Thursday, July 13, 2006

tv theory, part 1

i don't think very highly of television. i usually lower my head and mumble when i mention that i watched tv the other day.

during college i had little time to watch, but when i moved in with beej and his big screen tv and dvr, that began to shift a little. we watched 'my name is earl' and 'the office' every thursday and he tried to get me hooked on 'lost' with moderate success.
and then in january, the paradigm shifted when jen had me record '24' because it overlapped with fhe. from that seemingly minor event, friendships were made, cheers were raised, and david palmer's killers were brought to justice.

here are some thoughts on philo farnsworth's legacy.

media is a fantastic reflection of the times: in the mid-90's, 'the x-files' kept us enthralled every... whatever night it was on. enemies and conflict came from the literally unknown. the political environment of that time was less volitile, and a president having illicit affairs hardly made for gripping stories over a whole season. with no prominant terror in the reported news world, writers were forced to create the adversaries. we followed government agents mulder and scully as they fought to find proof of extraterrestrial life and the federal involvement in it all. yes, there was an the grand conspiracy story [referred to as the 'mythology' episodes]; these were the most intriguing of the season, but we only got about 4 or 5 a year, the rest being a 'monster of the week' encounter with a sasquatch or el chupacabra or vampires and a pre-famous luke wilson.
the show was a great success, spawned plenty of copycats, and is still fun to watch 10 years later.

24 is not only one of the biggest shows on right now, it is also one of the most influential to current trends.
aliens aren't so cool anymore [space aliens, anyway]. as scary as the monsters in the dark may be, when we know there are terrorists out there, the immediate is naturally more gripping.
we are now in a much more politically volatile country and world, where stories need not be fantastic fabrications, but deal with the very same issues discussed on the news networks. terror, assassinations, and heinous cover-ups of treason, oil, and international conspiracy keep us glued to our seats every monday night [often yelling at the tv].
our heroes have become more intense, too. as much as we all loved fox mulder, he would have no chance against jack bauer. [in fact, no one anywhere would. maybe batman. maybe.] jack is the hero we want [even his name connotes a rugged everyman]; in a government and political atmosphere so ambiguous and uncertain as ours, jack does what is right no matter the cost or who's eye he has to threaten to cut out [please forgive the grotesque imagery; no one was actually hurt, and it was one of the most memorable scenes of the season]. in the very first season, pre-9/11, the character was chastised by some of his co-workers for turning in other ctu agents who were dishonest and unscrupulous. their sins were relatively minor, but jack bauer did not stand for even the smallest corruption. such commitment is sadly rare in our society, yet it nevertheless tastes good to us.

whereas 'the x-files' worked in the mid-levels of government, 24 goes for the top without apology, as that it where the current political environment is focused. in the first seaons, the president was one of the two or three people you could always trust no matte what. in the most current seaon, the new president not only looks similar to richard nixon, but is weak and incompetant, making mistakes and trying to then talk his way out of them, and is later revealed to be in on the whole conspiracy, a puppet of an unknown council. while none of this is a reflection of my political thought, it certainly does chime with the general public, doesn't it? and while we're at it, the president's closest advisor, a wise but somewhat stoic man, looks rather similar to dick cheney. not to be a complete political commentary on news media images, the character is generally a good guy and does the right.

but amidst all this mess, is it any wonder we love jack bauer so, the man who stops at nothing until the government has been cleansed and evil has been brought to justice?

the show is pioneering styles as well as themes.
the basic concept of the show is that each episode of the season is one hour of real time, so that the first episode takes place between 8:00 and 9:00; next week cover the events between 9:00-10:00, and so on for 24 episodes. this is risky, demanding that viewers see each episode to follow the continous plot. missing one week will guarantee lost events and twists. further, this creates a barrier for those wishing to jump in partway through a 'day'.
netither of these potential flaws present a problem for jack bauer and the counter-terrorist unit. the advent of tivo and other dvrs provide the perfect solution to the demanding schedule, allowing viewers to live their lives and then escape into fantasy when convenient.
second, the writing of 24 is such that, within two or three weeks, a new viewer can feel more or less caught up and away with what's going on. but once you are hooked, it is nigh-impossible to let go.
this phenomenon can be seen in other major shows as well, most notably 'lost'. 'lost' is not as intense as 24, but does have a major, over-arching plot and story that is addressed each week. yet it has a much larger ensamble cast [also a growing trend] and moves at a slower pace,
exploring the increasingly-interconnected web between the stranded and their pasts. the show demands more from its viewership, though, as nuances expressed from several shows earlier [or even a previous season] can provide the weight in a current story.

this trend of making each part integral to the whole can be seen flowing into situation comedies as well, notably in 'the office', where the latter part of the season began to lean
more on the continuing drama of the characters and the ensuing results [quite frankly, i have no idea what the next season will bring].
if viewers are going to commit themselves to a show, they want to be rewarded.

daily show vs. colbert report
the daily show used to be funny and clever, and even a moderate source of information. it requred some education and knowledge of current events to appreciate it. now they are just coasting on their laurels, relying on smart aleckey quips of jon stewart and the humor of bleeped words. and whereas crudeness arose on occassion, it is now a constant and unappreciated stream.

surprisingly, the colbert report is clever, funny, and less crude that it's predecessor [please note the 'less']. and the show is more fun, having the intimate and friendly feel of 'late night with conan o'brien', like staying after a big performance and the star giving an encore for you and your friends. and stephen seems like a nicer and much less cynical guy.

late night with conan o'brien
letterman and leno host their shows like performers, people up on stage doing their job and keeping a transparent fourth wall between them and the viewer. conan has no wall. the show is literally the feeling after the large crowd has died down and now there is less stress and more time to just have some fun with your friends. the other guys host as if they have to remain marketable to as many people as possible who may have stumbled across the show before going to bed. conan seems to have a die-hard legion of fans who are there night after night, because they know they will laugh and have fun regardless of what they do.
dealing with so many celebrities, conan has had a great variety of people sit next to him, many of whom are crazy, rude, improper, and/or insecure; yet he has a very rare and wonderful way of talking with these people and making them look at genuinely good as possible, never bringing up unpleasant mistakes they may have made unless it is something they would like to clear up [discussing with russell crowe his phone-throwing incident was very amusing], and yet he also deftly and subtly steers guests away when they are approaching inappropriateness or extreme stupidity.
he respects his guests and his viewers. he seems like a genuinely good-natured person, and is one of a few famous people i would be interested in having lunch with.
i think he should be an ambassador to some really touchy nation.

the simpsons were the greatest show ever until the seventh season, when the quality pointedly turned and began a steady decline. the change was not very apparent until years later, but it has yet to recover or even pull out of the downward spiral today.

i once saw a commercial for 'desperate housewives'. what a shame.

the cosby show still remains for me as the best tv show ever, able to be 100% clean without feeling sterilized and for making us laugh loud and hard 25 years later, and for seeing the humor in family life without cutting it, degrading it, or even looking cynically at it.

post script:: tonight on conan, stephen colbert said that he was a sunday school teacher. he was also a self-declared dungeons & dragons player and lord of the rings fan. and so he firmly
declared the difference between a demon and a balrog; a demon, he said, was an angel who followed satan down to hell because he would not serve God. now, i found this rather intriguing; that's rather similar to lds theology, and i'm curious what other faiths believe about the events before the creation of the earth and how the devil became who he is.
certainly not the kind of things you hear on conan most nights.
nor did i expect that from mr. colbert.

1 comment:

Em said...

Well Mr. Jeff, you watch a whole lot more TV than I do! But I'm glad you watch it with your brain on.

P.S. I got your present in the mail and Mr. Renn and I had a rolicking good time trying to decide the best place to keep it... where it would be the most "effective".