Saturday, August 26, 2006

Tension without redemption: Why US TV is so boring!

With the combination of the fall DVD TV box releases and the upcoming Emmy’s, there is no better time to grouch about television programming. Of course for me, TV means “TV programs on DVD” as I don’t actually get TV programming directly. My gripe with TV programming, spurred on by Emmy winners and HBO, can be summed in three words: Tension without redemption. What we have now is largely riveting watching, based on tension revolving around individual weakness which, as a larger story, is almost instantly forgettable. After watching the second series of Deadwood in a few days, I said this to Linda, “It’s very compelling, but terrible storytelling.” Deadwood, along with a great many Emmy winners can be summed up with a few phrases: “People were bad”, “Everyone gave in to their darkness”, “People were weak, and did bad things”. There are the shows that start out this way: Rome, Carnivale, Huff, 24, Invasion, Lost, OZ, Desperate Housewives, Arrested Development, Rescue Me, The Job. And then there are shows which start out focusing elsewhere, but are radically adjusted in the second (or later) season/seasons to reflect the “fallen world”: Nip/Tuck, O.C., Buffy, One Tree Hill, Gilmore Girls, Profiler, The Wire, Angel, 4400, Las Vegas.

For me personally, and I think for humanity in general; there is a need for closure and redemption. If you look at the foundations of myth and the oldest and most retold stories, they tend not to go in an ever degenerating spiral into lust, greed, cruelty, weakness and despair (History perhaps, but not literature), but rather in a full circle, though often with tragic elements, such as the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote; even Moby Dick. And while there are characters who “pay the price” like Loki, Prometheus or King Arthur, there is often the implied promise of a future redemption and return. US TV shows which do offer views on redemption in a realistic setting (please do not refer me to Touched by an Angel or anything involving Michael Landon) are cancelled: Dead Like Me, Book of Daniel, Joan of Arcadia, Wonderfalls, Freaks & Geeks, Jeremiah. Though so too are shows implying that the evil that humans do can come anywhere but within, or that is anything but normal and natural: Point Pleasant, American Gothic, Tru Calling, Dark Angel, Odyssey 5, & Miracles (Miracles is an exceptionally good show too!).

This is why I tend to watch UK TV. Having moved to the UK, I was shocked by the horrific level of most British TV. It takes brainless and trashy to new levels (yes, I somehow thought that what PBS showed was 90% of British TV). However, for reasons as yet unknown, UK television is also renowned for realistic yet compelling detective dramas. And while the main characters are usually flawed, they are essentially good people trying to do a good job while working around the racism, sexism, hypocrisy and just plain human stupidity (unlike main characters in US shows they are often not corrupt, killing people and hiding the bodies, sleeping with their sister, raping their suspects, etc). There is an entire range from the “nice” detectives like Inspector Lynley and Midsomer Murders to your midrange eccentrics like New Tricks or Inspector Morse to your harder hitting/expose like Waking the Dead, Frost, 55 Degrees North, The Vice to the hard and gritty of it like Messiah, Touching Evil, Prime Suspect, Murphy’s Law, Cracker, Wire in the Blood, Second Sight and Between the Lines to your unconventional yet fantastic series like Judge John Deed (a high court judge who seeks out the truth, against the status quo), Life on Mars (a modern police detective thrown back in time to the bad old 70’s with truncheons, no forensics and no computers), and Silent Witness (a pathologist who goes around interviewing and interfering).

Maybe UK detective TV is more compelling for me because it more accurately reflects my experience. UK TV has odd and even extreme looking characters (for example, the hero of Life on Mars to the left, is considered "good looking" by UK TV standards), US TV have perfect looking characters. UK TV has characters who are poor and often struggling while US TV have characters who never talk about money, or seem to have problems finding tailored suits. UK TV has characters who constantly are hitting their head against prejudice, pointless rules, bureaucracy and time wasters while US TV characters are constantly hitting their head against who they should sleep with next: their ex-wife, their best friends wife or the total psycho who looks stunning. UK detective TV has lots of gay and particularly lesbian characters as well as others who face discrimination because of their sex (Prime Suspect), age (New Tricks) or race (55 Degrees North) while US detective TV has 1 gay and lesbian character (both in The Wire) and many many shows where everyone is completely and wonderfully adjusted and tolerant (well except to gays).

This is not to say I have given up on US TV, but that the shows I like are often the exception instead of the rule. Veronica Mars stands out not only for good writing but for being the almost the only show that year to actually FINISH its story arc. House M.D., though not particularly LGBT sensitive, is a fun show to watch, though getting less so as we get more of the “things fall apart, fallen world” themes. Strong Medicine, after it’s first few episodes was simply astounding (any TV program that dedicates a show to dealing realistically with the prejudice surrounding fibromyalgia, for example, is astounding), Medium was far better than the premise sounded (thanks to the 7 year old family member), Law and Order Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent are excellent (I recommend Criminal Intent Season 2 available from Amazon.co.uk for an insightful and intellegent show). The first Season of Nip/Tuck was very compelling, as they realistically dealt with many of the people and reasons people go to plastic surgeons in an interesting way. The second season threw that entirely away to focus on human degradation: Boring! I can get that out my window (particularly late night weekends), I don’t need to pay to watch it.

But these are my opinions, and I’d like to hear yours. Or if you know a series, like Dead like Me or Joan of Arcadia that I have missed, please fill me in. Or if you have some experience of how Deadwood, Carnivale, Lost or Desperate Housewives actually stayed with you and made a positive impact on how you viewed or lived your life – please tell me. I mean, all those thousands of emmy voters can’t be wrong....right?

9 comments:

Sober @ Sundown said...

"the total psycho who looks stunning" that's my ex.....

One of the Veronica Mars shows was filmed at my fencing club. That's what my coach says. I have never seen any of the shows, but in an episode where she is in her office, was shot there.

You know more about American TV than I do. I don't really watch series, but I was really impressed with, "So you think you can dance". I only missed one show. The positive impact is that it made me smile for an entire hour.

elizabeth said...

Errrrr. My favorite shows are Survivor, Grey's Anatomy and ...... Desperate Housewives. I hate that I love the last one - but I do.

GayProf said...

I am usually way out of the loop when it comes to popular television shows. We won’t even discuss why I watch so much HGTV or seventies shows on DVD. Battlestar Galactica stands out for me, though.

Americans thrive on extremes. This really turned me off, for instance, of OZ. The show quickly degraded to “How can we kill somebody in a really new, but totally nasty, way this week?” I know it’s fiction, but that level of death at any prison who have shut it down. I can only suspend disbelief so far...

Elizabeth McClung said...

sober@sundown: I'm afraid I haven't seen any reality TV, unless you count ice skating championships (is that a sport or a reality show?) - but I understand the unwind positive aspect - it was just the addicted to the pretty pictures until I am going to bed at 4 am which made me unplug the cable.

Elizabeth: Have you seen the new "survivor" story - how they were getting too many complaints they weren't being diverse so this year they made the 4 teams according to skin colour (no really, not making this up) - There is something so "tv land" about a solution that would be appalling in any other industry ("Marty, I think we don't have a diverse enough workforce, so every floor in this building will now be segregated and hired according to colour, except floors 6 & 7 which will be the gay and lesbian floor respectively") somehow seems like "a really good idea that will bring lots of viewers" when pitched to a TV exec.

Gayprof: who couldn't love battlestar galactica - the first show with an openly gay couple and thier child (come on apollo and starbuck, who did you think you were fooling?).

As for OZ, remember, it is an experimental and thus BETTER and less violent place than elsewhere? The writing is good, it is compelling but I feel dirty and degraded by watching it somehow. No one, in all the seasons, ever succeeds or does something that lasts or is of benifit to others or themselves. Ahhhhh!

elizabeth said...

Yeah, I actually just heard about that. I'm having a hard time really buying it. But then they already crossed that barrier on a lesser scale with the older/younger women and men thing. All about ratings I spose.

Yoga Korunta said...

When may we see you fence?

elizabeth said...

(you should let us see - maybe you could post a match on youtube?)

Tim said...

You are so on the mark with US TV. Star Trek was the only show that I watched regularly. Part of the appeal of ST was that they could explore controversial topics in a safe environment. Oh, that and a dear friend of mine was on Deep Space 9 for all seven seasons.

I haven't seen Deadwood, but I was going to check it out. I may rethink it after hearing your opinion though.

Right now I'm totally hooked on Six Feet Under. It's a show that's not afraid to be gay, to be graphic, to explore familial and social issues. I'm halfway through the series now, and I couldn't stop watching it if I wanted too.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Actually, if you want to learn how to swear in imitative Shakespearian with inverted cluases, I can think of no better show than Deadwood. I rate the first season higher than the second as characters have more moral compass, within a limited scope (as in, there are some sorta decent people - an illusion discarded for the second season).