Sunday, August 1, 2010

Should we watch TV?

Over the past year and a half I've watched more TV that any other time in my life. The trigger was an HD set that I received for Christmas but the accelerants were the wide availability of shows on DVD and some current ones that I actually felt like watching. So I've plowed through entire seasons of many shows while keeping up with several others but at some point it's hard not to wonder whether it was worth the trouble. I watched How I Met Your Mother, for instance, purely because it was on with a group of other shows I liked even though I realized that whatever the show had worthwhile was gone this season (yes even the cliched musical bit) and I watched purely out of habit.

The June 18th Entertainment Weekly said "it's just a fact" that TV is now better than the movies though typically they only mean mainstream Hollywood movies. And it's also worth noting that they're only talking about fiction TV. Their examples include Glee, Modern Family and Lost for the ones I've seen and Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Good Wife and Dexter for the ones I haven't. Now to be fair their examples aren't considered good but "worthy of spirited and enthusiastic discussion" as a kind of weasel way to avoid the glaring fact that Glee is objectively bad (characters so stereotyped they border on offensive, implausible stories that go nowhere, unimaginative staging, a sad conviction that pastiche is art) and burned up all its inspiration in the first half of the season.

But one catch of course in saying that Mad Men is better than current movies is this compares one season (13 episodes) to about six movies. If there are a couple of tedious episodes, a meandering storyline that goes through the entire season and a fair amount of filler that all gets ignored if the overall impact is mostly positive. So to compare that to a far-more-compact movie or two isn't quite a level field.

I'm not really arguing one way or the other whether "TV is better than the movies" but this is really just a long way into my main question whether TV is worth the time involved. I recently started True Blood and even after the third episode the main stories hadn't really been brought into focus - this is after three hours which even an overly long movie would have been already finished. Watching the first season of Fringe I almost gave up until learning what the big reveal would be and that the creators had increased the speed of the story to maintain interest. After seeing the whole season this only made me wonder what it would have been like without that increase because this moved so slowly that it did indeed feel like a waste of time. And at the moment I'm stalled halfway through season three of Lost because it's become so tedious that it's tricky to picture getting through even the rest of this season. (But considering that the general opinion is that I'm at the weakest part of the entire series I'm likely to give it a try.)

Somebody I trust has recommended Damages and in fact it sounds like my kinda show. But what I'm now looking at is whether it's worth going through what would be the equivalent of about 6 movies or 2-3 books for one season. Put that way the answer is a clear "no" but I suspect that at some point I'll actually check out the first ep or two then continue just to finish it.

One reason, actually probably the main reason, that TV creates this idea of "better" is the familiarity factor - you know the characters, the basic story, the parameters so it's comforting to visit this regularly and too often this comfort can be misunderstood as substance. At its best this extended storytelling mode can allow for depth, variety and effects that simply aren't possible in a movie - examples would be Babylon 5, The Sopranos (at least the first four seasons), The Simpsons. Even second and third tier shows can benefit from this though far too often they're just padding out a thin story.

The familiarity factor is why I stuck with How I Met Your Mother until it got to the point that I felt insulted when watching it, or that I'm continuing to watch True Blood even though so far it appears to be completely lightweight. I won't be the first person to suggest that American TV suffers from its insistence on 13 or 24 episode seasons and continuing the show for multiple seasons. Fawlty Towers stands out as nearly perfect because there are only 12 episodes (which was two seasons). Watching True Blood I often wonder why the creators thought to do it as a TV show instead of a movie since so far there's not enough story for an entire season. Something similar happens in comics where a story that would have taken one issue in the 60s now goes on for five or six (and that's not counting all the completely useless spinoffs and miniseries to tie-in to events). Or even books since there was no reason for Harry Potter to take up seven volumes - three would have been more than enough.

Now that the novelty of watching entire seasons on an HD TV has worn off this is the kind of calculation that's becoming more common for me though certainly everybody does it to some degree. To get back to that list I'm sure at some point to check out Mad Men, I like the Dexter books but heard the TV show is watered down and again don't see where there's enough material for a series, Breaking Bad is a toss up and The Good Wife sounds like a real snooze.