Saturday, October 21, 2006

American TV: a million times better than jazz

I always hear the old saw that jazz is America's only native art form. That doesn't sit well with me. I believe the Simpsons count animation as another one, and I'll back that. Edith Hamilton, the classicist, wrote a book, the title of which made my mom question my sexuality, The Greek Way. Hamilton was a great lover of the ancient Greeks, who she felt were high minded lovers of pure ideas and art. In a less famous companion-piece called The Roman Way, Hamilton basically performs a massive smear job on the Romans, who she sees as somewhat soulless, heartless engineery types who thought themselves into world conquest and then tried to buy themselves a high culture with their dirty dirty money. This argument strikes me as something that a modern American would come up with, with our painfully polarized, Jocks versus Nerds society. It was Hamilton's position that when we look at ancient cultures we should judge them mainly on their artistic and cultural production, and that all the rest is just filler. This is of course nonsense.
But it has a certain elegance to it, which is the thing that really gives ideas sticking power. It's a very college freshmanny, emo-y way of looking at the world, and I must confess to frequently turning to it in times of trapped-in-a-foreign-country frustration. There is no one realm in which I claim American cultural supremacy more sincerely and enthusiastically than in the domain of television. American television of late has been absolutely fantastic, to the point where I would much rather watch an episode of a good show than see a movie. I think there may be many reasons for this, but I think the two most important ones both stem from the internet. The first is the level of information available to television fans that enriches the experience, and the other, much more important one is competition from the internet for viewers.
My proof is irrefutable. In America, television has become better and better over the last several years while movies have arguably become worse and worse. In Korea, the movie industry has become one of Korea's greatest success stories (on the strength of a few excellent movies) while television is stuck in the American fifties, stylistically, recycling the same toothless soap opera melodrama endlessly with little concern for repetition and little improvement over time. Why, pray tell, would this be? The answer is simple and elegant. In The U.S., TV is primarily watched by young people, and American movies are primarily watched by the general population and, increasingly, foreigners abroad. Thus American TV faces direct competition from the internet, driving it to improve or die, while the movies face most of its competition from other forms of "going out" style entertainment such as restaurants. In Korea, the average young person has zero free time, watches a couple hours of TV with the family every weekend and isn't holding the remote control. Young people must go out to the movies just to get a few hours away from their houses, which are never empty, or else lock themselves in the computer room and play World of Warcraft until their eyes bleed. Thus Korean TV stagnates while movies are pushed by competition to improve.
So enough about that. What American TV shows are great and why? Here's a short list:

  • The Wire: No show does a better job of showing how human flaws and ideals slap up against each other, how the chthonic and the technotronic intersect and influence each other. The show follows a revolving door team of Baltimore city police officers who go after a different big, intricate criminal endeavor each season. The first season paints a layered portrait of both the police running the case and an up-and-coming drug dealing empire and the inner workings of each groups. The second season takes a personal grudge between a police commander and a stevedore union boss and uses it as a jumping off point for a case including white slavery, drugs, a blue collar half black/half Polish dock culture and swarthy Greek international bad stuff traffickers. The highlight of the show is the way that police laziness and ass-covering just barely gets the job done while criminal ambition and the high stakes nature of the business makes them efficient.
  • Battlestar Galactica: The epic battle between humans and the Cylon robots that they created goes to the next level when the Cylons almost annihilate the human race, leaving only 50,000 humans running through space on a ragtag convoy. This show has several similarities with The Wire, now that I think about it: lots of poorly thought out sex and bad decisions, almost too-flawed characters, the whole rag-tag angle, and so on. The third season just started and it leaves mankind living in an occupied refugee camp full of terrorism by humans against Cylons. This show will change your life. Whenever I call home my father spends the entire call talking about the Cylons.
  • Deadwood: touches on similar themes with the aforementioned: like the Wire it is to a great extent about the innate limits placed on people by society, also deals with the development of networks and personal relationships in a similar way with Battlestar. The story revolves around the last and greatest gold rush in mid 1870s Dakota territory. The most infamous and colorful character is saloon-keeper and whoremonger Al Swearingen, and his foil is town sheriff Seth Bullock. The two develop a sort of adversarial equilibrium: they form a complex relationship, sometimes enemies, but increasingly on the same side. The most interesting arc in the show is the increasing level of civilization in the camp. In the first season, a good throat-cutting takes care of any problem, but by the end of the third season, violence seems less and less of an option, and politics gains more and more of a role. The other main theme that shares with both the above shows is the same one that the producers of the Simpsons claim on their DVDs all the time: people never change. Yet on Deadwood, they do. And they don't it's complicated. I mean, it should be, right?


Jeff said...

It's interesting that the great American TV shows you list aren't even on the major networks. I wonder what you'd think of shows like Lost, CSI or the wide variety of reality programming that fills up the network schedules. Most of it is garbage in my opinion

I haven't seen BG yet and have been told that I am not a complete human being if I don't. So maybe I'll check it out. I absolutely agree with you on The Wire and Deadwood. The Wire may be the best cop drama I've ever seen (I was always partial to Homicide). Deadwood takes a little more getting into but is still a solid show.

Joe Mondello said...

Well, I watch Lost, CSI I usually see on the treadmill at the gym, but I never watch reality shows because basically everything that could happen on a reality show probably did happen by the time they did Real World Hawaii. I think the only way that Lost can succeed in the long run is if there has been a consistent, intriguing premise behind the show from the beginning. Otherwise it'll wind up like the X-files and Twin Peaks in the dustbin of history. I can only see American TV on my computer, and only the stuff I choose to download, so most of the things I've seen have been kind of pre-screened by the trusted friends and family members (or advertisements on, in the case of The Wire) that guide me to them. I like My Name is Earl, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Everybody Hates Chris (except for Chris Rock's annoying, ad-libbed voiceovers that seem to always be about Ike Turner), and I liked the bit of The Office that I saw, so I guess in answer to your question, the only thing that Network TV still seems to be able to do right is comedy