My Thoughts On Television (and some reviews too!)

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There’s lots of movie stuff on this blog, but what about television? We’re in the Second Golden Age of Television after all, and TV has never been better. Television is so good that it’s actually stealing lots of talent from film (we have 24 to blame for that, the first case I know of where a film actor switched to TV and saw his profile rise) and pretty much all the good writers (minus writer/directors and half of Aaron Sorkin) are writing for television these days. Knowing this, why don’t I write more about TV?

The truth is, while I love film, I’m not much of TV person. Yes, television and film both tell stories with pictures that move (and sound), but the stories they tell are very different. Movies are dynamic, they are about the most important event in a person’s life, the event that causes them to change forever. Television, however, is about the character’s life before or after that event; the characters are static, they don’t change. They are the same week after week, which makes it comfortable to spend time with them, and enjoyable too since they are “likeable”.

Ah, likeability. By television’s nature likeability is much more important than it is in film. In television, writers get feedback from critics and fans every week, enabling them to change their characters and storylines to be more what the audience wants. If the writers don’t do this, they risk audiences not coming back. Movies however (minus franchise fare) don’t do this, by the time the audience is watching, the film is done. The characters are what they are, however the writer, director, and actors created them. And because movies don’t have to keep audiences coming back week after week, “likeability” becomes less important and “interesting” becomes moreso. When choosing what film to watch, people choose what interests them, when choosing what TV show to watch, people choose what they liked from last week.

The other aspect of television that bothers me is that TV shows generally don’t have much to say. Yes, the good shows are about something, but even they often don’t have much to say about what they are about. They exist in a world and explore it, but they almost never put their feet down and say something about the world they exist in. I think this is the result of television being a writer’s medium. Writers are responsible for the top-level layers of storytelling: story, plot, character creation, world building; directors then take that work and infuse their own messages, meanings, etc. Because TV directors aren’t as powerful as film directors, they aren’t able to do this as much. Also, as an audience, it’s a lot more palatable to take messages when we want them (ie when we go to the movies) versus taking them every week, week after week.

The last aspect that lends me towards movies is their higher production value. Hollywood generally shoots 2-3 pages a day, indie films, 4-6. Television can shoot upwards of 8-10 or more pages per day. Simple math dictates that the more you shoot per day, the less time you have for each element you are shooting, which generally results in a lower quality product (this was especially true back when every TV show was multi-camera). Along the same lines, the lower budgets and decreased post production schedules of television can lower the quality of the project, or more likely, lower the scope and ambition the project set out with. Finally, while television is drawing a lot of talent from the movies, film is still the holy grail, and most of the best filmmakers (directors and cinematographers in particular) are staying in film.

All that being said, we are in the Second Golden Age of Television, and times are a-changing. Not all dramas are episodic doctor/detective/lawyer shows anymore, not all comedies are episodic sitcoms. The great shows are becoming more like mini-series, with characters that change (Breaking Bad, Walking Dead), characters that aren’t necessarily “likeable” (House of Cards, Game of Thrones), shows that say something (The Wire, Mad Men), and high production value (most of the above) led by some very talented filmmakers, both in front of and behind the camera. Even some sitcoms are getting in on the act, featuring changing characters and dynamic storylines (Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation) instead of traditional episodic fare.

I’m still exploring many of the shows in this golden age we are in, but here are some quick reviews of what I’ve discovered so far. Note that all of these shows (with the exception of the newest season of Walking Dead) I binge watched, a very different experience than watching one episode week after week.

The Wire – The best show I’ve ever seen, mainly because it hits the third note mentioned above so well. This show has really important things to say, and says them more powerfully than any other show I know of. More powerful than most movies as well. This show almost ruined television for me: the most common response I get when discussing shows I find disappointing is “What do you expect? It’s television” to which I respond with “I expect The Wire. I expect that quality of filmmaking.” All this despite the fact that in The Wire the characters don’t change (that’s the point though) and the production value is pretty low (the show never got big ratings, it was always on the verge of cancellation and had to work with limited budgets).

The Walking Dead – This is the show that rekindled my interest in television. The Wire was so good, even the best shows I watched afterward couldn’t compare and I thought I would never find another great show again. Well, I found one in The Walking Dead. I may be biased, as I am a zombie fan, but I’m not a fanatic and the zombies aren’t even what makes this show great; the study of human nature is. This show is really a Lord of the Flies drama, but the filmmakers were smart; they knew no one would watch a Lord of the Flies drama and so they backdoored it into a zombie apocalypse. This is exactly what zombies (and fantasy, and science fiction) are meant for: entertainingly enveloping stories that are meaningful and powerful but inaccessible without an entertaining envelope.

Breaking Bad – This may be blasphemy, and hopefully it won’t stop you from reading the rest of this post, but I did not like Breaking Bad. I did like the first season, and I loved Bryan Cranston, but for me this show failed on two fronts: the storylines felt controlled by the writers, not by the characters (the characters did out-of-character things so that the writers could take the show where they wanted to take it) and the show had very little to say about the world it created. A high school teacher in the US has to resort to cooking meth to pay for his cancer treatments, and the show had almost nothing to say about the American healthcare system. The show also had very little to say about the drug trade, gangs, illegal immigration, law enforcement, etc. The show did have a lot to say about the Bryan Cranston character (as I said, he was great) but not so much about the others, especially Jesse, who I wish would have died at the end of season one (that was the original plan, but the filmmakers kept him on because the audience liked him).

I made it through three seasons of Breaking Bad. I was ready to stop at the end of season 2 (that airplane crash was so stupid, and it had nothing to do with the story: the main character’s girlfriend’s dad? The show isn’t about the main character’s girlfriend’s dad, the show is only tangentially about the main character’s girlfriend, the show is only about the main characters!), but I gave it a second chance because of how much everyone loved it. However, when the super-forced and out of character season 3 finale left me with the same feeling as the end of season 2, I was done. (I did, however, read the plot summaries for the remaining episodes, just so I could know how it ended. And I could tell from these summaries that the season 4 finale would have left me with the same feelings as seasons 2 and 3.)

Parks and Recreation – A wonderful show. The most impressive part for me is that despite being a sitcom, the characters change! Well, some change, and those were my favorites. I also liked what the show had to say about the American people and government, even if they did exaggerate beyond believability at times (even for comedy). I wish they didn’t drop the Mark character so completely (he was supposed to come and go throughout the series, but he didn’t have a great experience on the show and so when he left he didn’t come back), as there was a lot of interesting ideas conveyed through him. And of course, in addition to all I’ve already mentioned, this show is hilarious!

Lost – I did not like this show. All premise, not much on the character front (other than stupid flashbacks), this show drove me crazy, mostly because the characters were dumb! Bad leadership, no leadership, plots held afloat because characters acted like children, doing whatever they wanted without thinking or discussion. This show focused so much on its twists and mysteries, then it would randomly spend an episode trying to develop a character in very trite ways: who cares if generic white guy digs his way out of a collapsed cave! There are polar bears on a tropical island, get back to that!

I made it through eight episodes of this show. However, I did want to understand the mysteries of the island, so I read summaries for the remaining episodes. And I will admit, the world the writers created was fascinating and the character development did seem to get better in the subsequent seasons (when they moved away from stereotypes and introduced more nuanced people). I didn’t even hate the end the way most people seem to, but that’s probably because I wasn’t as invested and was reading summaries, not watching the actual show.

Mad Men – This was an interesting experience. I watched season one, enjoyed it, but then didn’t feel much desire to watch the subsequent seasons. I think it’s because there wasn’t much story; there was tons of character development and world building, all of which were fantastic, but there was no strong plot/storyline that kept me going past season one. That and the one thing I didn’t like about the show was its unnecessary and blasé use of flashbacks, which I’ve heard only gets worse as the seasons go on.

The aspect of the show that surprised me most was its feminist message, which I thought was very interesting. Yes, the show is set in a hugely sexist era, but it depicts this sexism as a bad thing, the filmmakers saying “look at how bad we treated women back in the day, and how much better we are now because we don’t treat women like this anymore. Lets continue to improve, lets continue to change.” That’s an example of filmmakers not just exploring a world but actually saying something about it, and I like that a lot.

Game of Thrones – There were several reasons I didn’t think I would like this show before I started watching it. Mainly, it sounded plotty, and it also sounded cynical and insensitive towards its subject matter. But the show is also widely praised as one of the best and most popular shows of all time, so I gave it a go. I lasted two episodes. The plottiness wasn’t a problem but the cynicism and insensitivity were terrible, I could tell the writers were setting up plotlines to deliver super cynical points later on, and I just wasn’t interested. I also didn’t like how misogynistic the show was. People defend the misogynism by claiming (correctly) that this was how things were in the Middle Ages, but the show isn’t misogynistic because it depicts misogyny, the show is misogynistic because it doesn’t say anything about its depiction of misogyny; it is simply showing it for our entertainment. It’s the opposite of Mad Men and I did not like it.

Orange is the New Black – I watched the first season and I was good. When the show started it seemed like it had things to say, but then the filmmakers got more interested in the plots and plot tangents, leaving whatever ideas or messages there might have been behind. That and the lead actresses’s performance is weak, which hurts the show a lot.

Big Bang Theory – This is that episodic storytelling I don’t like. Characters don’t change, the filmmakers aren’t saying anything, and the characters are so “likeable.” This is actually a really good example of why I don’t like “likeable” characters. We like them because they are likeable, not because they are honest or human or real. Then we go into the real world and want people to be likeable just like they are on these TV shows, which is unrealistic because real people are deep and nuanced and complicated, not just “likeable.”

True Detective Season One – I really enjoyed this show. My favorite part was how focused the production was. This was a show about masculinity and everything about it, right down to the colors and locations, casting, even extras casting, heightened that. The acting and directing, cinematography and editing were also really top notch. This show didn’t feel like a TV show or a miniseries, it felt like an eight hour movie. All this despite serial killers being old hat, although it helped that the show was set in the past, when that wasn’t the case.

Bloodline – I’ve only watched the pilot so far. It had great production value, great acting and cinematography, but it left me mostly confused. I think there was a lot of non-chronological order stuff, but I’m not sure, it just seemed like things out of place. I’ll give this show a couple more episodes, mainly because two cinematographers I respect independently recommended it to me, but after the pilot, I’m not too sure that this one is for me.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – This isn’t the best show, but there’s something about it that made it super enjoyable. You know what it is? This show is so positive. It’s hopeful, encouraging. I like the character, but not in that “likeable” way that Big Band Theory displays. I like what she represents, what the filmmakers are saying through her, through what she is, what she has gone through and is still going through. This was undermined somewhat by many of season one’s conflicts being easily resolved, but hopefully they can fix that in season two, because I think this could be a really great show. Also, Ellie Kemper is amazing!

Still to check out (maybe a future blog post will cover them?): The Sopranos, Fargo, Arrested Development, Firefly (although I saw Serenity so I know how it ends), Orphan Black, 30 Rock, Boardwalk Empire, and lots more I can’t even think of right now. Until then, happy watching, and let me know if there are any great shows I’ve missed!

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About Gabriel Bruskoff
I make movies! See gabrielbruskoff.com for more information.

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