Thinking about Television.

So this has been one of those great weeks for me: the book finally in my hands, four sweet long days with my little daughter Izzy in Austin, Inauguration Day, and tonight, in an hour or so, the premiere of the fifth season of Lost.

Lost (and also The Wire) has been one of the main reasons why I haven’t been blogging about movies as much. I’m not a big fan of television at all, so I myself am surprised about the amount of time and energy I’ve invested in these two shows in the last three months. (I consumed all four seasons of Lost in a little less than two months, bloodshot eyes be damned.) I suspect part of it has to do with the sprawling, sequential nature of both serials, but even that seems to be a fairly new development. (My friend Ben was wondering whether the popularity of Mexican and Korean soap operas around the world had influenced this reimagining of what television audiences could handle; I’d like to think that The X-Files‘ shifting between their mythology arcs and stand-alone Scooby-Doo episodes had something to do with it as well.)

Sitcoms, of course, were almost always episodic in nature; Larry David’s misadventures on one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm didn’t necessarily have any consequences in the succeeding one. My favorite dramas back in the day — St. Elsewhere, Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues — did follow particular character developments, but one could still dip into an episode (of any season) more or less at random. (My favorite show of the ’90s, the brilliant Homicide: Life on the Street, briefly flirted with a continuous, solid story arc in its first season before adopting a more conventional episodic structure. It would return to this in the fifth season upon the introduction of Erik Todd Dellums — also in The Wire and the son of this feller — but by then the magic of the first three seasons had dissipated.)

In contrast, Lost and The Wire aren’t audience-friendly at all; drop in mid-season, and all the clues, the references, the consequences of decisions made, are lost on you. Even The Wire doesn’t always have a story arc within a particular episode (it seems to just end once it hits the 50-minute mark); it doesn’t even “reboot” itself every season, as it were (like another favorite from the ’80s, Wiseguy). Both require a certain degree of commitment, a kind of labor on the audience’s part, and perhaps that is what makes them work.

What has honestly surprised me are the narrative possibilities inherent in the medium: the opportunity to deepen the audience’s knowledge of and relationship with the characters, with a luxury feature films simply don’t possess in the same breadth. Was it always like this? Why have I now become so invested in the fates of Locke and Ben and Sayid and Juliet and Omar and McNulty and Greggs? Is it simply the caliber of writing, with better writers attracted to the medium at this point in time, or were David Starsky and Jack Tripper and Kelly Garrett really never allowed to have fuller lives?

I think I can explain it this way, though: for myself, there was an emotional angle as well. In these unstable times, in a year when careers and savings and jobs and everything else were so vulnerable, one could at least be sure that Jack and Kate, or Bunk and Avon, would be there week after week, or at least one click of the remote away.

4 replies on “Thinking about Television.”

“labor on the audience’s part”…haha, I’m imagining our wine and snack-fest Wire marathons. We MUST schedule one again–are you feeling better?
I do think that shows like X-Files with Mulder and Scully’s complicated and sexually repressed relationship, the Wire with it’s multi-faceted and raw depiction of urban poverty, and of course the epic character saga that was the Sopranos all challenge viewers’ assumptions of a single lens/truth. Perhaps it’s the po-mo gone mainstream, but I think audiences appreciate that life and “truth” is complicated. Then again, maybe it’s just TV afterall…

Hey, I was serious about a certain degree of mental exertion! Both “Lost” and “The Wire” demand a lot of paying attention to the relationship dynamics between characters, because they have actual consequences — whether in terms of deals, or loyalties, and so on. And we’re not even talking about the plot twists yet.

I agree with you about the complexity part — maybe writers are also more… daring, I don’t know. (It’s also true that TV has seemed to attract a lot of top-shelf actors in the last two decades…)

Didn’t I tell you this? I learned about how Japanese television shows were done in this serial way. They often don’t even have multiple seasons. The show simply ends. I was fascinated by this and watch several Japanese dramas on the long gone International Channel back in college…

When I started to notice American television doing the same thing, I had the same reaction as you: love. And while we Americans still stretch out stories into multiple seasons, they seem to be for shorter and shorter runs. I’m so glad that BSG will end this year, for example.

I think TiVo and DVD has had as much to do with the development of modern serial TV shows as anything else. Perhaps too many urban Americans tend to have too chaotic a schedule to religiously sit down in front of a TV at the same time each week, and thus get annoyed whenever they are obliged to because of a “to be continued…” cliffhanger. With TiVo, DVD, Hulu, iTunes, BitTorrent, and the like, we can avoid such problems, and those of us that simply can’t handle cliffhangers at all can just wait until the end of the season and watch them all in one go. Of course, then the problem is when you notice the sun coming up and you’re still trying to squeeze in a couple more episodes of _Heroes_ before going to work.

I have noticed that all three serials I’ve watched seem to follow a certain formula: they each contain a certain number of plot/character threads (more than your typical Hollywood film), and they bring each one to the foreground every so often. I feel like _Heroes_ season one, _BSG_ season three, and _The Wire_ season five all have roughly the same number of threads that reappear with a similar frequency. Unlike soap operas, they seem very much pre-planned—each season, at least, represents a story arc sliced into episodes—rather than any kind of a make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach. In that way they are more like a full-season miniseries with soap opera cliffhangers.

I think the ability to possess a series on DVD and the tendency to watch several episodes in one sitting or over a weekend has really increased the commitment on the part of the filmmakers compared to traditional TV shows, which would explain the top-shelf actors and the increased complexity. For an increasingly large section of the population, these are being watched more like films than like TV shows, and so it would make sense if they are being filmed more like films.

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