Monday, December 21, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: The Decade in TV, Part One


Part TwoPart Three

Between the four of them, Chris Holden, Stephanie Hemmingson, Jordan Pedersen and Andrew Cunningham have watched quite a bit of television this decade. Over the next three days, they’ll be discussing and debating the merits and shortcomings of TV in the aughts.

Something for everybody

tony soprano CH: Take yourself back to the year 2000. The second season of The Sopranos, (arguably the show at its best), began airing in January. It was television that took itself seriously, even aspired to high art, and a large number of programs would soon capitalize on the same formula - big budget, high concept television for grown-ups.

Conversely, in the summer of 2000, Survivor debuted on CBS. As the catchphrase "The tribe has spoken" briefly enraptured America, television executives looked at this low budget, trashy piece of "reality" television and saw a show that was both well-received and cheap to produce. A new genre was born, and TV has never been the same again.

And that's the story of the decade. For the last ten years, television has been involved in a schizophrenic game of high-stakes poker with itself. You want The Wire? I'll raise you Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire. The West Wing? I'll see that and throw Rock of Love into the pot. For every show that challenges the viewer to think and pay attention, there's a show that takes advantage of America's sick fascination with the vulgar and the absurd, shows involving alcoholic midgets or the spectacle of a disintegrating marriage. We're living in the Golden Age of Television. And, simultaneously, its Dark Age as well.

And I don't know about the rest of you, but I find both kinds of television equally enjoyable.

TV’s ascendency

10to1-3332730 AC: I'd rather talk about the good parts of TV than the bad - I'll leave Steph to point her considerable vitriol in the direction of reality television.

I've already written at length about the rebirth of the sitcom in the aughts, driven by shows like The Office (US) and Arrested Development - such serialized plotlines and recurring gags challenged audiences' ability to pay attention, refusing to dumb themselves down for ratings' sake or revert to the adventure-a-week format to which shows like The Simpsons still adhere. Television has really come a long way in these ten years - just look at Alec Baldwin's success with 30 Rock, which appears to have rebooted his sagging movie career, or the high-profile guest stars that some of these shows pull in week after week. Slowly but surely, the phrase "TV Actor" is shedding its negative stigma.

Just as impressive are some dramas. Chris already mentioned The Sopranos (which ended with a whimper, but can be forgiven based on the strength of its early seasons), but just as impressive are the seriousness and high production values of your Mad Men, the gritty reality of your Deadwoods. Even the action-movie-a-week explosion-fest that 24 has become is a far cry from the goofy action shows of the 1980s.

Perhaps most impressive about this decade is the fact that even the pickiest TV viewer (yours truly) can find half a dozen or more shows to watch every week, completely guilt-free.

Pay attention, and stop wasting your time

wire JP:  Which is why I'm so utterly perplexed at how flippin' fascinated people are with reality television.

I could play the finger-waving moralist (not a role I'm completely unfamiliar with) and rant about how the subjects of reality TV shows are vapid fame-whores who evince the feeling among some that America is on an inevitable slide into a Nietzschean nightmare devoid of intellectual discourse and rife with fart jokes.  But I wouldn't do that.  Because I'd sound like a pretentious asshole.

What I will say is that the advent of reality TV is indicative of laziness more than anything.  Laziness (and lack of ambition) on the part of networks, who would rather let people watch a bunch of idiots throw petty insults at one another than hire some writers to, like, write something.  That lack of writing is what pushes me away from reality TV.  Astoundingly good editing allows producers to pull something resembling a story out of hundreds of hours of people watching TV and taking shits.  But I find very little in these shows particularly compelling; these people have been pre-screened for maximum interestingness or maximum annoyingness or maximum being black-ness, but they still bore the shit out of me.  I can be reasonably entertained watching an episode of The Real World, but I've never been compelled to come back and see what happens next week.  And that's what, at bottom, makes good television.

Oh yeah, and it's lazy for you viewers, too.  Everybody's got DVR, so USE IT.  Or Netflix shit.  Or download it.  Just don't sit on the couch and complain that nothing's on.

Quite literally, you could watch good television twenty-four hours a day for the rest of your life, and still not see every episode of Doctor Who (I don't actually know if Doctor Who's any good, but that shit's been on for forty-six years).

30 Rock, Lost, Breaking Bad, Community, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Big Love, Tim and Eric, Venture Brothers.  All great shows (well, ostensibly great; I can't watch everything), all still on the air.  SET A RECORDING, DAMMIT.

And that's not counting all the great stuff that's already ended:  The Shield, Freaks and Geeks, Deadwood, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, Futurama, Firefly, Six Feet Under, Undeclared.  All in the aughts.  That list, incidentally, comprises every one of my favorite TV shows of all time.  Excepting, of course:

THE FUCKING WIRE.  Why it is that anyone hasn't watched this show is beyond me.  I don't really know where to start with this one.  So instead of rattling off a laundry list of (sincere) compliments, I'll just say this:  The Wire had a profound effect on the way I view the world.  Everything that takes place in The Wire is intensely logical:  characters don't act a certain way simply because it serves the plot (or because they're "bad guys" or "good guys").  They are presented with a set of choices, and they act they way we would expect them to act, considering their background (which, incidentally, is fleshed out subtly and robustly for just about every one of The Wire's approximately bajillon characters).  So when Detective McNulty (a great Dominic West with a not-so-great Baltimore accent) says, "They don't get to win; we get to win," it's remarkable because it's so untrue.  Nobody on The Wire is promised anything, and nobody's an outright winner or loser.  They just are.

So continue sitting on your ass.  Just change the channel.

No reality, no way

shaq SH: Yes, it's true guys. Just as I hate so many things, I hate reality television. Everything that has ever deserved my ire pales in comparison to the disgust with which I storm out of the room when I catch someone watching America's Next Top Model. You want a way to lose respect from me? Let me catch you watching Deadliest Catch, Little People Big World, or as I will now generically refer to all reality TV shows: Real Idiots Exposed: Be Glad It's Not You. Wait ... that's a real show? Damn.

I feel wrong every time I try to step back and analyze anything "of the decade", because the 2000s have made up nearly half of my life. I never watch old TV shows because I barely have enough time for the new ones, which I feel makes me an unfair judge. I can't compare the impact of Survivor to the impact of The Brady Bunch because I didn't experience both first hand. But as we all know, being uninformed rarely keeps the people from their opinions.

I agree with everyone's points thus far in that there have been a number of gems among the garbage.  I will argue to my deathbed that Deadwood was the greatest television series of all time and if I am contested, I will defend it in 1,000 words or less during an individual write-up. The HBO network undoubtedly dominated the market for high-impact television for the educated demographic, bolstered in part by its willingness to let shows end rather than painfully dragging them out into embarrassing obscurity (damn you, Scrubs). HBO was the first network, cable or otherwise, to realize that the audience didn't need to be coddled, the dialogue and subject matter needn't be dumbed-down. I was grateful for that this decade.

I will also concede to the argument that some competition-based shows stand in a slightly higher category due to the talent and performance of their candidates (as long as the part where people are humiliated for entertainment's sake to a quiet minimum). But reality TV has gotten out of control, mad with power and money. I would estimate there have been at least two hundred different reality concepts aired this decade within genres such as dating, self-improvement, social experiment, renovation, hidden cameras, skilled competitions ("skill" being loosely defined here), and elimination-based game shows. Doesn't that spread make you feel ashamed? What's worse, friends and family that I love and dearly respect watch these terrible shows all the time, and -- blockbuster here --  I have watched them, and I had to vigorously wash afterward to get rid of the unclean. It's obviously not a relationship deal-breaker, but it hurts my soul sometimes. Well, except for that time I watched Shaq Vs.

Tune in tomorrow for the continuation of the story, same bat time, same bat channel!