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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Only Idiots Don't Watch Television...

"Only Idiots Don't Watch Television" was my original title for the following op-ed that I wrote for Newsday this past July, 2006. They changed it to the more dignified title you see below - taken from the next-to-last line of my op-ed - but that's ok, because I do indeed believe that we're seeing a new golden age of television (I say so in the op-ed) - indeed, I've taken to calling our era television's platinum age.

Because, if anything, television has gotten even better since the summer. The first half of the third season of Battlestar Galactica, just concluded last week, was the best science-fiction I've ever seen on television (or at least, the first part of it was - as good as the best Star Trek episodes, and better than most). The Wire concluded a low-key but outstanding season. Kidnapped, foolishly cancelled by NBC, just concluded last night on nbc.com, and it was a superb series - intelligent, stylish, suspenseful. NBC does, at least, deserve credit for fielding it in the first place. Dexter, which I wrote about in a blog post here last week, is a marvelously unusual cop show. Brotherhood is an excellent new political drama. Sleeper Cell, which I also wrote about last week, offered an excellent second season. All three were on Showtime.

And in January, new seasons of Rome (on HBO) and 24 (on Fox) begin. I can hardly wait. In the meantime, as the cold winds of late December blow, here's another look at the view from this past summer...

TV's new golden age

Paul Levinson is professor and chairman of communication and media studies at Fordham University. His latest novel is "The Plot to Save Socrates."

July 23, 2006

It used to be called the "idiot box." Critics have been muttering for years that we're a nation of "videots," that television's been rotting our brains. But who are the idiots now?

People who saw "Rome" on HBO this fall? The opening credits alone were a masterpiece of music and animation. Or perhaps the video dopes are those who just finished watching the next-to-concluding season of "The Sopranos" or watched the past three seasons of "The Wire," or I forget how many seasons of "Da Ali G Show," all also on HBO, or the new "Battlestar Galactica" on the Sci-Fi Channel.

All of these shows have been lionized by critics. Tim Goodman of The San Francisco Chronicle called the acting in "The Wire" both "virtuoso" and "phenomenal." David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said of "The Sopranos": "If this isn't art, then neither is Mozart." The series won four Emmys in 2004 and has been nominated for many more. "Ali G" has been nominated dozens of times. "Rome" boasts Jonathan Stamp, former BBC executive producer for history and archaeology, as its history consultant. "Battlestar Galactica" has lifted science-fiction on television to a new level of political sophistiction, sensuality and style.

Awards in themselves are certainly no sure indication of quality. But, combined with the raves of critics and cinema-level writing, acting, and production, the achievements of this new age of television are unmistakable.

Who are the nitwits, now? People who saw or missed those shows?

It's not all cable - the networks have been enjoying a golden age, too. "Lost" on ABC and "24" on Fox are two prime examples - "24" led the pack in Emmy nominations announced earlier this month. And in all cases, the availability of these series on DVD, which allows the viewer to see multiple episodes of a series without commercial interruption, is fueling the new excellence of television.

But it's not entirely new, either. There have been great programs throughout TV's history, ranging from "Have Gun, Will Travel" to "Star Trek" to "All in the Family" to "Hill Street Blues" to "ER," to name just a representative sampling over the decades.

What's different now, though, are the wings of new media that, rather than flying away from television, are lifting it to new heights. Not only cable and DVDs, but iPODs, which offer downloadable episodes, are making television easier to watch - and better. Why better? Because when people were obligated to watch television on inflexible schedules dictated by the networks, many shows were pitched to the lowest common denominator. The cardinal rule of that first, now bygone, age of television was "thou shalt not offend or confuse." But when people can see television on their own schedules - whether via on-demand cable, DVD, TiVo or iPODs - television can take chances. It can hire topnotch character actors like Ciaran Hinds, who last year played a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated "Munich" and starred splendidly as Caesar in "Rome."

TV can now cater to more individual tastes. Its programs must still live or die based on their rating shares, but the pie is now split so many ways that a smaller piece can go a lot further than in decades past.

Like books and movies, TV can now take real risks to achieve excellence. It can try a prime-time show on polygamy, such as HBO's "Big Love," or a sitcom about a suburban school mom who sells marijuana, like Showtime's "Weeds."

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan applied the term "rear-view mirror" to help explain our perception of new media. He meant that we see new technology through lenses ground in the past. The automobile was first called "the horseless carriage" and radio "the wireless" before they broke free of their pasts, attained names in their own right and claimed their destiny.

How many people who still think TV is only for dullards and laggards are seeing it through a rear-view mirror, looking at it backward, focused on network domination and stick-figure characterization? Was that what Harper's editor Thomas de Zengotita had in mind when he called cable TV - along with the Internet and DVDs - a "vast goo of meaningless stimulation"? Maybe TV needs a new name.

But, by television or any other name, the much-maligned tube is finally achieving its potential not only to entertain but inspire.

It used to be thought that watching television distracted us from more noble intellectual pursuits like reading. But, to the contrary, it seems that an intellect charged by any medium is all the more hungry for new adventures of the mind. Literacy is on the rise. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found an 8 percent increase in reading abilities in the past decade. "Harry Potter" and "The Da Vinci Code" are happening in this new golden age of television. Its rising tide will likely be lifting many more boats to come.

Relevant links:

The Plot to Save Socrates
"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly "a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News "Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book
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