Sunday, December 12, 2004

Excellence on the boob tube

An operatic, expansive view of a New Jersey family. A serious, hard hitting police drama that sharply articulates the fascinating steps of an investigation while giving equal amount of time to the deviance that arises from its positions of authority. A caustically funny ensemble that creates new rules of television storytelling and certainly takes the cake for its reliance on narration. A kinetic, endlessly inventive drama that bends and shapes time in breathless ways. A somber and biting satire on beauty, lust, family and friendship. And a wildy irreverent look at all things California, full of neurosis and stammering sentiments.

What do all of these things have in common? They all exemplify the boundless alternatives to the big screen- small screen comedies and dramas that challenge the sometimes constrictive ideas and themes of movies. And they're all excellence in television. The Sopranos, The Shield, Arrested Development, 24, Nip/Tuck and Curb Your Enthusiasm- six shows that often have me dropping everything and racing for my TV fix. On a weekly basis, these shows are able to develop and deepen characters beyond imagination, creating dynamic personalities and addictive scenarios that full length films could only dream of. Imagine trying to condense the muted emotions of Tony Soprano in a two hour sitting or formulate the subtle comedic grace of Larry David into an hour and a half (which has been done to disatrous lengths in his film called Sour Grapes, which David mocks in his own series). Television has become the modern novel.

So what do we owe to this success? Two things. First, the advent of DVD, and the inclination to release entire seasons both cult and current, has given these shows a chance to generate a strong fanbase. In the past, if one didn't watch shows like Quantum Leap or Law and Order (both now on DVD!) the likelihood of one investing time halfway during the season was minimal. Stations were required to hype new series from the beginning and hope for the best. Plus, many companies have mastered the art of a timely DVD release. I remember missing all of 24 season 1 on its initial run. I was given the DVD copy and watched it from start to finish. Three months later, season 2 aired. The release of the DVD boxset corresponded significantly to the downtime between both seasons, giving avid lovers of the show ample time to digest the intracacies of the plot while also cultivating a fresh fanbase. Secondly, TIVO has revolutionized television. The ability to record a show every week with the press of a button marginalizes any excuses to miss our favorite shows. The TV will do it for us.

Networks have obviously found a goldmine in reality tv shows. Realtively easy and cheap to produce, they're also endlessly self-serving, shallow voids of time. Hopefully, they will soon run their course. I just have to love stations like FX and HBO. They have the courage to produce thoughtful, intelligent and often groundbreaking series that give us some hope for the future of television. Series like Deadwood, Rescue Me, Carnivale, Entourage and even Comedy Central with riots like Reno 911 and Chapelle's Show, prove that not everyone in the executive suites have lost their faith in the power of strong series. They may not be included on my favorites of the year here, but they are a healthy, invigorating alternative to the wasteland of reality tv.