How Do We Create a Canon of Television

Television, finally coming into its own as a medium, offers numerous challenges to the critic. It’s a derivative medium in that its main component-the merger of moving images with sound-is one already developed in the film medium which predates the proliferation of tv by more than half a century. Yet the word medium and not genre is what proliferates criticism, and though logically it seems wrong, when writing it seems to fit. Cinema, commercial or non, even when avant-garde and given over to lengths similar to that of a television program, has a much different feel.

Maybe Peter Watkins, though he’s criticizing TV news in the essay, touches closest to the truth in his classic essay on “The Monoform”. He says that the setting of length and arbitrary style guidelines is what hinders television news from actually having any positive political effect-this also hints at the defining elements of tv, and in fact when a show doesn’t conform to some denominator of an hour in length (half-hour sitcom, 12.5 minute cartoon, hour drama), we use the term “TV Movie” to qualify it. So let’s, for the purposes of this essay, qualify the something as “TV” by 2 guiding criteria: 1) the video/film is a product of the timed production cycle standard to television (seasons, episode orders, etc.) 2) there are multiple installments and each of these installments conforms to an arbitrary length, give or take a couple minutes for syndication cuts and/or commercial breaks.

So now we have guidelines, probably not incredibly satisfactory, but which can be worked within, which tell us what TV is. But what makes television good? Some might say the mindless kitschy thrills it produces, how incredibly “watchable” it is-how it creates the need to watch multiple episodes in a go. This criterion doesn’t seem proper to me, as it doesn’t gel with any other art form. We wouldn’t say that Lesley Gore’s Greatest Hits is a greater body of work than Beethoven’s later string quartets, though the former certainly instills me with a far more compulsive urge to listen. Similarly, one reads through the Da Vinci Code with much more speed and compulsion than late Henry James, but I seriously doubt the sanity of anyone suggesting the superiority of the former on this count.

What can be judged then? The very facts of its production insist upon very little change in form, and as such many programs are visually interchangeable and distinguish themselves only for their usually facile confrontation with some hot-button issue of the time. “All in the Family” comes to mind here, as do weaker episodes of South Park. This is not the mark of great art, if we can even agree that television has ever actually reached the point of high art.

Though the very rudiments of the medium rebel against this, formal innovation would seem to be the best indicator of quality here. Probably the place where television has excelled best in opposition to the cinema proper is in the area of satire. Television has a long and fruitful history of programs which successfully, through the rearrangement of formal elements popular in either other television programs or in the cinema, deprive stylistic tics which might otherwise go undistinguished by the lay viewer into objects of rightful ridicule and contempt-as the lazy contrivances they are.

The above clip shows Ernie Kovacs in a brilliant sketch from one of his ABC specials. The fake conflict and suspense of the panel quiz show is revealed to be hollow and disturbing in the light of actual high stakes-impending death. Kovacs however never points to any better values with which to replace the ones which have been lost. Too much of this can lead audiences into a nihilistic spiral of increasingly more violent and non-sensical declarations of the meaninglessness that pervades modern living (see Swim, Adult.) Despite this, the lack of quality tv would place Ernie Kovacs in a privileged position in the canon (and I would argue his ABC specials are among the 5 most important bodies of work ever done in the medium.)

On the other hand of the spectrum are issue oriented shows, whose main purpose is the opposite-to, through the explanation of things and the usually humorless confrontation of the viewer with “social issues” attempts to create a sense of meaningfulness in the viewer, even if often their attempts are laughably awful and small-minded. As in the commercial cinema, the choking out of meaningful and complex art due to distribution and financing models has left us with such ridiculous things as X-Men: First Class being lauded for having a gay rights subtext, or moving back to our subject, the proliferation of “very special episodes” about drugs or child abuse not only being called “daring” or “visionary” despite making medieval morality plays seem deep by comparison but also being used as teaching aids in middle and high school classrooms across the country.

The best of these shows by a long shot, The Wire, is so much better because its sociological viewpoint is backed by actual research and an understanding of the fact it is offering a sociological abstraction of lived experience. Despite this, the scenes in the Wire often fall into simple act-outs of things like race discrimination in the work place or the inner workings of the drug trade. Visually the show is exceptionally sophisticated because visual strategies are thought out each season-however, this isn’t the same thing as a genuine flowing visual engagement with the material.

NEXT TIME: Towards a Televised Novel!

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