Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Mean Doctors and Meth Manufacturers: The Limits and Virtues of Network Television

In case you haven't noticed, last month Fox's medical procedural drama "House" entered it's eighth and most likely final season.  And of course you haven't, you have basic cable - and in the past ten  years, it's become far more interesting than some story-of-the-week that will easily be forgotten come 7 days later. I sincerely doubt you noticed beyond catching a teaser in between your beloved sitcom of choice (if said sitcom is not currently "Community," it's unlikely you and I are terribly close) or passing through the room while your parents watched a Criminal Mind or an NCIS or a CSI: JAG (which I think is just what I call NCIS).  

Occasionally a network show will have a two-parter, some will even drag out story arcs over half a season or so.  But ultimately network television was borne of and worships but one God:  Episode.  No matter how many follow or reference past events, past events will remain just that.  Once said arc is completed, there may be passing reference for superfans (of which I can't imagine there would be many for shows that are intentionally disposable), but otherwise, no matter who nearly dies, who has sleeps with who, who has guilt over shooting who, who gets addicted to what - for the most part - network TV has remained successful for nearly 50 years because people have lives outside of television (read: the employed, attractive or World of Warcraft-obsessed).  By it's very nature, it has to be familiar, but not intrusive.

I realize I'm not saying anything new, necessarily.

Throughout my childhood, I suffered severe migraines and missed a lot of school. This meant I grew up with hours of reruns of '70s and '80s television each day.  A&E, weekdays, by 2 p.m. I'd be in my parents' room leaning on a chest and a pillow on the floor, parked in front of the most diligent, clever, and kind detectives, judges, doctors - it ran the typical TV drama gamut.  Judge Harry Stone would rather show a perp a magic trick than convict.  Peter Falk's Detective Columbo used to constantly ask forgiveness for bothering people he totally knew just murdered some guy (I recall more than once, the killer was Leslie Nielsen - how did he get out of jail the first time?); hell, they even ran the ill-fated "MASH" spin-off "Trapper John M.D." - who had aged greatly but was as benevolent as ever.  That's how doctors were in those days, that's how heroes on TV were.  They were the ombudsmen between the ensuing episodic conflict and resolution and - rest assured audience that just endured Vietnam, The Manson Family Murders, Watergate, Mark David Chapman killing John Lennon, assassination attempts on both Carter and Reagan, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Iran-Contra, gas shortages - at least they wouldn't fail you.

Until recently.  A lot has been written of the rise of television's anti-hero as the predominantly popular figure since James Gandolfini first hunkered down with his therapist in the pilot episode of "The Sopranos."  Ever since, premium cable channels such as HBO and AMC (and Showtime, but only if you're a 14 year-old living with Ambien-induced parents who has no other access to softcore pornography), have been rightly praised as a new kind of television drama.  For talented, sometimes legendary actors appearing in a television show ten years earlier would have been considered a step down.  Today, those very same actors you'd think would remain forever on the silver screen, are flocking to premium television dramas.  It's not just the actors, either.  Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte will soon star in director Michael Mann's executive-produced HBO series "Luck" (and, being a prominent EP for a high-profile show means you must at least direct the pilot).  Alexander Payne produces "Hung."  Martin Scorcesse, of course, works just as closely with "Boardwalk Empire."

Once again, I doubt I'm reporting new information.  A lot credit has been given to those premium cable channels for changing the game.  So it may be a little controversial to argue that, next to HBO's "The Sopranos," "House" deserves a little bit of credit as well.

That fact that "House," a network procedural that wrestles with complex ideas without the criteria to explore them beyond heavy-handed dialogue, is still on the air is emblematic of the reason it's not credited more for paving the way for more bold television storytelling.

When it began in 2003, it wasn't a procedural that most of America who would invest their time weekly would have a lot of fun with.  Its themes were dark.  The first three seasons addressed issues such as why people lie; why we like one another; do we test our friends intentionally?  What's the limit to a cynical philosophy?  What good does commitment to such a philosophy do?  And my favourite, parents have a natural impetus to protect their offspring, except for all the ones who don't.

I was quite excited to enjoy a procedural drama of a caustic, vicodin-addicted doctor who doesn't care about his patients, as past television doctors.  Quite the opposite.  I think he was as necessary, if not more so, as Tony Soprano in the through-line TV critics like to trace in the evolution of the anti-hero.  If network television, or more importantly, an audience hadn't embraced a show in which the hero was pretty much fully unlikable, then who would have taken a risk on "Breaking Bad," whose character winds up inexcusably evil in ways his milquetoast personality would have never suggested?

Of course, in network TV, "House" had to the have a caveat to be sold - "He's a jerk...but he saves lives! And he's flawed!  See?  He's actually the good guy."  But Dr. House earned another get-out-of-jail free card that other shows with an anti-hero don't:  he's funny.  He's a wisecracking prick, and that's worked since screwball comedies, so long as they get their comeuppance.  The issue with House now, is that he's been shot by the husband of an angry patient, nearly imprisoned by a vengeful cop he unnecessarily stuck with a rectal thermometer, is constantly tormented by his addiction and his leg (even trying methadone), and been imprisoned.  Thus is the curse of network television.  If the ratings work, they always want more.  Premium cable has all but eradicated that issue.  It's the economy of story that creates this possibility.  Think about how much happens during an episode of a show such as "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men" (a friend mentioned to me last night that, during the last season of the latter, pretty much nothing happened).  An entire episode of "Breaking Bad" focused on Walter White and his partner trying to get a fly out of the meth lab lest it contaminate it, but the minutiae and gravity of previous episodes gave "Fly" an epic emotional resonance.

The networks allow creators to tell complete stories, have arcs that will call back to several seasons previous.  In short, it forces the audience to become far more engaged and attentive and doesn't ask forgiveness for the sometimes horrible acts the characters sometimes carry out.  There aren't always the easy outs of humour and decency, no comfort zones (oh, and they get to say "shit" after 10 p.m. now).  This allows a much darker look at the worlds each show inhabits, but also a much broader and interesting one.

There are plenty of network shows that are dark - I've mentioned a few of them - but they serve another purpose. I recall an episode of "Criminal Minds" (a show I'm convinced has some kind of Videodrome-esque ability to make you dumber should you succumb to it) in which the killer was rather brutally cutting off someone's hand - yet many fans of the show would never sit through a gruesomely violent horror film, or an episode of "The Walking Dead" because - well, quite like the characters in "The Walking Dead," they'd be in unfamiliar territory.  A show in which, after 10 p.m. jaws are allowed to be ripped off and eyes blown out by revolvers.  What particularly angers me about "Criminal Minds" is the audience's willingness to take it seriously.  Criminal profiling has often been debunked - and though there are psychological ideas in the minds of killers that many sub-types share, it's much more undramatic and far more complex.  This is evidence of what I consider a danger of cracking a drink, sitting down after a hard day and "turning your brain off" as too many people like to say.

But there's hope for primetime as well, as many recent critically-acclaimed dramas are beggining to emulate their premium cable counterparts.  "The Good Wife," a CBS hit, began as a standard procedural with a Blagojevichian-hook and quickly developed into a West Wing-esque show about the sacrifices one makes in balancing personal and private life.  "Lost" spent six seasons (three to four of them nearly universally appreciated) laid out a complex, epic mystery that it doled out in ways that often tested it's fans' patience (and infuriated others).  Risks are still being taken, even though these shows still must adhere to the standard primetime formula.

After there was a television in nearly every home in America - so ashamed at what was coming out of his precious cathode receptor - inventor Philo T. Farnsworth drank his ass to death.  He lived just long enough to witness the moon landing on his invention, which he considered the one redeeming piece of footage for which it was ever used.  It almost, he claimed, made it worthwhile.  A lot has happened since we faked the moon landing (I'm kidding, we totally landed on the moon, I just assumed "faked the moon landing" might draw a lot of hits from crazy people who just learned google), both in fictional shows as well as innovations such as 24 hour news networks.  One must wonder just what Farnsworth, if anything, would have thought of a more innovative, exploratory kind of storytelling.  Though one also must wonder what he watched, if anything, that made him think he brought about the end of intellectual thinking.  If he were still alive, would he have preferred the cynicism of Dr. House or Walter White of "Breaking Bad"?  Would he have preferred a show with a barrage of cliche or obnoxious catch-phrases and laugh tracks like "Laugh-In" or something like "The Dick Van Dyke Show" - a show that preternaturally understood the absurdity of Farnsworth's gift to humanity, and embraced its invention just as much as it did its silly, silly use?

What will the next show offer us?

We'll never know, of course.  But we certainly all know what we like.


  • Pamela says:
    December 25, 2011 at 12:28 AM

    In depth understanding of TV, the ideas of the people who put out the shows and how things have changed to accommodate a very different audience. Very perceptive.

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