Although I’ve watched plenty of television in my life, over the last year I’ve become almost emotionally attached to the damned thing. Getting a big-sized flat-screen didn’t help the situation, but to be honest my attachment is rooted in my fascination with narrative structures, and what I sense as a renaissance in television production values. For me, many current shows stand head and shoulders over the Hollywood & even foreign cinema fare I formerly thought of as the pinnacle of the visual narrative medium. TV, I have to admit, gets me excited.
In the old days, it was comedy that kept me coming back to the tube. The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and (sad, but true) Friends convinced me that I should be sitting on my couch at X-time on X-day. But looking back now, those (excepting, perhaps, The Simpsons) strike me as quaint relics, like The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy.
Now, dramas have taken center stage. How many contemporary films can compare to the writing and acting talent on those HBO wonders: Six Feet Under or Deadwood? How many films rachet up the emotional tension so well? Not many. And how many could do it continuously for 22 hours each year? I’d say, none.
Remember when sci-fi shows were full of computers so clean you could eat soup off of them? And everyone (think of all the Star Trek spin-offs) talked as if they were in the middle of a public speaking course? Well, with the Sci-Fi Channel’s remake of Battlestar Galactica, that all changed. And who would’ve ever thought a sci-fi show could get you into an emotional pickle? Not me. But Galactica is something different in the universe, and possibly one of the best shows on TV.
Galactica, like all sci-fi, has clear-cut themes and motifs—philosophical questions that are examined. Usually, I find this to be sci-fi’s flaw. It wears its themes too much on its sleeve. But the Galactica writers are smarter and more nuanced than this. Their remaking of the Cylons as humanoids obsessed with their monotheistic religion is nothing short of brilliant.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I do love Alias. I love it in the same way I love 24 or an older James Bond film. Candy. Kick-ass entertainment, wherein a lot of ass gets kicked, but you know none of the people are really real, so it doesn’t really matter. But if you watch Alias from the beginning, then go back and rewatch the early episodes (as I have), you see that there’s a narrative genius at work here. In those first episodes, you see the seeds of everything that will follow. In season 4, a piece of evidence will appear, which will connect to something from season 1, which then leads to something amazing by season 5. Though the writers had no way of knowing Alias would go past the first season, they prepared themselves for the long, labrynthine haul.
Lost follows a similar kind of narrative strategy—it is, after all, by the same creator as Alias—but a more obvious one. The mysteries are self-conscious mysteries, whereas in Alias each mystery has some temporary explanation that’s turned on its head later on. I enjoy Lost, but always from an emotional distance, like a particularly fun mathematical puzzle.
What I’m loving about TV these days is what was once only available in high quality miniseries—the proper use of time. The gradual build-up of plot, character and themes that didn’t have to be squeezed into 90 minutes. BBC had this nailed down with such masterpieces as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Edge of Darkness. Low-budget, but fully utilizing the available space and talent. But things have come a long way since then.
And the camerawork. Who’da thunk, ten years ago, that TV shows would look so damned good?
There’s an Asian-run TV channel here in Hungary called AXN. That’s short for action! The bulk of its schedule is devoted to some pretty crappy programming (like 18 Wheels of Justice—about a truck-driving US Marshall), but since it’s one of the few channels in English, I check it out, and am sometimes rewarded. Particularly with ReGenesis, a Canadian show focusing on a group of researchers working as an action-team to stop outbreaks of diseases. A Canadian CDC called NorBAC. Intense acting and wonderful writing make this show stand up beside all the ones I’ve mentioned above.
What connects these, my favorite shows? There’s a western, sci-fi, lab work, and plenty of general espionage. But no matter the genre, all these shows speak to me in a novelistic way. That is, they have breadth and length. I’m not getting everything in an hour or two. I’m getting prepared for what will come. The seeds are being laid for next week or next year, and by viewing them I’m investing a piece of myself into the narrative endeavor.
And yes, they do inspire me to do my own, non-visual work.
If this post inspires anyone to check out some of these shows, I suggest finding a way to view them from the beginning, which is how I watch all of them. Snag a DVD or simply break the law and download. It’s worth it.
Any other wonderful, innovative series out there? Let me know. It’s not like I’m doing any writing over here.
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)