Tuesday, December 22, 2009

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


Part OnePart 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.

It’s all dumb

AC: Hey you guys, let's not draw the smart/dumb line at reality television, even if the Lord Jesus hisself descended from Heaven to executive produce The Wire. As long as Two and a Half Men is still on the air, it's fair to say that stupid scripted TV is going strong. And what about all those dramatic duds, the high-concept network shows like Kings and Flash Forward that fizzle three or four episodes in? And the shows like Lost and Heroes and Battlestar Galactica that do nothing but ask questions without ever bothering to answer any of them?

Also, Jordan, Futurama is coming back to Comedy Central with new episodes in June.

In defense of reality TV

127_amazing_race_468 CH: Is it up to me to defend reality TV then?

I mean, there's a lot of trash out there. But there are certain reality TV shows that I quite enjoy watching - the game shows, in particular. Both Survivor and The Amazing Race have managed to make their mark as well-edited, exciting, high-concept competitions. Similarly enjoyable are the "slice of life" shows in which cameras follow around photogenic people performing interesting jobs. Steph mentioned Deadliest Catch (my family's favorite), but I can also bring up Ice Road Truckers, Whale Wars, and Parking Wars as three other examples. These are reality shows that are all perfectly digestible fare that I don't feel guilty about in the slightest - shows that avoid the manufactured melodrama and public embarrassment of a lot of inferior reality schlock. And, first and foremost, these programs tell good stories, which is all I ask for out of my television. Such reality shows might not be able to match the "great" TV mentioned earlier, but they're a hell of a lot more interesting than the flat characters and stock plotlines on your run-of-the-mill forensic crime show (how many CSIs are there, again?).

Jordan blamed our laziness for the rise of reality TV and the number of great serial dramas languishing in obscurity. I love The Wire as much as the next critic. But sometimes, I'm not looking for what amounts to a 13-hour movie when I watch TV. Rather than devoting hours of my life to television with grandiose cinematic ambitions, sometimes all I need is a 60-minute distraction while I do some homework. It's not only allowable to pepper your gourmet fare with some fast food - occasionally, it's a nice change of pace.

Okay, maybe it’s not all dumb

punkin_chunkin_streetsigns JP:  My definition of reality TV is probably self-servingly arbitrary:  when you mentioned Deadliest Catch, I thought, "Well, that doesn't count because that show isn't retarded."

I don't have a problem with the Discovery or Science Channel (boo-ya Punkin Chunkin) reality shows because they don't subscribe to the "put a bunch of assholes in a house and you'll have world-class entertainment" theory.  The aim of these shows is to explore the ostensibly interesting careers of their subjects, not to watch a bunch of douchebags tear each other apart because somebody drank all the Diet Dr. Pepper.  I reserve my purest vitriol for shows like The Surreal Life, Tool Academy, and I'm Rod Blagojevich's Wife; Help Me Pay my Husband's Legal Fees, and I'm truly confounded when smart people waste their time with them.

It's hard to argue against the "TV as a distraction" motivation mostly because I don't use TV for that purpose.  And if it's proper to "rank" motivations for watching TV, I'd probably put "background noise" somewhere on the lower tier.  Also, is any TV show so uninvolving that you can actually get homework done while you watch it?  And does that argument really work in its favor?  You could make the same argument for smooth jazz or muzak.

Reality or realism?

AC: I'm with Chris about variety being a good thing. A "smart" person is not necessarily "wast[ing] their time" if they watch a show that doesn't meet some arbitrarily-defined standard of intellectualism. And, as with so many things, this all comes down to taste - if I think Freaks and Geeks is an overrated, boring teen drama and I find It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia to be so devoid of relatable characters that it's a show to be endured rather than enjoyed (it's like watching Seinfeld except all the characters are George Costanza), that's my call. Likewise, if I think Kid Nation is an adorable show, I can sit down with some chips and some friends and laugh without feeling bad.

Changing topics, though, I think that "reality" in television is something that really defines this decade. Besides actual reality shows, which purport to show the audience a (highly filtered) slice of the lives of some "real people," the scripted dramas and comedies of the new millennium also strive for realism in many ways. Consider the rise of the "mockumentary" in sitcoms, ushered in by the British and US versions of The Office and shows like Arrested Development - through their use of cameramen and talking-head segments, the shows are at least pretending to be dealing with real people and real situations. The single-camera setup of such shows also makes for more realism in setting, allowing for fleshed-out, three-dimensional spaces, much more so than the three-fourths of a coffee shop that most of Friends happened in.

With dramas like Deadwood and The Wire, the show's creators painstakingly recreate locations and places in time to serve as backdrops for their shows, which often try to deal with the challenges of actually living in those places in times. Consider the dead-accurate early 1960s of Mad Men and compare it to the kitschy, inconsistent representation of the 1950s that Happy Days served up week after week - many scripted TV shows this decade are more real than shows have ever been, and that's part of what makes these shows powerful, artful enterprises.

pic01 CH: One good facet of this new "realism" Andrew mentioned is the decline of the laugh track in comedies. In previous decades, us poor audiences were forced to rely on canned laughter to tell us what was and was not funny. Even Seinfeld (my vote for best sitcom of all time) still relied on short gags and one-liners to get a laugh. Shows such as The Office, Arrested Development, Scrubs and the ever-improving Parks and Recreation have rid themselves of the laugh track altogether. By relying on funny situations, and not just single jokes, the shows are able to development more of an identity for themselves. The writers must create actually amusing characters and plotlines, and not just rely on the interchangeable quips of the sitcoms of yore.

I agree that this realism also comes through in the complexity of the sets of shows this decade. Gilligan's Island was filmed on a Hollywood backlot with a bag of sand and a few fake trees; for Lost, they actually built a town in the middle of the Hawaiian jungle. I have many issues with Lost, but it's one of the few prime time network shows that is worth watching in high definition - it looks absolutely beautiful.

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