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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...

Newsday
Editorials
IDEAS
TV's new golden age
BY PAUL LEVINSON


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

23 comments:

Mikeachim said...

I'm very much a follower of the argument put forward by Steven Berlin Johnson in 'Every Bad is Good For You'. Modern TV drama is sophisticated storytelling, and much of the time we're so spoilt by it, by our cultural context, that we collectively and conveniently forget that.Anyone comparing '24' with anything from the '70s can see how far we've come.
....
I'm also a rabid Battlestar Galactica ('04) fan. It's nice to see someone taking the genre unflinchingly seriously. But it's the *climate* that has allowed BsG a place: TV like HBO's ultra-gritty shows have paved a way for the acceptance of that kind of realism up on the small screen.....an acceptance not just by the viewers but, perhaps more importantly, by the networks. It's a delight that something so traditionally dumbed down as TV scifi can be allowed to be developed in such a manner.....
.....
Oh, and although I wasn't so taken with the show itself, the opening credits and theme for 'Rome'.....had me spellbound. I'm still whistling it, tapping it out with my fingertips.....

Mikeachim said...

Oh, and that's "EveryTHING Bad Is Good For You".
(I hate making typo erors. It's embarising).

Paul Levinson said...

Thanks for the comment, Mike - we're in 100% agreemnent. Absolutely, cable (and HBO in particular) blazed the trail. Though, of course, one could also argue that HBO was inspired by the great programming of tv's past - in particular the live dramas on tv in the 1950s.

I also agree - though I love the show as well - that the opening credits for Rome are themselves worth the price of admission. The level of detail in the graffiti - and yeah, that music - are extraordinary.

It'll be interesting to see what they do with the credits in January.

(I also love the guy who announces on the square what's happening ... great voice and delivery, great hand gestures.)

Paul Levinson said...

PS - Don't worry about typos - as you'll quickly see here, typos are my middle name...:)

Mikeachim said...

The Herald in 'Rome' is Ian McNeice: he's been in umpteen shows, including SciFi's 'Dune' a few years back, as Baron Harkonnan......
I dearly hope they alter the credits slightly (maybe some graffiti that references the events of season 1) whilst keeping the music as is. I think I'd like to buy the soundtrack at some point.....
....
(I've already bought the Galactica soundtracks. The drum-based action sequence tracks, eg. for season 1's 'Act Of Contrition', are *terrific* for when I'm out running, trying to set a pace!).

Paul Levinson said...

Yes - thank you for id'ing the herald - he was excellent as the Baron Harkonnen, too.

The music for Battlestar Galactica is wonderful! I find myself delivering some of its cadences as punchlines in some conversations with friends and family (and occasionally in front of a classroom) ... confirms people's views about what a lunatic I am, but I don't care :)

I play a promo for a Battlestar Galactica podcast at the end of many my own lightonlightthrough.com podcasts. I like the BSF fan podcast well enough, but what I really find irresistible is the music...

finn5fel said...

I usually say TV sucks, but I should be more specific. It's true that most of it is not worth my (or anybody's) time, but TV series are something different. I don't really watch the episodes of the shows I follow when they air. Instead, I wait and get them on DVD: Veronica Mars (which might not last for long), Lost, Smallville... And I usually find myself thinking that each and every single one of those episodes is far better than most of the movies I go to the theater to see.
When I saw Superman Returns last June, I found myself thinking Smalville was so much better it was a shame they had made such a movie.
So why is that? Maybe because TV shows can develop a longer story over the season and, at the same time, shorter ones on each installment? I also read comic books, and it strikes me as a similar way of telling stories in the sense that you have little story arcs (maybe an issue, maybe three or four), and, at the same time that short story is being developed, the overall story and the characters are being developed as well.
Same with novels and well-structured chapters: cool micro-stories in the context of a bigger, more rewarding one.
And after this literally multimedia rant, I'm done.

Halagan said...

Hello you all!

I agree with more or less all the points that have been made. First of all, I'm talking with spanish TV in mind, which certainly is light years after USA TV, so don't blame me immediately if I write something you couldn't disagree more with.

Here in Spain, TV sucks. TV, not TV shows, which are, just as finn5fel defends, a different whole story. Here, although there are new networks appearing each day and forcing the old ones to make good efforts to achieve a greater quality, we're still living prehistory.
A sadly huge portion of the daily programming is filled with gossiping and reality shows. And very few of the latter (and none of the former) add new or even beneficial things to viewers. But all those programs are incredibly cheap to produce, and, at least here in Spain, hugely successful. Millions of people sit in front of their screens on a daily basis to discover what dress was Victoria Beckham wearing at the last high society event. I rather not be talking any more of it, cause it makes me sick. They even air these kind of programs when kids come back from school, so there isn't really a good alternative for them. God, I miss Fraggle Rock so much...

Anyway, TV shows, of course they are different. And I agree completely with Mr. Levinson when he states that "Like books and movies, TV can now take real risks to achieve excellence". The thing is that here in Spain, although we have a few kind of good TV shows, we supply mainly from our transatlantic neighbours (you, americans), who, like in many other things are ahead of almost everyone else at this time.

I'm sorry to confess that there are a lot of the TV shows you mention I've never seen. Like Dexter, or Battlestar Galactica (I've only seen the first few episodes, so it doesn't count). I haven't seen The Sopranos or The West Wing. Nor 24. And I've watched Rome, that great show indeed, but I really can't remember watching its opening credits (or they didn't impress me as much as they did to you). :(

But I've watched Band of Brothers, or the unfairly underestimated shows Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which is still, IMHO, the best show I've ever seen). And right now I'm watching House, Lost or Veronica Mars. So I know what you're talking about. And, to me, well, one thing's for sure: quality is quality, and art is art, either on a screen or sculpted on a marble block.

Paul Levinson said...

finn5fel and halagan -excellent posts!

I've definitely come to believe that the best way to watch a television series is all at once - in a few sittings over several days - with either the DVD, or if the cable station (HBO or Showtime here in the US) has put the series On-Demand, or there are also some web sites I've heard about which offer the entire series (I haven't tried them, so I can't vouch for the quality, but they're probably ok, if not legal)

So, when tv is looked at in that way, you're not really at that much of a disadvantage in Spain ... you can get the DVD or look around the Web for the series.

I enjoy watching a TV series in 2-3 days so much that I'm really tempted to wait until the new season of 24 that will begin this January is available as a full season on DVD before I watch it ... But I know I won't be able to resist watching the weekly installments.

A tv series - especially when you can see it in 2-3 days - is more like a book than a movie, because you're staying with the TV show much longer than with a movie. That's why the story arcs, as finn5fel says, are different and can be more powerful on tv than in a movie.

It really pleases me to think that tv, despised so long by scholars and critics and academics, may be moving into a position with DVD, On-Demand, and the Web, of being perhaps the powerful narrative medium of our time.

PS - Thanks for mentioning Fraggle Rock, halagan! I still have the song from that show somewhere in the back of my head!

Halagan said...

You're more than welcome.

I bought Fraggle Rock's first season on DVD last year, and enjoyed it from the first to the last episode. The songs, the characters, the marvellous puppet techniques used... It really is a tremendously great show for kids, and one that adults can enjoy almost on the same level. I feel like a boy when watching it again.

When I got children (every day I'm closer to it than the day before), Fraggle Rock is one of the things I want them to enjoy just like I did when I was a little kid. More exactly: I want to enjoy it again with them, and enjoy with their enjoyment.

Ehem... Enough with the enjoying. Putting aside the potential father in me, I just wanted to say that I suppose you're right, Mr. Levinson, on saying I'm not at as big a disadvantage here in Spain as I think. Most of the TV shows I've bought on DVD, though, I did from USA or UK, because here in Spain DVD editions are really poor on their quality and at the same time excruciatingly expensive to buy. And renting them is not an option here.

But with Internet everything changes. It's like... I don't know... MSN Messenger, Wikipedia, Google Earth... those kind of things and tools prove that technology is really something good and useful. I mean, I'm chatting with you right now, ain't I?

Paul Levinson said...

Exactly - about technology enabling good things - like you're in Spain and I'm in New York, and it's easy as pie to chat...

Good for you that you're looking forward to being a father. I'm a parent - our kids are in their 20s now - and there's no greater connection to the cosmos, I think (and enjoying their enjoyment, as you say - good phrase - is a part of that). And, as a bonus, I've found that all of that helps my writing and all of my creative stuff.

Mikeachim said...

That's an interesting line of argument raised there, regarding one-sitting (or few-sittings) TV series season-watching.
That's something I can't do. I start to suffer from information-overload after four or five episodes of something dramatic. I start getting dulled, losing the ability to appreciate the show. It feels like...spending too much time on a computer game, and reaching a point when you get sloppy, take shortcuts, get impatient. Some kind of analogue of that, but with my attention span. Certainly it doesn't work for me....
(I also tend to read that way: savouring good books).
I'm handing my season 2 BsG boxset to someone at work on the 29th, so I've been working my way through the (great) latter half of the season....and my limit is 5 episodes in a day. Now I'm fried.
But I know student friends who have watched entire seasons of '24' in more-or-less 20 hours straight!
.....
The majority of people buying boxsets seem to have your preference: to watch seasons in just a couple of weeks. Do you think this trend might impact on weekly TV, if more and more people are watching last year's shows on DVD instead?
....
ps. Ahh, Fraggle Rock. :)

Paul Levinson said...

Yes, network viewership has already been declining, and as more and more people get a taste for watching tv on their schedule, rather than the weekly dole, that now old-fashioned mode of tv presentation will dwindle further.

I think the key here is the viewer's schedule and preferences, whatever that may be. So you, mike, prefer to watch not more than five episodes - I can go with 10 or more. The beauty of the boxed set, or getting all of the shows at once online, is that both of our preferences can be easily accommodated.

Halagan said...

My schedule is very demanding, so I usually don't have the luxury of watching more than one episode per day.

Until a year ago, though, I used to devour the DVD shows I had. That is, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (not so wealthy then). All the episodes I could watch on my spare time, that was my limit. Of course, it helped that I was such an addict to them.

Yes, that's the good thing to show distribution today. Anybody can see one episode each week, each day, or each hour, if it pleases him. The fear of missing some episode because of bad airing time is finally forgotten.

Paul Levinson said...

I heard people refer to those now bygone days of television as "appointment television" - you had to make an appointment to see it... good that they're gone ... (I'm often late for my appointments, anyway...)

finn5fel said...

I sure can't stand being on somebody else's schedule (i.e., the network's) to watch a show, that's why I love DVD sets. An, of course no commercials and no need to wait to see how the cliffhanger is solved. However, like Mike said, I have a low limit, and I don't usually watch more than 3 in a row. Still, three a day takes care of a whole season in a week. Not bad at all...

Halagan said...

BTW, I've just started with Battlestar Galactica 2003's first season. And yes, it has everything to become that great show you've been talkin' about. I can't wait to see how it develops.

Paul Levinson said...

You're in for on the best treats you've ever had with tv... (or, for that matter, movies and novels)... Enjoy!

Halagan said...

I'm enjoying it already. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

i watch it on http://www.likevid.com/

Anonymous said...

Then please stuff me with idiot dressing, roast me in idiot sauce and call me Idiot a la King, because television sucks. Today's television may be better than any television that came before, and today's limbless orphans may live more fulfilling lives than limbless orphans have ever lived before - you'll have hard luck selling me on limblessness or television at any rate, because television, like limblessness, sucks. Good day to you, sir.

Paul Levinson said...

Based on your poor command of metaphor, I guess it's pretty clear that you haven't watched much television.

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