15 November 2007

Television Doesn't Need Your Pity

It occurs to me that television is simultaneously at its HIGHEST and LOWEST point. Dragging the lake for the corpses of ideas like Skating With the Stars and that Caveman show. But that's obvious. Easy targets. Remember years ago there was this show called Change of Heart where people that were dating got set up with other people and at the end they had to vote whether they wanted to stay with their partner or get with the new person? You weren't sure whether it could get any worse, but if you were anything like me you sat in a beanbag chair in 1998 getting Cheeto-powder on a 22oz Colt.45 and said "someday they'll have a show where you just watch people break up." And now they have this show Cheaters ... have you seen Cheaters? The host, one Joey Greco, rivals only John Edward (who would con grieving dimwits into thinking he spoke to their dead relatives) for a place in the hallowed halls of douchebaggery.

But what's more important are the high points. I'm here to tell you with the straightest of faces, that the greatest shows in the history of television were all on HBO and either just ended, are ending soon, or were just canceled. They are 1) THE WIRE 2) DEADWOOD and 3)THE SOPRANOS. Have a look here at a salon debate.

The Wire's Baltimore expands with each episode, unfolding into an idea map that covers more social and intellectual terrain than a film or even a novel can cram into its limits. It spreads out but its networked - there's a system in place in service of illuminating the systems in place - legal and illegal. And it takes on the always troublesome issue of white people writing the stories (and dialogue) of black people (as well as white people) with an admirable earnestness. Its world is actively 'multicultural' without feeling in any way forced or too self-conscious.

Now Deadwood is one hell of a demonstration of writing chops. Not only are the scripts compelling and the characters fleshed and rounded, but the dialogue is high-stylized - mannered to an almost Shakespearian level AND twice as profane as Tarantino. Ian MacShane's Al Swearengen is larger-than-life luminescent - cocksure, theatrical, and toughassed. But the wonderful thing, particularly about Season Two, is how the other players are more and more finely drawn. They can't outshout Swearengen, but they slowly start to matter to you.

And neither show would have existed without the Sopranos, which I'm now finishing. I wonder if someone started watching the show now, it might even seem outdated, as it premiered in 1999 (back when Change of Heart was still on). But they're still meditating on the pop-cultural resonance of the mafioso in freshly meta ways. In one sense, these are minstrelized "UNCLE DOMS," mugging in tracksuits and chesthair, but the show thinks about this before our eyes. And as I move through the latter episodes, I can see their lives falling apart but also 'deconstructed.'

And I'm never quite sure how to talk intelligently about these things, but these shows are shot in such rich and distinctive color palettes, starting with the candlelit and oak tones of the Sopranos that seems to nod to Coppola. And the filthy mouths of Deadwood pontificate from such dusty environs that your own mouth feels filthier in the watching.

And lest we forget the comedies. There are ways in which when I see a rerun of Cheers or The Cosby Show or Family Ties I can appreciate the artistry of 80s sitcoms in that they were out to build relationships with the viewers ... to draw caricatures but somehow in a HUMAN way that maybe registered as less than a laugh, even less than a smile but nothing less than a general pleasantness that radiated throughout the living rooms of our youths. And of course Seinfeld was revolutionary in its playfully cynical and quirked-out worldview and its narrative structure. But NONE of THESE shows can make me laugh like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (R.I.P) or 30 ROCK. These shows are flat out funnier than anything a network has ever aired. And of course, the BBC Office and the American Office are laugh out loud funny and occasionally genuinely emotional affecting, which might make them even better. Although both the Office and 30 Rock seem threatened by the corporate dicks at NBC, who want to force the one show into overlong 'supersized' episodes and the other into selling Jerry Seinfeld's animated project or NBC's "Green Week." Being self-conscious about shilling doesn't make shilling any less lame.


I've seen Tracy Morgan on talk shows taking his shirt off and talking streaming (is it) consciousness about guys breaking up fights while holding babies. Is he the black Andy Kaufman. Some kind of high-concept comic genius? Or art imitating life?

And the adorable John Krasinski. Are we tired of his oh-my-god-do-you-believe-these-people camera takes ... or are they still adorable?

AND, of course, what are the best and worst shows in the history of television per you ...


Anonymous said...

Nothing compare to Deadwood on pure artistry of writing and acting, but I still think if we're just talking tone then nobody ever got it right-er than Freaks and Geeks.

Also, Futurama wins by replacing some unnecessary art with just pure, sublime robots.


ghostofpaper said...

I totally agree that Freaks and Geeks is an unfortunate omission here. Don't know why I didn't think of it. Honorable Mention.

kris said...

Oh best and worst TV, like EVER? Wow. Hard.

But maybe not that hard. I totally agree with your take on the evolution of the comedy, trying to compare Arrested Development and The Office(s) and 30 Rock with the last wave of TV comedies, even the best of them, like Cosby Show and Cheers and, is still very apples and oranges.

Along with Freaks and Geeks, a paragon, I’d nod to My So Called Life, which paved the way for Freaks and Geeks in portraying adolescence close up, and the inaugural freak, Brian Krakow. Plus I was in love with Claire Daines.

SportsNight, Sorkin’s best, for making wide-ranged compelling drama and comedy from an insulated character base of writers and producers on a TV show (+ Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman).

Buffy, which turned adolescent fears and desires into literal dreams and nightmares, built some of the most satisfying characters on TV and kept them interesting for 7 seasons, and made vampires cool again (no small feat).

Battlestar Galactica, for fighting the good fight of speculative fiction, commenting on torture and insurgency by building another world for them to play out on (+ cylons are just hard core).

Bad? Hmmm . . . reality TV can be beyond bad, into just abusive and insulting (anything where they take 10 people, put them in an enclosure, and poke them until they fight), BUT: have you ever tried to watch an episode of KnightRider past age 10? Pretty bad.

And finally, John Krasinski . . . Nope, I still want to do him.

Lauren said...

I can't remember a single episode of either, but let's not forget Matt Houston and The Greatest American Hero. Watching Matt Houston meant I was still up at 10 pm. Plus, I'd never seen a clef chin that deep before. A kid can learn a lot from TV. One time I ate a whole sauce pan of macaroni and cheese while watching The Greatest American Hero. I must have understood my desires as a child.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where to post this comment, as it has nothing to with television or anything else that a reasonable person would reason to be reasonable.

So, what exactly is a "Ghost of Paper"? It seems to ME that paper would be a "ghost of tree". A ghost of a ghost? Is that even possible? Can you kill a ghost...and i don't mean the "royal" you (if that's even anything), i mean YOU.

I suppose i could have made some kind of joke about a sheep that wears a crown, but i don't want my poetic license revoked...AGAIN!

Back to topic.

Seems like paper is some kind of zombie pulp manufactured to attack you and feast on your brain. In essence, isn't that what paper is and does? That's what paper zombies do to me. They surround me and stare at me with their blank faces. Digging into my brain and fingering the fleshy electric bits.

When i can't take anymore (and they still can), my thoughts are splattered over their length and width, a gore-soaked mess of congealing consonants and vivisected vowels of my beastly brain...and sometimes...why?

It's the Omega, man! Hammermill Graphicopy 20 pound test Brilliant White is made of Treeople!