Thursday, June 28, 2007

Defending Television - This Time Against Critiques That It's Too Good!

I wrote a piece "On the Benefits of Watching Television" way back in 1980, well before I even had a computer. In those days, I needed to defend TV against claims that watching it made us stupid, or worse. I pointed out that we all needed a little down time, when we weren't intellectually or emotionally engaged at our highest level, and TV provided this. And, even back then, some of it - such as Star Trek - was indeed a feast for the mind.

As recently as last year, I published an op-ed about Television's New Golden Age in Newsday, arguing against the same near-sighted, mostly academic, attacks on TV.

But lately I've noticed a different kind of criticism of television, with just the opposite grievance: television may be too sophisticated nowadays, too complex in some of its storylines for its own good - in other words, too good! (See, for example, this Too sophisticated for most discussion of NBC's Studio 60, shortly before it was cancelled.)

I've also seen grumblings that television deliberately gives us overly complex storylines as a bait for DVD sales. Mourned are the good old days, of simpler, unconnected episodes on television, when buying a DVD of a series, if it existed, would be laughable.

Television, it seems, can never win. There's something about that screen that always seems to attract ire from somewhere, about something it does or doesn't do.

But this critique of TV, though it seems to be media savvy, is even less astute than the older attack on TV as an idiot box. Sure, someone might want to get a DVD of Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, or Lost - but those shows could just as easily be TiVo'ed, seen in one way or another on the Web, etc. and of course have been. The world of narrative delivery has changed. Whether book or movie or TV series, buying a copy of it on a discrete piece of material is yesterday's news.

And it seems that those who are critical of television's new storytelling sophistication may not have much to worry about anyway. Rome and The Sopranos have ended on HBO. Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica will be its last, and so may be the next season of The Wire. 24, Lost, Heroes, and Big Love are continuing, and Showtime has been taking up some of this slack with The Tudors, Meadowlands, Brotherhood, and Dexter. But new golden ages don't last forever, and we may be seeing the beginning of the end of this one.

I hope not. But I'm sure whatever television next becomes, it will have no shortage of sage, caustic, savvy critics.

And maybe that's good for television. The worst thing that can happen to any medium is to be taken for granted.

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