It’s probably funny how I’ve written about film here for some sixteen years while only very rarely mentioning television. Several times a year, I might devote the space to reviewing an HBO movie (in recent months, Phil Spector and Behind the Candelabra), and I wrote a few weeks ago about finally catching up with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but that just proves the point, that I’ve only been addressing television here when it makes stuff that looks like cinema, or at least is a close cousin to it. Sixteen years ago, I doubt anyone would have questioned the underlying value judgment: despite real pockets of strength, TV operated under too many restrictions (of format, budget, standards, everything really) to generate long-lived equivalents to Scorsese and Coppola and the Coens (for purposes of this article, I’ll just talk about the U.S. – the relationship has long been more symbiotic in Europe for instance). But that’s all changed now, and you can find any number of commentators who believe the quality of American television has eclipsed that of its films in recent years; indeed, it may be harder to find people who could convincingly argue the opposite.
TV vs. movies
Well, I’ve recently had to acknowledge to myself that I watch much more TV than I used to, and maybe for emphasis I should say much much more. This doesn’t mean I’ve completely let go of my old snobbery, if that’s the word for it. Whereas I always give movies my undivided attention, allowing no distractions, I invariably watch TV while doing something else, usually while surveying my daily roster of Internet sites. Part of this is just practicality – if I didn’t combine the two activities, I’d run out of time and, well, I’d have to watch fewer movies (and that would be drastically unacceptable!) But it’s not just that – in truth, I don’t believe TV shows, even the very best of them, need the same attention the best movies do. The open-ended nature of the form, the enforced refilling of the tank, the contingencies of fate and discovery along the way (most obviously, as the strengths or weaknesses of various actors suggest or impose different pathways) inevitably entail peaks and troughs – the beast is too unwieldy to be controlled in the same way as a single film. It’s not a weakness – much of the fascination lies in the way shows evolve in a way that couldn’t have been foreseen. But to me it’s like the difference between a short and a long conversation – it would be rude and probably self-defeating not to give your full attention to the former, but it’s inevitable that your attention drifts in and out of the latter.
Dregs of society
It follows that the TV shows that most challenge my ability to keep half an eye on the laptop are those conceived as finite stories, often from the UK – as I write, Secret State (four episodes in total) and especially The Fall (five episodes) come close to resembling long films that just happen to have been subdivided into segments. The latter, although brilliantly executed, points though to another reservation – that if you watch what’s commonly accepted as the best television, you spend a lot of time with serial killers, gangsters, and assorted dregs of society (because it’s easier, I suppose, to keep a long conversation going about demons than angels). The Fall is a chilling example of the serial killer genre, but it’s still adding to the crazily disproportionate body of work on such figures. Dexter relies on turning up a new serial killer every week, but it’s always verged on the cartoonish, which is part of its transgressive, borderline-goofy charm. I don’t watch Boardwalk Empire – my wife does though, so I’ve seen big chunks of it – but it’s always seemed to me somewhat wearying, what with having to meet its endless atrocity quota.
I’ve been getting increasingly into The Walking Dead, although again, I don’t like watching swaggering, would-be mythic creations like The Governor, the villain of the last series; I like the show better when it’s more intimate and incremental (while acknowledging this wouldn’t be a viable mode for the long run, but hence the eternal compromises I talked about). Mad Men’s last season seemed to me more interesting in theory than practice, seemingly unwilling or unable to commit to any clear direction for its main protagonists, and yet unable to deploy that uncertainty to illustrate the period as effectively as it used to. The Americans impressed me with some very deft plotting, although it seems like an unnecessary compression of the universe to have the CIA agent living across the street from and hanging out with the undercover spies he’s chasing. The Newsroom seems as overly-stylized and full of itself to me as it does to most reviewers, and yet I look forward to it, if only because it’s such a clear contrast from everything else I mentioned. Under the Dome is the only show on our current viewing roster that airs on one of the traditional networks, and illustrates exactly why the networks are in trouble: it rattles along well enough, but never has a moment that feels psychologically or emotionally true.
We also manage to fit in some comedies, including Girls of course, although I’d swap the whole series to date for the recent film Frances Ha. Veep is an irresistible machine, set in an environment where it doesn’t matter that it’s a rather cold one. Christopher Guest’s Family Tree, which just ended, was a distinct disappointment, endlessly slack and padded. I’m with the pack on this: Louis C.K.’s Louie rules the genre right now – it’s perhaps the only show on TV where the episode you just watched gives you no reasonable chance of predicting the content of the next one. And I hope for a return of the endlessly masterful Curb Your Enthusiasm.
At the time of writing, we haven’t yet been able to start watching The Bridge or Top of the Lake, and in fact we might be heading for a backlog crisis. We watched the first episode of Ray Donovan, which was more of an ordeal than anything else, but not so much that it didn’t deserve a second chance; as yet though, it never seems like the right night for that. And Breaking Bad, which can lay a claim to being the most consistently accomplished of the bunch, is only a month or so away. And then of course there’s my rock, my Grey’s Anatomy. No, actually, I’m joking about that one. Although now I count up how many shows I just named (and I’m pretty sure I forgot some), it looks like the joke’s on me. At least I can count my blessings, that things would be worse if I was hooked on True Blood and Game of Thrones.