21 September 2006

Some Thoughts about TV

I'm currently recovering from knee surgery, so while I am actually watching a fair amount of movies, and reading some fun novels, the painkillers keep me from having any particularly interesting thoughts about them. I was attempting to read Knut Hamsun's Hunger, but I bailed on the project. It's actually kind of the perfect book to read when you're laid up and somewhat woozy, because the protagonist is often teetering on the brink of madness due to hallucinations induced by hunger, but I got sort of fed up with it. It's very similar in tone to Dostoevsky, Sartre - generally the narrative voice of the overly conscious tortured soul. I'm sure it's a grand book, but it's just not doing it for me right now. It's extremely rare that I give up on a book halfway through, but I just didn't feel like struggling through it.

Anyhow, I read an article in The New Republic today about how sales of tv shows on dvd are now outpacing the sales of films (the article is called Tubular, by Christopher Orr, annd is available here) . Orr suggests that this is because tv shows these days are actually much better than recent movies, and then goes on to wonder (via Tom Wolfe) whether tv shows are sweeping realist works of our time. He concludes by suggesting that this new crop of tv shows is stretching the possibilities of the medium for storytelling. An interesting thought, and one that I'm not really qualified to comment on, given that I haven't seen any of the shows he's discussing. I did watch the first few seasons of The Sopranos on dvd, and I was quite impressed by it. I thought that it went downhill after the first season, but early on, it was a really complex and fascinating show. I think it started out more as a psychological investigation of a man who happened to be a mobster, but ended up unable to resist the mob scene as a plot source, and sort of went south in the process.

But I did watch some tv today - two episodes of The King of Queens. I have a real soft spot for that show. It's certainly not one of these complex, sweeping serials like those discussed in Orr's article, but it's actually kind of interesting to think about. I think it's the Roseanne of our times. I saw a retrospective on Roseanne awhile back, and what was emphasized was how Roseanne was intended as a portrayal of working class American life. I found this really intriguing, and it really deepened my appreciation of it. The King of Queens is similar in some way - not only in that the characters are working class, but also in the way one relates to the characters, I think. They're not portrayed as ideals, in fact, they're insistently imperfect, but it's precisely this imperfection that is being celebrated.

Whereas Orr compares tv shows to sweeping realist novels, I think that shows like Roseanne and The King of Queens are more akin to essays. They generally spend half an hour playing out a given scenario, or thinking through some particular aspect of life by staging it. These scenarios aren't particularly profound, but they are interesting as a sort of auto-ethnographic work on the average American. For instance, in one of the episodes that I watched, the story was that Doug and Carrie had been regularly hanging out with another couple who "broke up with them" when they met a new couple who also had kids. So Doug and Carrie were searching for a new couple to be friends with. It was told precisely as a break-up, searching for new love kind of scene, with many of the standard cliches from relationship scenarios being employed with a new twist. But in the process, you end up thinking about the fact that Doug and Carrie are childless and how this affects their social life, and about how one goes about meeting new people and making friends with them. Not mind-bending stuff, but interesting.

What makes these reflections work, however, is their serial nature. The show is amusing enough that even if you've never seen it before, you'll probably enjoy it, but you're only really going to appreciate it fully once you've seen a few episodes and "gotten to know" Carrie and Doug. And this is what I find curious about tv shows, how they ultimately develop sympathy for their protagonists, and how this sympathy propels the action. You keep watching because you've started to CARE about them. And that's what makes the story interesting. This is the difference between these shows and the more "complex" ones - shows like The King of Queens aren't meant to be watched in any particular order, they don't really build on each other. The plot isn't sufficient on its own to account for watching multiple episodes. You don't get sucked in by the action; the characters grow on you. The Sopranos, to pick one, are actually trying to get by on the strength of plot, and the episodes don't really stand alone. There are some shows that sort of straddle a middle ground - Friends, for instance, or Sex and the City. In my opinion, both of those shows are garbage, partly because the characters are crap, and partly because the episodes are semi-autonomous - they don't really stand alone, but they're not interesting or complex enough to merit extended viewing. They're basically soap operas that pretend to be more realistic, which is again a failure, because half the fun of soap operas is the unabashed melodramatic fantasy element.

Anyhow, scattered thoughts on tv.

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