As TV drama becomes more traditionally novelistic, announcing exactly how long a story is going to take and assuring us that the end of a season will be the End, we can breathe a sigh of relief, because we know that at least one thing we’ve invested our emotions in will set an endpoint and stick to it and let us move on to something else.
This speaks to me. I don’t remember the last show I watched past the third season. I’m sure I’m missing out on many wonderful experiences, but… to each their own. Cf. streaming TV as a new genre.
To me, the threshold for repeat viewings is this: The first viewing must beckon you back for a second. It’s not enough to feel like you’d missed something the first time […] but you have to like the film and feel compelled to return, like an itch that needs scratching.
“Nothing has topped the way men shake her hand and look her in the eye, what it’s like to be able to call a man a chickenshit to his face and get away with it, to mean it, to feel free and dominant and in control of your life.” —Megan Mayhew Bergman, Almost Famous Women
So far this year, I’ve watched “The Knick,” “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “Outlander,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Downton Abbey.” Oh, I complain about the various anachronisms – the clothes are too clean, the lives of the servants are far too easy and don’t even get me started on, um, almost everything in “The Knick.” But these are forgivable errors, occasionally almost lovable.
The thing I find harder to forgive is the shows’ inability to commit to that drama – to try to actually engage with what was actually dramatic and interesting in those eras. They can’t resist moralizing from the point of view of a 21st-century modern – and so they sap the conflicts they’re portraying of their meaning.
Through this reliance on Netflix, I’ve seen a new television pantheon begin to take form: there’s what’s streaming on Netflix, and then there’s everything else.
When I ask a student what they’re watching, the answers are varied: Friday Night Lights, Scandal, It’s Always Sunny, The League, Breaking Bad, Luther, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Weeds, Freaks & Geeks, The L Word, Twin Peaks, Archer, Louie, Portlandia. What all these shows have in common, however, is that they’re all available, in full, on Netflix.
Things that they haven’t watched? The Wire. Deadwood. Veronica Mars, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Even Sex in the City.
It’s not that they don’t want to watch these shows — it’s that with so much out there, including so much so-called “quality” programs, such as Twin Peaks and Freaks & Geeks, to catch up on, why watch something that’s not on Netflix? Why work that hard when there’s something this easy — and arguably just as good or important — right in front of you?
The show out-noired noir by recognizing that the most extreme context for modern alienation was not the mean streets of the detective story but a white-collar bureaucracy that extended infinitely above the main protagonists — literally into space — and that threatened to control them without their knowing how or why.
I made Comedians in Cars out of that show [The Marriage Ref]. If you look at it, you’ll see what I was going for on that show. I think it’s interesting to hear people talk about something that’s powerful and interesting to them out of the box. But I couldn’t make it happen. One of the big things I realized was that the audience is stopping these people from talking. The other thing I realized is that I was much more interested in comedians than I was in a lot of other people whom I thought I was interested in. So, in some ways, I took that pot, smashed it on the ground, took four or five pieces and re-glued them into another thing.
High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, “Sex and the City” was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.
Why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.
I love that [Elaine] eats on screen—a lot—and it’s so normal that she doesn’t even have to say a bunch of jokey punchlines about it. Liz Lemon is perhaps a good counterexample here—she’s also often portrayed eating, but whether it’s a donut or a pizza or a piece of cheese, the food is always the punchline to a joke. Because watching a cute woman eat a lot is just HILARIOUS to us, right? But Elaine, she just walks into Jerry’s kitchen and starts eating cereal—or ice cream, or muffins—while talking about the weather or about how she hates her roommate or about toupees. Not one word about the food. It’s almost as though she’s just eating because she’s hungry or even—gasp!—because she simply wants to. This is maybe the healthiest portrayal of a woman’s appetite I’ve ever seen on screen.
Man, I had the biggest crush on Elaine.
Okay, I’m not fooling anyone with the past tense there.
In that sense, TV ads are truly native; the way you consume a TV ad is the same as the way you consume a TV show. Similarly, long copy print ads are native, for the same reason. And the ultimate native ads are the glossy fashion ads in Vogue: in most cases, they’re better than the editorial, and as a result, readers spend as much time with the ads — if not more — as they do with the edit.
Fashion magazines are such a good racket. Love that junk.
It’s a neat trick on Fincher’s part. It’s difficult to render knowledge work cinematically (quick, what’s the last great movie about writing you remember seeing?), as opposed to physical work which more readily lends itself to Rocky-style montages, but Fincher has figured out a way to short circuit the process. Like all good filmmakers, he knows that if he gives us the signs, we will fill in the rest.
Actually, the more obvious it’s not a normal illness, the less likely they’ll mention it. Even if your cast includes some of the most helpful doctors or mind readers, the character won’t bring it up for quite a few episodes in a row, constantly making the excuse they’re just a bit under the weather.
Without the foil, we would have to face our own poverties, our own barbarism, our own shelteredness, our own actual lack of sophistication.
The problem with a stereotype is usually not that it is completely inaccurate, but that it identifies a feature as relevant or important for irrelevant reasons and, in so doing, makes it difficult for the person or entity to break out of the stereotype and beyond it in observers’ eyes, which makes an authentic relationship with the stereotyped person or entity impossible.
The point isn’t that the show is unrealistic or hard to believe, but the narrative function of the ways in which it is: Which disbeliefs are viewers asked to suspend, and which ideologies are they encouraged to retain?
The hillbilly figure allows middle-class white people to offload the venality and sin of the nation onto some other constituency, people who live somewhere—anywhere—else. The hillbilly’s backwardness highlights the progress more upstanding Americans in the cities or the suburbs have made. These fools haven’t crawled out of the muck, the story goes, because they don’t want to.