentration of good schools in the suburbs perpetuates an ongoing vicious cycle of “white flight” that reinforces the systemic racism of our society. And as the financial crisis revealed, the aspiration to suburban middle class status increasingly carries the risk of financial ruin.

More and more people are realizing all of this and don’t want to buy into the suburban model — yet except for the very wealthy, there seems to be no real choice for middle class people if you want to have children. And the reason for this surprising persistence of a model that no one really wants anymore is the power of state planning. Even if the population could be initially convinced to want suburban-style development, the decisive factor was a concentrated effort on all levels of government to create all the necessary conditions for that lifestyle, through physical and legal infrastructure and often through explicit subsidies (such as the mortgage interest tax deducation, which seems to be invulnerable). All of the stuff they created in that heroic era of American urban planning is still in place. The roads and schools have been built, and the legal structures for expanding suburban development if needed are already in place and ready to go. All the incentives for middle-class families still point outward into the suburbs.

While reading about the ongoing disaster of education “reform,” I once thought: “What if cities stopped trying to attract tourists and started trying to gain permanent residents by creating awesome schools?” As I thought about what that would entail, however, it became clear that no one city has the resources to fully reverse the trend — to really work, it would have to entail a complete reshaping of the school funding structures, a build-out of public transportation infrastructure to support the expanded population, etc., etc. In other words, it would take forceful state planning on the model of what created the suburbs in the first place.

Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. only had one relatively brief window for such forceful state planning, extending from FDR to Nixon (only 40 years out of the 200+ of the Republic’s existence) — and it wasted it on the suburbs. Barring a new FDR, we’re probably stuck with it. The bright side, I guess, is that The Wonder Years will remain legible and relatable for generations to come.


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