Monday, April 25, 2005

TV Be Much Smart?

I honestly don't get this New York Times Magazine Piece arguing that today's TV is smarter than ever. Maybe it's because I haven't watched enough ER episodes to make my brain sufficiently brilliant, but his arguments seem to be that TV is better today because a) There are more story arcs, b) There's more medical and/or political jargon in the dialogue, and c) The plots are harder to follow.

There's some truth here, as there always is in even the most hideously over-generalized pieces (like some of mine). TV drama is, on average, better written today than it used to be, and certainly better-produced. Production companies once treated episodic TV series as if they were poverty-row movies -- don't spend too much time on lighting or camera setups, don't bother about making it look great, just get it done. That's changed over time, and now TV drama episodes are made faster and cheaper than movies, but are expected to look as good as they possibly can within those limitations. Even the worst TV dramas now have a level of production polish that even most of the good dramas didn't have in the '70s.

And I wouldn't deny that the shift from self-contained episodes to "arc" dramas and characters who grow and change (even shows with self-contained episodes now have more ongoing story threads, and real character development, than you'd normally have found on a show in the '60s) is on the whole a good thing. There are bad things that have come with the shift; because shows are now entirely staff-written, with story arcs plotted out in advance by a showrunner and individual points in the arc handed off to individual staff writers, there's much less opportunity for a quirky freelancer to come in and do an unusual, one-off episode. One of the most famous behind-the-scenes stories of '60s TV, the battle over Harlan Ellison's script for an episode of Star Trek, was about the fight to strike a balance between the freelance writer's quirky voice and the overall voice of the show, as set by the showrunner. Well, today that fight is pretty much over, and it's hard to hear much of an individual voice in today's TV scripts; the showrunner defines everything, and that gives today's shows a certain sameness in the writing. On The Rockford Files you could tell a David Chase script from the other writers' scripts; on The Sopranos, Chase's own voice understandably kind of drowns out any other writerly voice. It's a tradeoff that's become necessary to give shows a greater overall sense of sophistication and consistency, but consistency can also lead to a certain sameness.

The other stuff in the article, no, it really doesn't make sense to me. The stuff about shows being smarter because they're harder to follow -- well, that might be a sign of intelligence, or it might be a sign that shows have stopped caring whether they make sense or not. Sometimes that's a product of the shortened running times, sometimes it's a network directive (the head of HBO reportedly encouraged producers to make shows as obscure as possible, on the theory that they'd get more repeat viewings that way from viewers re-watching to figure out what the hell's going on), and sometimes it's just lazy writing. Sometimes -- sometimes -- it's a sign of greater willingness to trust the viewer. But not all that often, I think. And much as I like, say, House, I don't think it can be said that it's unwilling to spell things out for the viewers. And much of the TV jargon the writer praises is just the modern equivalent of "Treknobabble," stuff that's in there because the actors need to be saying something whether it makes sense or not.

The writer doesn't have much to say about the decline in TV comedy; the few good sitcoms left are either unpopular (Arrested Development), on the verge of cancellation (King of the Hill, which has been more or less abandoned in the wake of Family Guy hype), or holdovers from an era when good sitcoms were common (The Simpsons). Since TV comedy today suffers from all the problems that TV drama did in the '70s -- cheesy production values, characters who never grow, tendency to spell everything out -- I might speculate that what we're seeing now is not a golden age of TV but simply another downturn for comedy accompanied by an upswing in drama. I have a theory that when TV comedy is very good, TV drama tends to be very bad, and vice-versa; the '70s, one of the worst eras for quality TV drama, was also a great era for TV comedy; a sitcom like Barney Miller had all the character development and story interest that were missing from the cop dramas of the era, while All in the Family had ongoing story threads and complex character interactions that most dramas couldn't match. The '70s had many sitcoms and sketch comedies that beat most of today's product in terms of trusting the viewer's intelligence. So assuming that today's dramas are more intelligent than those of a bygone era, I don't think that really says anything about our era, or its entertainment in general -- just that most of the good TV is being done in the hourlong drama form.

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