As we sit on the heels of November sweeps, you may have noticed that the current crop of new television shows is a bit lacking. Not that there isn’t anything redeeming to be found in Freddie Prinze Jr. and 90210 alums, seven simultaneous campy alien invasions, Geena Davis’s menstrual cycle becoming a public policy consideration or untold numbers of CSIs vastly encroaching upon the jurisdiction of policeman. But, overall, this year’s new players are unbearable.
The truth is, not this year, nor in the next few years, will anyone expect very much out of television. Not after last year.
No matter how you feel about a brood of needy housewives or 48 castaways and their demons, I am not alone in saying that they represent a television zeitgeist and an about-face in the quality we demand of shows and in notions of legitimacy surrounding the medium. Along with Lost and Desperate Housewives- two shows which almost single-handedly revamped a network and fostered the downfall of another- there was the bitter, blonde teenage sleuth who lent her namesake to Veronica Mars, triumphant older seasons not thought possible of Gilmore Girls and 24, a resurgent HBO, and the advent of the fantastic addiction that is Grey’s Anatomy. It seems that TV, following the 2004-2005 season, really does matter.
Why was last season so important? 2004-2005 came on the cusp of a few dry seasons where only one or two shows stood out, on the heels of many comical goodbyes, and on the breakup of America and reality television.
Audiences lapped up the new and embraced the old shows, and networks anew who had rediscovered their mojo. There had been a slow succession over the previous ten years of truly modern, genre-changing stuff, like Buffy, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Alias and 24, and Arrested Development. These shows succeeded in combining dramatic elements in new ways. Moreover, every time one of these shows premiered, it had done so after a dry spell, and every time one of them premiered they built-up the expectations for what was to come next, what venerable stage actors could be pulled away from the Great White Way on to the small screen, and how much action and emotional punch you could put into just 23 or 43 minutes. This is not to suggest that things like MASH and I Dream of Jeannie didn’t have their place. It is simply to say that shows like this appeared in the infancy of the medium. What’s important is what has stuck as the medium has matured, as it comes into its own and becomes an outlet for great storytelling.
Last season also capitalized on the much-publicized downfall of the movies. When I asserted my preference for television over film, I’d get awestruck looks and assumptions of my stupidity. Today, while people still demand that I explain myself, they are certainly more polite about it. The fact is, these days people are looking to other sources of entertainment. Movies accomplish a whole lot less than they used to— creatively, culturally and economically.
This brings me to the economy. A third reason for people paying more attention to 2004-2005 is that advertising on television and DVD sales of TV shows are a hell of a lot less risky, and generate a hell of a lot more revenue than movies do. On the heels of $300 ‘coffee-table’ DVD editions, profits are on the rise. Hollywood economist Edward Jay Epstein, trusty fellow Ivy League grads working at Slate, and writers at the papers they’ll grow up to work for all agree.
Lastly, on the tails of these massive DVD sales, you find that more people are learning and caring about the process of production through the commentaries that accompany the discs. While this doesn’t necessarily translate into more people tuning in to prime time, there is a greater respect for those who do and for those shows they watch. Furthermore, people appreciate that it may be an infinitely more difficult task than film, because it requires creativity round the clock, and appeasing advertisers and finicky audiences alike. Things are much more tenuous with television, which is not an independent medium like film. In television, you might not get to finish your project while you are attempting to satisfy so many different factions week after week. TV isn’t about getting out a big enough audience for the opening weekend; it’s about sustaining and building on the opening audience for years. In the end, people seem more forgiving of 2 sub-par episodes out of 22, and more accepting that there is some brilliant storytelling out there if you’re willing to sift through it.
But you do have to sift through it, and that remains a problem. Though proportionally, there are as many bad novels published as there are bad shows produced, TV’s got a bad rep for, well, being bad. Samuel Goldwyn once said that “television has raised writing to a new low,” and for all my deep affection for the medium, I’m prepared to admit that the majority of it is crap– some of that being deliciously entertaining crap, but crap nonetheless.
There are a few redeeming shows, however:
Lost is fantastic, and it just keeps getting better—sadder, funnier, more mysterious, and more sophisticated. Granted they allow for a few too many maudlin musical montages and characters imbued with a deep sense of their deepness, but what other show would create a 10 minute long argument about and between men of science and men of faith? Where else would you find sexual tension over a game of golf, and sometimes-gorgeous dialogue coupled with gorgeous silences and a gorgeously international cast?
Grey’s Anatomy- It’s technically Ally McBeal in scrubs, with an equally whiny protagonist and equally divisive office sexual politics. But it also shares with Ally’s early years a crop of fantastic actors and the ability to make you weep both in laughter and in sadness in the course of a few minutes. And it gets bonus points for forgoing the dancing baby.
Veronica Mars- Don’t get sucked in by arguments against this show’s teen soap operatic qualities. Like the previews say, you’ve never met anyone like her.
Included in the above list, I’d usually try to plug Arrested Development, but it nears cancellation. Why is no one watching this hilarious show? It certainly isn’t for a lack of trying on the part of network executives and producers. and I won’t buy the notion that these men underestimate audience intelligence levels. The networks have kept Arrested, and many shows like it, on for a few years, trying to allow them to find an audience.
One of the principal reasons why television isn’t considered as great an art form as cinema is its dialogue with the audience, who often chooses the worst there is to offer, something which kills the best the networks offer up. Sure, the networks are dually responsible for killing great shows by running them for too long, into the ground, just to satisfy the ratings. But at the most basic level, the public dictates what stays and what goes.
So what is the right formula for sticking around? Why are some groundbreaking shows successful enough to stay on long enough to change television, and why do others barely last their first 6-episode order? It’s hard to say. To take the example of Lost and Arrested Development – while both are arguable equally intelligent, Lost combines more plebian violence and mystery; one could watch Lost for the adventure and surprise alone, and disregard its depth of character, dialogue and sophistication of storytelling, and still be entertained. Arrested Development is contingent upon people getting it, being in the know, and often—sadly—that’s too much to ask of an audience.
In the end, it’s all about how you approach it. You can watch Elimidate and Law and Order. Or, you can pick and choose to find a crop of around 10 excellent shows and you can follow the current dialogues going on surrounding the medium- about drama v. comedy, about Nielsen ratings, about how it can improve as a whole from here. Though I previously stated that people don’t expect much to come out of the next few years, they do expect great things in the later future. In the meantime, expectations will remain high for a new show or two every season, and for beloved favorites.
To be sure, last season allowed people to accept that this isn’t a completely frivolous enterprise, free of originality. It’s rife with it and it’s rife with compelling stories. TV is good. As media professor Marvin Minsky once said, “Imagine what it would be like if TV were actually good. It would be the end of everything we know.”
We’re getting there. Television is accomplishing more than just pure entertainment. So go clear your schedules.