I love TV. Some of the people I know would say this is a sign of weakness, or at the very least, a character flaw. It is not.
For your reference, I am a thirty-something with a couple of degrees from a major university. One in a science (how I make my living) and the other in a literature (how I make the rest of me happy). I don’t think it’s necessary, or even wise, to be anything other than open about my nerdy tendencies. I like my garden. I misspent my youth getting musically educated. I am more frank than I am humble, flaw or not. Someday I’ll write fiction and publish it in some media or other. As soon as I make it happen, anyway. I’ve had some very tough knocks in my life, by any standard, and like everyone else, I am always bouncing back.
Now, let’s talk about TV and why I love it.
To be clear, I don’t love all TV. As with everything else in my life, I am PICKY about how I spend my time. I like what I like and if you like something else, then you should go write about how much you love that. Maybe you’ll convince me to give it a try. My opinions don’t mean you’re wrong, but they definitely mean I am right. Wink.
I probably fell in love with TV because of Captain Picard. My young self likely saw in him what I hoped to someday be. No, I have lots of hair and I want it to stay that way. But like with all my TV heroes since, he inspired me to go in a certain direction, to be something more than I was at that moment.
Stories have always been a hugely important part of my life, both writing my own and ingesting what other people write. From the time I could read well, I read a lot, to the point of getting in trouble over homework because I would rather be curled up with my book than doing whatever homework was due. My time with my Legos was spent telling their stories. I had a whole kingdom full of characters which I brought to life on a small table in my bedroom.
I contend with the skeptics that say TV can’t compare with books right here and now. Scripted dramatic television IS the written word. It just so happens to be brought to life by actors, as opposed to Lego figures and my fingers. These stories are someone’s artwork, someone’s dreams, someone’s fantasies which they share with us, just like books. One of my teachers once said that a piece of writing is the finger print of the author.
I will also dispute that TV categorically rots the mind. I tell you that my mind has gotten a truly staggering amount of thinking done because of what I watch on TV. I am not a passive viewer, as is clear by the fact that I am spending my precious spare time to write about TV, and my imagination feeds my whole life. Anyone who says daydreaming is a waste of time is wrong. WAY wrong. My creativity, of which daydreaming is the root, makes me a good scientist and it makes me a good person, or at least an interesting one. I hope.
I won’t go so far as to say that there isn’t mind rotting TV out there, because there is. And, from my vantage point, those shores are seemingly vast. I will make plain that I consider soap operas to be denizens of said shore, and anything else I don’t like. That said, it seems to me that if someone says watching TV will cause me mind rot, I would do well to question their TV watching choices rather than my own. I know what is worth my time and what is not.
While we are on the subject of worth my time, why write about TV? I have a couple of motivations. The first is that the kinds of articles I want to read about my shows don’t float across my e-desk. I haven’t found where in the mainstream media folks are having more than surfacey-soundbite discussions about whether they liked an episode or not. What I really miss from college were the hours spent talking about stories, how they work, their impact, how they evoked the emotions they made us feel. Surely someone outside of film school wants to have this chat.
Reason number two: I am worried that the shows I love could die off because of the shift in how viewers access TV. I am referring to the fact that viewers are cutting the cord in droves and moving toward getting their TV solely from internet sources like Hulu and Netflix. I myself buy my TV from iTunes and Amazon in addition to using services like Hulu and Netflix. If ratings continue to depend on the population of viewers making appointments to watch TV, ratings will only drop in the demographics who are making the switch. My generation and younger. that means that shows aimed at my demographic will suffer.
Once the networks cave, are forced to acknowledge the Internet, and count every viewer who paid for their content, this threat will theoretically disappear. But for now, even though I pay for my TV shows, I don’t count toward their ratings. That means that the lives of my shows depend on other people doing what I am not willing to do: pay the cable company and make an appointment for specific times to watch TV.
I don’t know how to fix this problem, but if we make enough noise, maybe progress can be made.
My intention with this blog is to write reviews for my favorite TV shows- write the change you want to see. I am particularly interested in the mechanics of writing and how they affect whether an audience responds favorably to the material or not. Structure is hugely important to the success of a story and, ideally, is largely invisible unless the audience wants to see it. Like me, and maybe you. I’m also interested in blocking and directorial choices, performances and even lighting. Before diving into a specific show and episode, I figure defining my terms is in order.
I’m totally making this up, by the way, no textbook is guiding my words.
Since my primary area of interest is in scripted dramas, I will ignore categories such as situational comedies, competition shows, sports casting and “reality” TV. Scripted dramatic television these days seems to fall roughly into three camps (that I’ve thought of so far, I reserve the right to add more).
Episodic- a viewer can sit down to most episodes and have them make sense because they stand alone with the exception of the occasional two, but at most three, episode arcs. Some of these include a theme for the entire season which typically gets expressed in around five scattered episodes, but these tend to stick to the basic formula of the stand alone. Many of the procedural crime dramas use this as did Star Trek.
Continuous Flow- examples of these include Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica: 2003 and Lost. I call these out by name because, as you can see, these shows are not one genre. The continuous flow style starts at point A and each episode picks up more or less where the previous one left off. You cannot jump in the middle of these without frustration. These have a book/chapter feel to me.
Hybrids- Once Upon A Time is one of these, as is Stargate: Universe I believe. While definitely not built on a series of stand-alones, after Season 1, Once has operated in two hemisphere like parts per season which work together, though in sequence as opposed to simultaneously, clearly. The first half of the season has a double whammy job of setting up not only its own mini-conclusion, but also must scaffold the second half, which spends a good deal of (more satisfying) time paying off earlier work. In addition to the two hemisphere system, Once uses some Continuous Flow and Episodic story telling tools. It tends to let an episode focus on a character, or pair of characters -Episodic- but the B story line of the episode will usually carry the major arc of the hemisphere, if not the season arc as well like a Continuous Flow show.
Which TV shows I end up reviewing will reveal my preferences clearly, but I cannot say that all do not have their merits. Growing up on Star Trek, in many of its iterations, the Episodic style established my TV paradigm. But, I remember how excited I would get when there would be the occasional two-parter. I wondered my TV couldn’t be more like the movies or better yet like books. I wanted to spend more time with the characters I loved.
We can see a clear evolution beginning to change the TV landscape as we look at late Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and definitely with The X-Files. Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel took another definite step in that direction while remaining primarily episodic. It wasn’t until Battlestar Galactica: 2003 that I got my first taste of how wonderful Continuous Flow could really be. BSG felt like reading a book, what I had always wanted. There were few standalone episodes and the show took a deep dive into its characters: a dream come true.
So is there a winner? How could I say? I know people who complain bitterly about shows which are not strictly episodic because they can’t come as go as they please and still understand what is happening. Then again there’s me, who is in it for the long haul and thinks TV should get as close to being a visual book as possible. If TV were never episodic in nature, I’d be a happy camper. I want my TV to be comparable with the finest literature I can lay my hands on. And I think it can be. With Battlestar Galactica: 2003 and Breaking Bad blazing that trail, I have hope that others will follow.
With the groundwork now laid out, let’s go look in depth at some TV shows.
Further Study: see this article in the New York Times for an elegant discussion on film/TV and taste.