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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Dusting Off the Rabbit Ears

It is so often the case that you never really know how lucky you are while you are in the midst of something until it is no longer there. Or, as Joni Mitchell far more eloquently put it, don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got til it's gone. Well, I'd hate to apply that lovely, universal maxim to something as trivial as television, but dammit, we are lucky, and I'd like to take some time to wax poetic as to why.

Over the last five years, my interest in TV has been lukewarm to say the least. Reality television shows were seemingly self-replicating to diminishing and increasingly stupid returns, a trend that nowadays seem to only be getting worse (just how many pawn shops and storage lockers need their own damned show anyways?). I have been guilty of indulging in these awful shows in the past, but have since purged my appetite for them and rediscovered some truly great television in the process.

It is unfortunate that movies get more respect than most television shows these days. With a movie, even a great one, you get two, two and a half hours tops to tell an engaging story. Add a sequel, there's five hours. Trilogy? Seven or eight hours. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Trilogy is pretty much where this line of thinking maxes out at about thirteen or fourteen hours. Sure that is a long time to get to know characters, have a conflict, show some interesting settings, trade some dialogue, and wrap it up in a meaningful way, but what if there was more time? Like say sixty, seventy, or even a hundred hours where you could expand your characters and really breathe some life into them. That is precisely what shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad are doing. These long form shows are make even really good movies feel about as deep as a Where's Waldo book. Their characters are given room to really flesh out and exist in a world that actually feels lived in and real.

Mad Men is a great example of just how lived-in a television show can feel. The series begins in 1960, where misogyny and martini lunches were the norm. Women were considered second-class citizens and only filled secretarial positions. African-Americans were elevator operators and live-in nannies. As the show progresses, however, real life events are being documented (the JFK assassination, for example) and societal change is a tidal wave that is sweeping up every single character. Now in its fifth season and comfortably in 1966, women have more power (as evidenced in Peggy being a major copywriter), the civil rights movement is right at the doorstep (literally) and the younger generation is starting to push back at the "establishment" of advertising, thus exposing its sometimes archaic worldview. The best thing is that these events are practically happening in real time. The characters are aging along with the show, as well as the children. In fact, one of the many joys of Mad Men is watching Don Draper;'s daughter Sally start off as a blonde moppet in season one to a teenager with complex needs on the verge of becoming a flower child in season five, all the while being played by the same actress, the very capable Kiernan Shipka. You can't get that kind of verisimilitude from a film.

Speaking of verisimilitude, I don't think there's been a more in depth, realistic, or honest look at the police procedural than that of The Wire. You encounter characters and situations as you would in real life, without backstory or explanation. The pilot episode simply plunks you in the middle of a court case, leaving you to parse out what is going on as events unfold. Needless to say, The Wire is not for those who wish to be spoon-fed important details. For the viewer who puts in the time, however, the rewards are rich. Imagine any episode of Law & Order stretched out to a season's worth of detective work: collecting clues, planning strategies, making busts, fixing mistakes, and a whole lot of the ground-level bureaucracy that goes on in police work. This may sound boring, but on screen it unfolds like a classic novel, full of fascinating details and asides that are woven into a striking arc of five seasons worth of amazing television.

I came late to the Breaking Bad party, admittedly. I'd heard about it from coworkers urging me to watch, but shrugged it off for some awful, ridiculous reason. A year later and I have atoned for my sins, if only I could say the same for Walter White, the, ahem, hero of Breaking Bad. Through four seasons, a mild-mannered, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher has become a blood-spilling Michelangelo of meth. Show creator Vince Gilligan and his team of writers have added such depth, nuance, and tragedy into a show that is essentially about a good man turning into a monster. No small feat.

All of the aforementioned shows have been intense, moody dramas, but quality television does not stop at abortions, methamphetamines, and wire-taps. Comedy greatness is easy to find, which is mind-blowing since it is much more difficult to achieve than dramatic greatness. Louie, the show written, directed, edited and starring Louis C.K., is probably the most daring, original and hilarious show of the last couple of decades.  Eschewing format altogether, C.K. offers skits and scenes revolving around his usual stand-up tropes: sexual inadequacy, failed marriages, how awful children can be. These scenes are Gestaltan in their overall effect, mirroring what most of us so often fail to realize: life can be really fucked-up, but sometimes the best way to deal with a beheaded hobo is to laugh at him.

The next time someone tells you there's nothing good on TV, or that television shows peaked after The Honeymooners, Cheers, or (Lord help me) Two and a Half Men, know that you are most likely speaking to an ignorant moron (likely) or someone whose taste is absolutely dreadful (likelier, sadly) and shuns quality like most people shun root canals. To counter their stupidity, calmly remind them that the golden age of television is now, that most movie blockbusters are insufferably terrible, and that you can show them the way to redemption. After all, it's only a remote click away.

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