catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 1 :: 2006.01.13 — 2006.01.26


Standing on the docks

Network television is the bastard child of popular culture criticism?especially in Christian circles. While evangelical critics are, at long last, receiving film and contemporary music as important works of art, we are still trailing when it comes to engaging and assessing the small screen.

On the arts-related message boards I frequent, for instance, discussion of television shows is either banished to a dark corner or reluctantly included among forums for the ?real? arts. And while conversation about weekly line-ups is always lively, most participants preface their comments with sheepish disclaimers: ?I don?t watch TV very much, but?? or ?I rarely turn on my television, but?? It seems that the medium of television has become shorthand for all that is base and degraded and mindless in pop culture.

I certainly sympathize with the reluctance toward television among serious-minded critics. Television is incredibly commercial and frequently crass, not to mention a brain-rotting timesuck for probably 95% of Americans who watch it. The industry is beholden to a variety of interests, most of which care nothing for story nor for characters nor, especially, for art?but only for profits. In a recent, candid interview with NPR, Lawrence O?Donnell, executive producer of The West Wing, commented cynically on the state of television today: ?We are in the business of providing the material that prevents the commercials from all slamming together,? he said. "That?s what we?re doing here. We have to deliver them 12 minutes of stuff to separate the Chevy commercials.?

Depressing, isn?t it? (Even more so when you actually listen to the interview and hear O?Donnell?s weary, sardonic inflection.) But television?s significant shortcomings do not mean there is a problem with the medium itself. We must remember that in the not-so-distant past, both movies and pop music have fulfilled the role of cultural whipping boy. And of course, to this day, the film and music industries are similarly bound by numbers and profits; one need look no further than Entertainment Weekly People?s Choice Awards to see that they put out more than their fair share of commercial schlock.

As a media empire, television is not a friendly place for visionaries with a risk-taking story to tell, nor for audiences looking for such stories. But the advent of technologies like TiVo, DV-R, and DVDs has made it possible for people to view television without commercial interruption, circumventing broadcast schedule quirks (episodes are often pre-empted due to sports or ratings issues) and disconcerting sweeps seasons. Although this does not change television?s commercial dimensions, it does beat the system for auteurs and viewers alike. DVD in particular is fast becoming the method of choice for watching television, which allows the auteurs to create and viewers to watch a more faithful, coherent rendering of the story.

Lately, too, mainstream actors, directors, and critics have been speaking up for the medium itself, asserting that television is taking far more creative, sophisticated strides than film is. For instance, New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley noted scathingly, “Only the uninformed or disingenuous complain about the quality of American television…. There are comedies and dramas that reach far higher in a single episode than most movies or Broadway shows.” The reason for this, they say, is that television as we know it uniquely lends itself to artistic expression, particularly in the form of highly nuanced character development, continuous plots that allow for more structural intricacy, and ongoing commentary and interaction with the zeitgeist. These are characteristics not shared by film, which is limited by running time. At first this doesn?t sound like a serious factor, but consider the length of most movies; television, by contrast, has week upon week, even year upon year, to grow characters and, as the LA Daily News article puts it, ?follow them on far deeper journeys than any two-hour film could offer.?

Ironically, the most articulate rendering I have found of why television works so well as a story-telling medium is nestled in a film review: critic Stephanie Zacharek?s commentary on Joss Whedon?s Serenity, which was based on his popular television series, Firefly. In the review, Zacharek describes why Serenity, while an excellent and enjoyable film, fell short of its episodic predecessor:

The Firefly episodes burn slowly at first, but their emotional heat intensifies as you learn to live, and breathe, with the show’s characters. That’s an ancient narrative strategy, and one that Whedon had clearly mastered.? But apparently, this newfangled mode of storytelling intimidated Fox executives. They pulled the plug on Firefly after airing only 10 of the 14 episodes Whedon and his cast had completed?and broadcasting them out of sequence….

That’s probably the worst thing you could do to a Whedon show, considering that he builds his narratives with the dramatic precision of 19th century novels. They don’t always grab you with the first episode?they’re not made that way. Whedon prefers to reel us in gently, first setting the scene and then, week by week, drawing us into a web of complex character relationships that become a kind of home for us. Fans of Whedon’s shows are the modern-day equivalents of those readers who so long ago got hooked on Dickens, people who would wait on American docks for the next installments of his newspaper serials to arrive on these Godforsaken shores. (Dickens biographer Edgar Johnson recounts how “waiting crowds at a New York pier shouted to an incoming vessel, ‘Is Little Nell dead?’”) …

I’m so used to “reading” Whedon in the long form?so used to riding the rhythms of his television series, rhythms he sustains beautifully week after week, season after season?that Serenity, as carefully worked out as it is, feels a bit too compact, truncated. That’s less a failing on Whedon’s part than a recognition of the way TV, done right, can re-create for us the luxury of sinking into a good, long novel. ? Faced with a big screen, Whedon knows exactly what to do with it. But the small one needs him, too. Of all the pleasures TV watching has to offer, he has perhaps tapped the greatest one: that of waiting on the docks, anxious to find out what happens next.

That last sentence is key for me. The small screen has built-in potential for epic serial storytelling, which is (as Zacharek notes) a valuable and ancient art, as valid as the compact narrative structure appropriated by films. This is what TV can do, I think, as a storytelling medium. This is where it becomes art.

For all the reasons Zacharek lists, I have fallen under Joss Whedon?s spell with Firefly. Here are a few other shows that make watching television worthwhile, in the form of a top-ten list:

  1. Firefly: The crew. The ship. The ?verse. The Mandarin cuss words. The jokes, ah, the jokes. Whedon?s ?space western? is, in the grand tradition of early Star Wars, rickety and dirty, held together with duct tape, right down to the junky but loveable aircraft at the show?s center, Serenity. It?s engaging and suspenseful, but most of all, Firefly is a character study, and Whedon is the master of making the crew part of your own family. He is also the master of tragedy, so he usually also ends up breaking your heart. Luckily, resurrection exists in the Whedon ?verse?

  2. Arrested Development: I still haven?t quite figured out why I?m so attached to the Bluths, the dysfunctional family at the center of this half-hour comedy. Is it their dishonesty in business dealings? Their open disdain for one another? Their vapid narcissism? Their Dadaist absurdism? Maybe it?s just the fact that ?The Final Countdown? plays whenever the irritating, ne?er-do-well oldest brother, GOB?pronounced ?Job,? he?ll have you know?performs an inevitably ill-fated magic trick. (Oops, I mean, ?illusion.?) Well, either way, AD is one of the cleverest, most revealing commentaries on family out there.

  3. The Office: Speaking of irritating: this BBC programme wrote the book on characters so reprehensible that audiences usually watch the action while peeking through their fingers. With plotlines that thrive on awkward interactions, excruciating silences, and general bumbling and fumbling, The Office is hilarious?but it also has a heart, moving seamlessly from side-splitting comedy to heart-wrenching drama. When even the ostensible villain gets redemption in the end, it?s clear that the series? creators care for their characters as much as we do.

  4. Freaks and Geeks: This masterful, short-lived dramady produced my all-time favorite television character, Bill Haverchuck. At first he seems like a standard-issue geek stereotype, but as the series progresses, Bill becomes multi-dimensional, embodying complex traits of crippling insecurity, grounded self-confidence, and brutal honesty. Almost all of my favorite truth-telling moments in Freaks and Geeks are Bill-centric: a ?geeks shall inherit the earth? moment when he and a friend get to pick teams during gym class; ?seven minutes in heaven? with a popular girl, during which he gives her a serious dressing-down about popularity; deep hurt over his mother’s new boyfriend. Everything about this show rings true.

  5. The Daily Show: Never has killing America?s sacred cows been so simultaneously incisive and hilarious. If it?s true that most young people get their news from Jon Stewart and his gaggle of fake reporters, well, this country?s in better shape than I thought. Sojourners? Ryan Beiler puts it this way: ?[It?s] about exposing the artifice of politics while implicitly affirming its importance. Serious issues?war, elections, etc.?are too important to take politicians or even the media at their word. ?Washington is like Hollywood,? comments Stewart, ?but it matters.? Someone needs to say, ?the emperor has no clothes,? or if necessary, to pull the emperor?s pants down.?

  6. Sex and the City: I started watching this series when I first moved to Grand Rapids?a far cry from ?the city? of Sex and? fame, certainly, but full of relationships, emotions, and humiliations that I recognized. For all the valid criticisms of this Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle?the hedonism, the excessive sex, the troubling shoe-lust?its redeeming qualities were overwhelming. For me these included not only top-notch writing and direction, but an understanding of the way female friendships live and breathe, from their deepest valleys of fighting and hurt to the moments when your friends climb right into the valley with you to hold your hand.

  7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy has inspired countless websites, conferences, senior theses (including mine), and academic journals. There are many, many critics in the Buffy-sphere with more expertise on this epic series than I have, so I defer to them on this one. For starters, check out Slayage: The International Journal of Buffy Studies as well as this excellent thread of conversation at the Arts&Faith community, led by Buffy devotee and scholar Beth Rambo.

  8. Lost: It took a while for this show to win me over, but I?ve since been hooked?like everyone else I know. Watching this new season in ?real time? on network television, I?m disappointed by the commercial ploys, like the promise of ?extended episodes? which actually just tack on five minutes of footage we?ve already seen. But the show?s flashback structure makes for intriguing, deep-rooted character development; the cast?s past lives are as fascinating as their current, crazy-making reality on the island. (Frankly, after last night?s eerie tale about African child soldiers and drug-running priests, it is taking all my willpower to finish this article instead of gorging myself with online speculation.)

  9. Desperate Housewives: File under ?slightly guilty pleasure.? Sure, this show contorts wildly for ratings, the mysterious and murderous circumstances of suburban life are exaggerated, and I don?t quite buy creator Marc Cherry?s frantic cries of ?It?s a satire!? But the show is humorously, engagingly written to reveal the foibles of suburbia by following neighbors who know both too much and too little about one another?s private lives. Archetypes figure front and center, but by the end of the first season, even the uptight, NRA-cardholding, silverware-polishing clean freak is revealed to have a heart and soul.

  10. The Muppet Show: Nothing beats this 1970s classic for sheer silliness. Its first season was recently released on DVD, and I was transported back to my childhood as I watched episodes starring Kermit, Miss Piggy, Scooter, and? Vincent Price. There is nothing like The Muppet Show on television today; its vaguely sexist humor and Lawrence Welk-esque production numbers wouldn?t go over with modern audiences. But there?s something endearing about the mothballed, pilled-sweater look of the puppets, the basement-studio production values, and the starry-eyed wonder with which Jim Henson imagined the world.

Kate Bowman Johnston is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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