Friday, August 16, 2013

800 Words: The End of TV?

Breaking Bad: Season 4, Episode 11.

Just as so unforgettably happened to Christopher Moltisanti five years before, Walter White is faced with the end of his life and everything he loves. And like Christopher, he howls as his life-companion looks on with equal amounts of remorse, despair, dread, and bewilderment. But unlike Christopher, Walter White’s howl turns to insuppressible laughter, maniacal enough to be worthy of the Devil Himself. As Walt slithers around the crawl space underneath his house, he turns from man to demon. This change highlights the difference from The Sopranos, even if such a change cheapens the pathos of the scene, it cheapens at a very high level, and highlights exactly what makes Breaking Bad different from The Sopranos; individualizing the show at the same time that it cheapens. It may not be the most tragic possible effect, but it’s damn close. In this moment, we're not asked to see Walter as sympathetic, we're asked to see him as evil. This is the definitive moment when he crosses over from a good man who slouches toward evil to an evil man who occasionally rises to good. It is a laugh with so many different motives, so many ambiguous reasons, that it touches that level of sublime which gives lie to anyone who says that Breaking Bad is a mere thriller, or that TV is a mere idiot box. One could imagine a similarly maniacal laughter coming from the mouths of Don Giovanni, or Ivan Karamazov, or Edmund from King Lear. Hell, you could hear it from the mouth of Idi Amin.

I don’t think there’s a literary equivalent to The Sopranos. Maybe Tony and Carmela are equivalent to the Macbeths, but if they are, then Tony is the Scottish General if he couldn’t string two words together without sounding stupid. Perhaps it’s so hard to find a literary equivalent to The Sopranos because the show is completely without precedent. The Sopranos IS Dramatic Television and virtually all its possibilities incarnate: it virtually created the literature of the age, and it’s impossible, for me at least, not to judge every TV drama before and after it by the standard it set without the other shows found wanting. But Breaking Bad, like Mad Men, stands almost right beneath it, supporting everything which The Sopranos taught us about what’s possible in Great Art on television. I still think Mad Men is a better show than Breaking Bad, but that’s like saying that Tolstoy’s a better writer than Dostoevsky. I think there’s ample evidence to bear out such a claim, but it’s virtually impossible not to recognize the greatness in Dostoevsky, even if it’s surrounded by a profusion of inexplicable weaknesses. Mad Men bears an uncanny resemblance to War and Peace. The TV show presents, on an epic scale, the hollowness of an alleged Golden Age, and all the privileged people who live high off of it. Like War and Peace, Mad Men presents an epic panorama of a society, an era, a privileged class, and presents it all in the most intimate possible detail. But if Mad Men is War and Peace, then Breaking Bad is The Brothers Karamazov - possessing all the same fascination with crime and those who perpetrate it, all the same fascination with family dysfunction, and all the same fascination with unconscious and contradictory motives. Fyodor Karamazov returns to profane the sanctity of Father Zosima’s dwelling when he remembers how much he hated an acquaintance for who allowed Fyodor to play a trick on him, a motive not unlike the old cliche that the Germans never forgave the Jews for the Holocaust. In a similar manner, Walter White cannot cry at the potential annihilation of his family even as he desperately wants to save them, he can only laugh at it, as a psychopath would at the enjoyment of others' suffering.

I think a lot of people, Chuck Klosterman among them, would agree that in the last fifteen years, we have four shows in which define TV drama: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire. Between them, perhaps we have the four Shakespearean tragedies for our time. Mad Men is our Hamlet, in which a prince surveys the rot around him of a kingdom decayed and decadent, and is paralyzed to change anything about his world by his own sense of malaise and futility. The Sopranos is our Macbeth, in which a war leader is stunned by the ease with which he can commit evil acts from which he knows there is no redemption. The Wire is our King Lear, in which a once great kingdom is populated by the effects of ruin. Breaking Bad is our Othello, with Walter White playing both the title character and Iago, in which a good man rationalizes committing the most evil acts and finds that in evil he has the capacity to impact the world beyond his wildest dreams. You could go even further into these Shakespearean comparisons with comic characters, what is Homer Simpson but the modern Falstaff? Is there much ground covered in the journey from Beatrice and Benedict to Sam and Diane? Is Kramer our Nick Bottom? Larry David our Malvolio? Tobias Funke our Viola?

It seems dumb, and incredibly pretentious, to compare TV to Shakespeare - a bit like comparing apples to helicopters. But consider, what else is there besides TV that unites my generation. Every cultural subgroup (or scene) of people has their own music, their own movies, and their own books (if they have books). It’s only through television that every subgroup of intelligent people find something about which they can always talk. Here’s a list of almost sixty shows which you can shout in a crowded room and be guaranteed to start a long debate:

Arrested Development
South Park
Malcolm in the Middle
30 Rock
The Simpsons
Sex and the City
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Family Guy
Modern Family
Married with Children
Parks and Recreation
How I Met Your Mother
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The Office
The Office
New Girl
The Gilmore Girls
Big Bang Theory
The Daily Show
The Colbert Report
Late Night with Conan O’Brien
Late Show with David Letterman
Mr. Show
The Soup
The State
The League
Rescue Me
Twin Peaks
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
True Blood
Mad Men
Six Feet Under
The Walking Dead
My So-Called Life
House of Cards
Doctor Who
Battlestar Galactica
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Breaking Bad
The West Wing
Friday Night Lights
The X-Files
Star Trek: TNG/DS9
The West Wing
The Wire
Friday Night Lights
The Sopranos
The Shield
American Horror Story

And this list doesn’t even count non-fiction, documentary, news, or reality shows. You may not like many of these shows, but you’re guaranteed to get into arguments with someone who does. You may not have seen many of these shows, but you’re guaranteed to find someone around you who won’t stop pestering you about them until you watch. Try to name an equivalent number of movies or albums which can set conversations alight, and don’t even try with books. There is simply more to care about with television than there is with any other artform in America.

The reasons for this are all too simple: it’s easier to make great TV today than to make anything else. Each of the hundreds of channels on cable television needs to generate its own content, and when there’s such a surplus of production, there’s also a surfeit of quality control. When there are so many available options, there is no option for people who simply want to use television to maximize profits. Every station is competing for a better share of the world’s TV audience, and because they’re competing, they have to make shows that not only appeal to smart people, but appeal to smart people broadly. Most good bands, even the big ones, are lucky to ever get 100,000 people to buy an album. But television requires a larger fan base in order to stay financially viable for the company which produces it. Therefore, many many shows are being made with a single requirement, that they appeal to intelligence of all stripes. It’s not enough that TV appeal to people who like a specific genre, they have to appeal to lovers of many genres, or not be viable at all. Contemporary TV depends on a mid-size production of lots of quality shows, each of which has a decent bit of money (though not outsize) put on it so each might appeal to a different part of the demographic. Save the Super Bowl and The Oscars, there is no single television show in today’s world with enough viewers which can fund any number of other failures. Therefore, they must all be good.

But that is about to change. Netflix television is the most decisive development in the history of TV since cable TV itself. It was cable which moved TV into the immensely fertile ground of mid-size production - lots of good TV shows with a bit of money that draw in a few million people. But Netflix puts every piece of television in one place, so that your every television desire can be gratified instantly. On-Demand and DVR were steps in that direction, but of nowhere near the same impact. Netflix can not only let you watch anything you want when you want it, but it can also generate its own content. It would not surprise me if Cable TV had less than half as many channels in twenty-five years. Why watch a television station when Netflix lets you practically create your own? The end result is that more and more TV will be created to cater to the tastes of smaller and smaller groups. The result will be duller. You can’t make shows as great as The Simpsons or The Sopranos if you do not have your finger on the pulse of the whole country. If you’re completely divorced from the rest of the country, how can you make good shows about it?

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst is that when TV shows of such limited appeal stop making money, network television will become yet again a focus-tested moneymaking machine in which bottom-line profits are maximized. The end result will make Two-and-a-Half Men and Jersey Shore look like Citizen Kane (or Last Exit to Springfield … look it up...).

There can be no better harbinger of TV to come than the Arrested Development reunion. The show was always a little overrated - extremely clever, but by the time the show ended, the style of the jokes became rather predictable. When Arrested Development returned, the humor was still more predictable than before, like a caricature of a show that was already about caricatures. Even in its reunion form, Arrested Development is still decent show, but now the hype surrounding the show is even less justifiable. The new episodes were nothing more than a focus grouped version of the old episodes, in which Mitch Hurwitz basically made a season that gave fans exactly what they wanted rather than follow the personal vision which made his fans fall in love with the show. But listen to how the die-hard AD fans talk about their admiration for the new season. There was barely even a mention of whether or not it was funny. All they seemed to admire about it was the cleverness. Critics couched their praise in terms reserved for high art, and whether the work is high or low, if the work provokes admiration in you rather than love, it’s not that great to begin with. This is the kind of rot which sets in in all artistic climates which tells you that the best days are over. When people talk about what their brains admire rather than what sets their hearts aflutter, they’re not as excited as they claim. This is why some artforms die out while others are reborn. If you can’t get truly passionate about something, you’ll do what you can to avoid it. People may give lip-service to how much they like certain things (atonal classical music, postmodern art, fusion cuisine...) but in 99 cases out of 100, the priorities of their hearts thunder too loudly to convince others that they really love what they say they love.

It’s hard not to believe that the TV era is wrapping up. Just as TV got smarter when movies got dumber, something else will come along that replaces TV for people who want a challenge. We don’t yet know what it is or what form it will take, but I’m looking forward to finding out. Aren’t you?

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