57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)

05 Feb

“To say something intricate about something as disorganized, confused, and interconnected as an American city, you want to stay for the whole season on a single story.” —David Simon

I am passionate about television, which is why I don’t own a television set. In 1981 there were three terestrial television stations in Britain. I remember the family set we rented had the stations printed above LEDs indicating what you were watching; BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, and, in anticipation of a new service, ITV2. Well ITV2 eventually arrived in 1998. In 1982 we got Channel 4 instead. That station finally went national in 2010 when the Wenvoe transmitter went digital. Previously viewers in most of Wales recieved the Welsh language S4C station instead.

So now we’ve got digital terestrial, satellite, cable, and Internet television. There must be something worth watching? Well there probably is, but finding it is an non-trivial task. The BBC has helpfully put all of its non-populist programmes on BBC Four, which is available without a television license via the iPlayer. But even there I find myself agreeing with Sophie Wilson, that the treatment of subjects barely scrapes the surface. Take, for example, 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Tsunamis. Well I knew eight of them, and I’m not a seismologist.

As much as I like factual programming, my favourite viewing and what I think television does best is long-form drama. The extended DVD release of The Lord of the Rings comes in at just under eleven and a half hours. That’s still shorter than the first season of The Wire. I’m not comparing the two, but if you use the time wisely you can tell a much deeper story with television. The extreme example of this is Coronation Street, which was once like an Ibsen play that never ended.

I’ll go with Robert McKee and say that Aristotle’s Poetics tells you everything you need to know about writing drama. The six required elements in order of importance being plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle. McKee argues that most Hollywood films place those elements in reverse order. Here’s my own personal list of some of shows that I think got them right:

Columbo (1971-1978)
M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)
St Elsewhere (1982-1988)
Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
The Wire (2002-2008)
Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009)

The setup is fairly similar for all of them. You could argue that Buffy is basically a “police procedural” (cop show). If you get plot and character right, then a fantasy or sci-fi setting is just a device. I’m going to stop here before this turns into a full-blown essay, but I may come back and write some more at some point. Tip: watch Treme.

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Posted by on February 5, 2011 in Entertainment


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