Editorial: On Television and Intimacy

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday. Unlike most of the entries on That’s Entertainment!, in which I share all the things that bring me joy, I am putting on my metaphorical journalist cap and writing one of those pretentious “think pieces” that you frequently see shared on your social media accounts – in between pictures of cats. I personally do not like standing on a soapbox, but after over two years of blogging, it is time that I indulge the trend.

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Truthfully, I have no definite reason for wanting to write this general essay on television, but I suppose it has something to do with a great fear of mine. As some of you may know, I am heading out to Los Angeles at the end of August to complete my final semester as an undergraduate student at Boston University. (For BU, taking classes in L.A. constitutes “studying abroad”.) I hope to get a position that allows me to write, because, after all, my goal for about a decade now has been to write and produce situation comedies. But my favorite shows are not Modern Family or The Big Bang Theory; my favorites are among the ones we have covered here on Sitcom Tuesdays – in other words, they are decades old. How can I reconcile wanting to create new things when my deepest regard is reserved for what has passed? The simple answer is that we can use the past to better the future. I have always told myself that. But… I must confess to a bit of a problem: I tend not to like a lot of the television shows being produced today. Unlike a lot of people whom I encounter who reject anything that aired before they were old enough to form memories, I am a snob who tries to avoid anything that came after I was old enough to form memories. (Okay, that’s not entirely true, but there are very few shows from the past 10 years that I can relish with the same enthusiasm I display for Lucy and Dick Van Dyke.) This could be a liability out in L.A., where brown-nosing is encouraged. But, I do not come here just to complain. I offer solutions as well.

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Television offers more variety than ever before and reaches more people than ever before, giving audience members a customized viewing experience heretofore unimagined. Something for everyone – sounds great, right? But with so many options, it is harder to focus and find the material worthy of our attention, rendering the majority of it nothing more than white noise. How do we find quality programming? Most critics and educated audiences look to shows that push boundaries – filled with sex, violence, and anti-heroes. These progressive shows are usually found on cable, which has established for itself a collective identity of superiority over the broadcast networks. So pronounced is this relationship that many viewers will cite these shows as the century’s best: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. All of them aired on cable networks. What else do they have in common? Aside from intense serialization, which works better for dramas than comedies, they are all very cinematic. Each episode is written and shot like a little film, with impressive cinematography and visuals that often best that which is being produced in Hollywood for the big screen. Additionally, the storytelling allows writers to explore characters and their journeys with greater detail, giving them the opportunity to craft arcs that can last up to a decade and play out in real time. For writers, cable television is now the place to be. And sure, these shows have a gravitas that those on the broadcast networks, bound by stricter regulations and aimed to target a broader audience, often lack. But the shows produced today, both cable and network (which are trying harder and harder to keep up – have you seen ABC’s latest attempt to find their Mad Men?) are antithetical to the inherent strengths of the television medium: its intimacy.

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Let’s back up. The wonder of film in its early halcyon days was contingent on the unrivaled opportunity to see beautiful faces projected across gigantic screens. From the silent era to the present day, cinema has always been about the spectacle. Yes, human beings are the primary draw (and should always remain as such; when people complain about the abundance of CGI in modern films, it is really a complaint against the refusal to rely on the industry’s human contribution), but films are events, and the more grandiose, the better. That is why the magic of the theatergoing experience, despite being diminished, will never be completely nullified. Yet the specialness of a motion picture has never been properly translated to the small screen (and never can be, even though television has been a dumping ground for old movies since the ‘50s), because spectacle cannot exist. So, why would television want to produce material that would be better suited for the big screen? I imagine it has to do with the medium’s desire for validation, for it has always been considered “low art” – even before the advent of reality television, Newton Minow notoriously labeled the art form a “vast wasteland” (and that was way back in 1961).

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However, emulating motion pictures is not advantageous, for this style makes no use of the aforementioned intimacy – the very thing that makes television unique. Never before could a piece of entertainment be seen and heard by millions of people at once, but within the privacy of small individual households. Theatre, an intimate medium due to the structure of putting performers and audience in the same place and same time for a finite fleeting experience, could never reach the people as directly. Nor could it appear with regularity into our living rooms, allowing these flashes of humanity to comingle with us in our private quarters. Television has the ability to transcend space and time, bringing the power of theatre to the people, with an unparalleled closeness. But theatre is a dirty word in Hollywood, for it is perceived as belonging only to a special few: something unable to give enjoyment to the broad masses that television is inclined to reach. Therefore, the separation of television from its theatrical roots has been in play now for over 50 years. And this is to everyone’s detriment. Not only are we, the audience, being completely underestimated, but television itself loses its magic. Were we to bring television closer to theatre than cinema, we would be able to restore the humanity that has long since been muddied by a film industry that has discredited the power of mankind in favor of the easier-to-manufacture opulence, delivering the required spectacle, but without tangible substance. (In other words, film is having the opposite problem!)

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To bring theatre back into the definition of television, I advocate more live programming, which would manufacture an event that would drive audiences to watch during the broadcast, and would also require the creative talent, both behind and in front of the cameras, to elevate the quality of their output. Additionally, New York needs to offer incentives that would bring back some of the industry to the East Coast, where the talent pool can be expanded to include stage performers who have ample experience in front of audiences. Furthermore, we need to reshape our definition of what quality television looks like. The content of the cable shows, although occasionally too vulgar for my decidedly old-fashioned tastes, has always been fodder for the stage, where harsh reality and stunning honesty has always had space to unfold. Let us confront this material without the distraction of overdone underscoring and ostentatious cinematography. Give us these dark characters and their nuanced arcs, but give it to us with intelligent dialogue. As the theatre does, give us real people.

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For our comedies, it is well known that I prefer multi-camera shows because they are produced live, playing like compact one acts. This design for original programming is not only desired for all the reasons already mentioned in today’s entry, but also because the presence of the audience is good for the comedy, as the actors’ performances can be infused with immediate feedback, which can also be beneficial to writers hoping to deliver the best product possible. No longer should we use, or sculpt, any laughter that does not come from a group of people watching an action at that precise moment in time. The laughter in contemporary multi-camera shows, although shot live, sounds artificial. Laughter that is not genuine is an insult to our intelligence. Use real laughter — and figure out how to earn it. We do not need complex stories with convoluted machinations. We need complex people with authentic conflicts. Both comedy and drama — it all comes from character.

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And ultimately, while I do not regard television’s trajectory as a progression (or even a decline) of quality, it is an evolution of ideas – ideas that are inseparable from the precise moment in which the medium is delivering its content. Thus, television is a transitory phenomenon, and its fleetingness needs to be embraced. I could do a better job of accepting its constant and inescapable evolution than I have been. Yet, because nothing in TV land is forever, I am confident that I will one day have the power to impact the industry and steer it closer to how I think it is most effective – back to the stage, where the medium’s inherent intimacy can refocus itself onto humanity, from which all entertainment is rooted. That is my plan… L.A., are you ready for this game-changer?

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules!

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2 thoughts on “Editorial: On Television and Intimacy

  1. Best of luck to you, Jackson! I hope you can restore some of what used to make tv great. I’ve never watched any of the cable shows that you mention above, and I hate that these shows are making protagonists, if not heroes, out of mobsters, serial killers, meth dealers, and the like.
    If you don’t already have a copy, you may want to look for Phil Rosenthal’s bio, “You’re Lucky You’re Funny” (which I just finally finished reading cover-to-cover after years of picking through pages of it). You probably know him as the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond” (which maybe you can feature on Sitcom Tuesdays by 2020. ;) ) He wrote about how he told a studio exec (whom he gives the Shakespearean name, Iago) that he wanted “Raymond” to be a classic well-made sitcom. The exec, however, wanted “hip and edgy” (a description that makes me cringe). If I may editorialize for a moment: how can anything be “edgy” now when there are no more edges? Rosenthal also tells about how he learned to run his sitcom by working on other sitcoms that were run badly. Of course, like Rosenthal, you’ll have to pay your dues writing for years before you can run your own sitcom, but the payoff can be great.
    Again, good luck!

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’ll have to check out Rosenthal’s book! EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND is probably the most recent multi-camera comedy that I can claim to actively enjoy without following the statement with a “but”. I intend to cover it here — but your 2020 estimate may not be too far off…

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