Charles River

Charles River
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Derrida

"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The New Golden Age or, Why TV is Often Mistaken for a Visual Medium


In a recent New Yorker piece, my friend Josh Rothman waxes enthusiastic about the network TV drama, “The Good Wife,” claiming that its most recent season marks an unprecedented rise in sophistication for long form TV. “The Good Wife,” he writes, “has become profound.” Maybe it has, but I have good reasons for remaining skeptical. Granted, I can only speak from a grossly uninformed position since I’ve seen very few of these shows, nor watched them with anything like the kind of totalizing devotion they inspire in their admirers. But I’ve seen enough of them to catch both their flavor and their formula. To paraphrase Cary Grant in “The Philadelphia Story,” “To hardly know them is to know them well.”

Though I’ve refused to give into “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” “Game of Thrones” or “True Detective,” despite the urgent pleadings of friends, I have watched quite a few episodes of “The Sopranos” in its heyday (engrossing, dramatically superior TV, but finally, forgettable) as well as several seasons of “Mad Men,” whose rapacious slickness was fascinating before it became stale and repetitive; it’s a show that fairly preens with the smugness of hindsight. Of all these recent entries in the so-called second Golden Age of television, only “Battlestar Galactica” has consistently held my interest, partly because it’s SF, which I teach quite a bit, and partly because it takes on large moral, ethical and political questions – big questions about post-9/11 culture – that no other show has really grappled with in a meaningful way.

Rothman’s plea for “The Good Wife” finally boils down to this: that TV has finally become as good – as intellectually sophisticated and psychologically enriching – as good novels. It’s an argument I have no real problem with. Except that TV is a visual medium. Or at least, it’s commonly mistaken for one. Richard Brody, in a spirited exchange with Emily Nussbaum, notes that there’s nothing about “Breaking Bad” or any of the other new Golden Age shows that “thrive as audiovisual creation.” And that’s the crux of the matter. There’s no denying that TV has grown more psychologically complex, able to show deeper forms of interiority, as novels do, and that's no small thing. And while comparing TV to film is very much a case of apples and oranges, TV resolutely remains a form in which the visual is just a means to an end.

What excites Rothman is how shows like “The Good Wife” have made what he calls an existential turn, moving from the usual courtroom dramatics to something more ambiguous and self-reflective, something that engages powerful themes like the relationship between gender and power. But it's still the visual medium reduced, restricted, placed almost solely in the service of narrative. You rarely get a shot, a composition, an edited sequence that elicits awe or astonishment or does the visual work cinema is capable of, one that produces a deeper affective resonance than the usual staid series of close-ups TV must adhere to. TV, in other words, is about the pleasures of identifying with actors and plot payoffs. These are not small pleasures and I enjoy them myself. But films are about the pleasures of seeing itself and are, therefore, for me at least, infinitely richer.

One example comes to mind: I just re-watched Joseph Losey's “The Servant” (I was peer-reviewing a very good essay on it) and it’s astonishing how much emotional and psychological power Losey conveys, not through dialogue, but through mise en scene and meticulous camera compositions. TV is capable of this, one supposes, but eschews it because the demands of the medium must answer to a different marketplace, a different consumer or viewer logic.

I realize I'm inviting a cyber-donnybrook here by confessing to membership snobbish cult. And maybe I’m just being obtuse, but it seems to me that quality TV fails one simple test – the ability to re-visit it, years afterwards, and derive even more meaning and pleasure than the first viewing provided. Re-watching the best, most moving, most memorable TV episode of “The Good Wife,” or “Mad Men,” or “Games of Thrones,” I would argue, fails this test and moreover, pales beside revisiting “The Searchers,” “Vertigo,” “Touch of Evil,” “Ball of Fire,” or “The Godfather.” Long form television like “The Good Wife” is meant to be consumed and disposed of – that’s what it makes it a serial. It’s quite unlike the visual poetry and ingenuity of films by Max Ophuls or Michael Powell, Steven Soderbergh, or Kathryn Bigelow.

In film, it should go without saying, composition equals emotion. That’s why I tell my students to experiment by watching a scene with the sound muted to see how the director frames and blocks a shot or sequence, what spatial relations the actors occupy (and therefore what psychological space they’re in) or how the editing, the lighting, and so forth, accomplishes aesthetic and dramatic effects that either enhance or actually work against the narrative.

Of course, it’s not fair to ask TV to do the work of cinema. They’re simply too dissimilar. Finally, despite their family resemblances, they’re completely different mediums. Still, I think it can be said that all TV, even the best, exists as a form that’s designed to be exhausted and replaced, whereas great films can never be exhausted, only submitted to, over and over again. If this makes me a cultist, so be it. The test of a classic is how often one can return to it and be enriched. Still, it would be all too easy to condemn Golden Age television as the opiate of the intellectuals. But the test of pleasure is something else again and while I doubt any of the Golden Age shows now can pass the former test, they obviously more than meet the requirements for the latter.

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