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Hogarth judge

November 2017

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Hogarth judge

Why does network TV suck so very very badly?

NBC has announced that its new post-Friends lineup is even heavier on hour-long "dramas," and guess what? They're about lawyers, doctors, cops, and politicians.

This is worse than the 1960s, when every other show was a Western or a variety show.


Censorship

I think at least part of it has to do with the censorship of "violence." Cop shows in the 1970s were essentially action and adventure programs that just happened to have cops or private eyes. Shows like Banacek and Hawaii 5-0 were watchable, occasionally interesting. The climax of the show typically involved a car chase or a gunfight with the bad guys.

Gunplay is out. Now we have to endure Realism, and Fine Acting: which for purposes of television can be redefined as speechifying and browbeating. Gunshots are relatively rare in the Naughts' police dramas. Browbeating petty suspects and courtroom drama have taken their place. The bad guys in the old cop shows were gangsters or communist spies plotting to blow up bridges. Today we get drug criminals (who usually also commit some peripheral crime as well, to let us know they're Bad) or domestic violence.

This at least allows the writers to have the characters talk about sex. Because we apparently can't feature adventure anymore because of "violence," we instead show the gory aftermath of crime, and we talk about sex. This way if there's a flash of brief nudity, they can go on and on about how liberated and adult these shows are. If they had adventure, they wouldn't need sex to create excitement.

Issues melodrama

It sucks, and it's dangerous.

There seems to be about a two month lag between a current event and its fictionalized treatment on a TV network drama. A recent cop show I caught a smidgen of had the police rooting through a Michael Jackson style Neverland, full of oversized stuffed animals. We've had surrogate OJ Simpsons and Susan Smiths turned into TV villains. We now have dozens of Islamic terrorists. This is "relevance," perhaps the worst idea born of the 1960s. I suppose in the writers' minds, it makes these shows realistic and timely. It's awfully mechanical, though; and worse --- it relies for its effect on the recollection and exacerbation of recent events that triggered moral outrage.

Of course, issues melodrama is melodrama, and that's why this particular kind of melodrama is dangerous and evil. There has to be a clearly marked villain. The process of turning some of your neighbours into villains is called witchhunting and moral panic, and it's a dangerous ugly habit that the citizens of the USA are all too susceptible to. I boycott issues melodrama as a matter of principle, and I urge you to do the same.

Continuity

The scourge of the comic book fan, continuity has been unleashed on TV with a vengeance. The results are not pretty. Continuity makes it difficult to sit down and figure out what was going wrong.

In the original Star Trek, and in most police adventure series of the time following it, each episode was relatively self-contained. Developing relationships between the stars' characters were not really expanded on from one episode to the next; there were few or no multi-episode subplots. Each show started with a crime, plot, or problem; by the time the hour was up it would be prevented, fixed, or solved.

Now every drama series has soap opera elements that come in at the expense of clearly defined characters. West Wing is supposed to be a good show, but I missed the beginning. If you don't watch it habitually, try turning it on and see if you can follow it. I'd hate to have to explain to anybody what had happened before in some of the late episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess. Charmed is almost as bad, and Buffy became unwatchable because of all the Character Development.

To the writerly and actorly mind, this kind of complexity seems a virtue, because complex character development is a skill they have learned to admire. It also assures that for all practical purposes, a show's long term appeal is defined by the audience for the premiere. This sort of soap opera serial plotting infects all of the network TV drama series, and makes them quite hard to get into even if you were disposed to like them.

Conclusion

I watch perhaps five network TV shows regularly --- in that I will try to catch them if they are not in reruns. Of those shows, three are hour long series: Charmed, Smallville, and Star Trek: Enterprise. Even these have tended to lose my interest, largely because issues of plotting and continuity makes it hard to pick them up again after you miss one of them.

Life is too short for bad television. There are better things to do than to passively park in front of the tube. Unless we have more action and adventure, less pretentious issues melodrama, more self-contained episodes, and less soap opera, I will quit watching even the shows I like now.

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