“Why do you watch so much TV? And how? I’d think you’d wanna read books more than watch TV!” ~ H.J., Trenton
I love books. I wouldn’t be a grad student now if I didn’t. But I watch TV too, and love it, because TV, as ABC told peeps in network ad campaign a few years ago, is good. Maybe not always good for you—which I suspect you believe this, which is why you ask this question—but definitely good. See, there are a few things you should know about me:
- I love movies. Growing up, I was borderline obsessive about movies. And movie stars. And directors. And movie trivia, and history.
- I love narrative, and characters. Which you can probably tell from a lot of the posts I’ve written right here at the blog.
- I love BIG narrative, sprawling, long, grand storytelling.
- My favorite flicks are, maybe, The Godfather (I/II), All About Eve, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Tootsie, Claudine and Titanic. And at the risk of sounding like an old, cliche-ridden fuddy-duddy…they don’t make em like that anymore.
As for movies, somewhere around when I dropped out of college, back in 1990, movies started, in my opinion, to get pretty bad. Special effects were on the rise; characterization was on the wane. Even a lot of the so-called high-brow “indie” flicks that I was supposed to like, being, you know, “middle class” and “educated” (haha), didn’t engage me beyond the hipster cred they were supposed to endow upon me. Going to the movies started to feel like an expensive bore, a reason to go on dates or stay in the general pop culture conversation rather than the transcendent experience movie-going had been for me as a teenager.
That was around the time I started to see how smart many TV shows actually were in comparison. Shows like Law & Order, L.A. Law, thirtysomething (and even sitcoms like Roseanne and Seinfeld) just felt like richer viewing experiences that welcomed (and blossomed with) repeated viewings that exposed nuances beyond the surface appeal. A season of Knots Landing felt like a sexy page-turning thriller. The X-Files was spookier than any sci-fi crap coming down the movie pike, with better stories. And as good as those shows were, we weren’t even close to the next so-called Golden Age of TV that would start in the late 90s and continue right up to today, with its almost novelistic attention to texture and character and detail that absorbs you right in. You could tell something was going on in TV when many movie and theater writers, stars like Aaron Sorkin, started to gravitate to TV, and not just for the money, but because they could stretch out and tell an interesting, long-form story that allowed them time to develop characters and deal with mature themes—the sorta themes you weren’t going to find in the typical thrill-ride cineplex offering that had to appeal to everyone (but especially little boys) to feel like a success. Even the so-called prestige Hollywood pic seemed to be dumber than usual (this would be a good place to call out American Beauty again, but I’ve beaten up on that poor horse so much I’m starting to feel sorry for it.)
Once HBO decided to devote itself to narrative dramas and sitcoms, the gig for movies, as far as I was concerned, was up. Even if HBO positioned itself as TV for people who didn’t really watch TV—it wasn’t TV, remember, it was, ahem, HBO—it was, nonetheless the place to go for narrative genius, for sophisticated storytelling, for flawed, dynamic characters. A place where you didn’t feel stupid getting involved in the action. A place that gave birth to Showtime’s beauts like the criminally-underrated and underexposed Brotherhood, and TNT knowing drama as they do now with The Closer and other good shows.
So, there you go. I watch TV because, on the real? Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Weeds, Rescue Me, The Good Wife, Louie, Modern Family, Vampire Diaries, Dexter—as well as dearly-departed shows like The Wire, The Shield, The Gilmore Girls and The Sopranos—make movie writing and acting look like bad high school plays that only want to suck your brain as dry as your wallet. Even the bowlderdized rerun episodes of Sex and the City are smarter and funnier than any of the chick-flick movies made in the few years since the show became such a cultural touchstone (and that’s including the movies based on the actual show!) And frankly, other than perhaps the Avatar-scale visual grandness you can only get in the movie house, TV shows just look better than movies these days. (I think there’s a conspiracy in Hollywood to make actresses look as bad as possible—compare Kyra Sedwick on The Closer or Regina King on Southland vs the Sex and the City gals of late!—perhaps to get them all to retire so that the execs can only greenlight boy-films by boys for boys who aren’t all that interested in girls yet?)
And oh yeh, as for how I do it? DVR is a wonderful thing, baby. (And I must give a shout-out to Moms Bryant, for introducing me not only to literature but also to the greatness that was I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and TheHoneymooners , TV classics all.)