Wednesday, December 23, 2009

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

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Part OnePart Two

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.

The filmification of television

sitcom-5 JP:  Realism's sort of a tough concept to pin down, though.  To me, shows that don't feature a laugh track aren't actually any more realistic.  30 Rock, after all, doesn't feature a laugh track, and nobody could convincingly argue that it's realistic.  The absence of laugh tracks in newer comedies is, I think, just another stylistic evolution.  It's also indicative of TV's continued movement away from "filmed theater" and towards something more akin to film.

The death of the multiple-camera setup seems to indicate as much.  Even though most television comedies weren't actually broadcast live, the vast majority of them were filmed "in front of a live studio audience" prior to the year 2000.  A multiple-camera setup was the only viable option for shooting in front of a studio audience; it allowed the director to shoot an entire conversation in one take (as long as the actors didn't screw up).

This was beneficial for editing purposes, but the format also attempted to replicate the experience of watching a live show.  A live show, after all, features a stage with only three walls (so the audience can actually see what's going on) and pauses for laughter (actors in sitcoms don't talk over the laugh track).

Divorced from the "live studio audience" concept, a television show would probably just seem awkward with a laugh track.  A set with four walls doesn't exactly leave room for an audience (who would ostensibly be doing the laughing).  But are shows without a laugh track any more realistic?  It frees the writers from having to write scripts with "punchline jokes" every other line, but it's hard to argue that this results in more realistic situations.  Comedies are predicated on the idea that people say funny shit every thirty seconds or so, which isn't particularly true-to-life.

Shows like Modern Family and The Office also use the "mockumentary" style to appear more realistic, but the laughs on these shows are still the product of writers sitting in a room and coming up with jokes.  And the jokes on these shows wouldn't be half as funny if the actors hadn't been chosen deliberately.  The situations, consequently, are no less contrived than they are on conventional laugh-track sitcoms.

“The dichotomy of truth and wacky”

SouthParkWallpaper1024SH: Sometimes I have a hard time trusting analyses like these that discuss a trend as if it were both revolutionary and independent of outside factors. I agree that recreating reality has been a theme of television this decade -- though I don't believe it's unique to the 2000s -- but I think its advancement has been deeply influenced by rapid improvements in technology. It easy to want to imitate real life when you can do so with stunning accuracy and high pixel counts on the cheap.

While these last ten years have been littered with gritty depictions of relatable characters and believable situations, it has also been countered by the extreme over-the-top and often bizarre satire of shows like 30 Rock and South Park (and if I MUST mention it, Family Guy, if only for it's raging pop-culture popularity). I would argue that two shows mentioned previously, Arrested Development and The Office take their "realism" and raise you a ridiculous.

This dichotomy of truth and wacky can be found in almost any form media if you look closely enough, and I believe that has existed in almost every arbitrary time period that we might define. However, I will not deny that this dualism has grown stronger as the visual arts become more scientifically sophisticated, and with it, the people watching. The happy medium of "sort-of-real-and-kind-of-funny" isn't cutting it. I think that's why a show like Scrubs was so popular. The characters were not particularly believable, each respresenting a select set of traits with some humanity thrown in rather than emulating a complex human being, but the humor came from hilarious extremes tinged with just enough humble truisms. The missing laugh-track and the somber moments of thought encouraged the audience to think for themselves on a set of lessons that were easy to relate to, all the while getting to laugh at some absurdity.

Maybe its the absurdity in trashy reality TV that makes it popular as well. As far as that subject goes, while I recognize everyone's valid points thus far, my irrational and undefined hatred will live on. 

Self-aware comedy

family-guy CH: Now Steph has got me thinking about the comedy of the past ten years. The more absurd kinds of TV she mentions were often tongue in cheek comedies, and I believe that's one of the defining trademarks of the humor of the decade - humor that doesn't take itself too seriously. The bizarre, over-the-top scenarios of Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, were pretty much delivered with the equivalent of a sly, knowing wink, as if acknowledging how utterly implausible they are. The Office goes even further, where a straight-man character like Jim is basically a stand-in for the audience, the lone bastion of sanity who is the only character to realize how nuts everyone around him is. It's comedy that is self-aware, creating massive spectacles and hyper-exaggerated scenarios that are not so much funny on their own, but that are funny because the show itself is acknowledging how absurd the entire premise is. 

And, because Steph mentioned Family Guy, I need to bring up its unique form of meta-meta-humor (inherited from The Simpsons' meta-humor of the nineties). There are many critics of show, who (correctly) point out its lack of plot and character development, and its over-reliance on throwaway gags. But Family Guy delivers something that I think has become the norm this decade - humor that counts on the audience to be hip enough to understand the icon that is being satirized, or the expectations that are being overthrown. Nearly every joke counts on the viewer to be privy to a pop culture reference, or some standard narrative trope that is being mocked. You're never quite sure what to anticipate, and while one can criticize the humor for being too invested in shock value and the element of surprise, at least it's not the set-up/punchline formula we've come to expect.

And now I'm going to change the subject as I finish up my portion of the discussion. As I've been thinking and writing about TV for the past few days, I've come to realize that the biggest shifts in the genre may have not occurred within the programs themselves. Rather, as Jordan alluded to earlier, the very methods of our own television viewing have changed radically. I remember when the first season of 24 debuted in 2001, and I religiously set my VCR and triple-checked the timer to make sure everything would record without incident. Failing to record even the last five minutes of an episode meant missing a cliffhanger that was impossible to watch ever again (at least until reruns that summer).

Nowadays, the very concept of making a physical recording seems quaint. If I miss a show, I just check Hulu the next day. And the advent of DVDs have made it much easier to procure entire seasons of television shows. In the age of videocassette, the concept of owning an entire multi-season show on tape was ridiculous; now, we can get every season of MacGyver at Walmart for twenty bucks. When I decided to watch Mad Men, for example, I didn't just have to jump into the second season cold; I could rent the first season through Netflix and catch myself up. 

So TV shows no longer have to count on their audiences to be sitting at their television sets during primetime hours every weekday night. The concept is incredibly liberating (shows like Lost, for example, thrive on repeat viewings, johnny-come-lately viewers, and the ability to catch up on a missed episode). At the same time, as ratings decline, one begins to wonder how the television moguls are going to be taking these new viewing methods into account. Internet TV has yet to translate into large amounts of ad dollars. I'm guessing the major development of the next ten years will involve TV networks finding some way to make this profitable; I'll be back in 2019 to see how true this prediction is.

Wrapping it up

AC: It's true that television studios are stumbling a bit as they find their way in the digital era, but the decade is full of shows that have been renewed or straight-up uncanceled throughout the decade - Joss Whedon's Dollhouse is one of the former, the aforementioned Family Guy and Futurama being in the latter group. Some of this is because of more conventional reasons (reruns, syndication) but a lot of it is because Hulu and DVRs make Nielsen ratings increasingly irrelevant and because DVDs and services like Netflix make attracting a new audience to your serial drama/dramedy/comedy a whole hell of a lot easier.

To bring this discussion to a conclusion: I think one major change in the TV of the decade has been stylistic, with reality TV cutting costs and lowering the bar for low-brow, and quality, artful scripted TV that blurs the line between television and cinema at the high end. We have seen, easily, higher highs and lower lows this decade than we've ever seen before.

The other change is in the way we, the viewer, watch TV. Whereas it was once nigh impossible to catch up on a TV series unless you tuned in every week, DVDs, Hulu, BitTorrent and TV on-demand have obliterated that hurdle - the sophisticated viewer can basically watch what he or she wants, whenever he or she wants to. This affords writers and producers more wiggle room when it comes to self-referencing jokes and long-running narratives.

Like Chris said at the beginning of this discussion, these circumstances have ushered in, nigh-simultaneously, a Golden Age and a Dark Age of television. The important thing is there's something for everyone here, whether you enjoy watching washed-up second bananas making asses of themselves or high-minded dramas with cussing cowboys.