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Television as Art: The Steepening Line

This past Spring - I'd guess March or April, looking back at the calendar - I was going to write a journal entry titled "The Continuing Lessons of Time". I never did, of course, precisely because of those selfsame lessons; i.e., when you're so overcommitted and so overextended that you've lost all your free time for a significant and lasting period, Time becomes all that more precious, and you'll look in places you didn't used to for even an extra 20 minutes to yourself.

This occurred to me again today, when I was adding my gripes to telaryn's re: Joss's generally disappointing Dollhouse. In short: The first half of Season 1 was terrible, the second half was surprisingly solid, and I'll watch the second season when it's over. Which will be when the show is cancelled. Because the ratings being what they are, and Fox being what it is, of course it will be.

And this is why I don't pick up new shows. For the past few years my policy had been to not pick up any new shows until after they're renewed for a second season. Partly because I was tired of my hopes being dashed when a new favorite got canned - Firefly being the most potent example. And partly because first seasons are almost always shaky, and sometimes they need that first dozen episodes to figure out what works and what doesn't (Veronica Mars, Buffy). While other times the show will have done several things right and has fantastic potential, but I realize - after giving it the benefit of the doubt for way too long - that the showrunners are Dumb in far too many ways, and the show will never achieve even the slightest bit of greatness it could have had in other hands (Smallville).

Because what it comes down to is this: I hate wasting my time on mediocre art.

In small doses it can be instructive: There are numerous occasions I've come out of a play frustrated and angry, at the writing or execution - but in thinking about how it fell flat or confounded or bored me, I learn more in the lessons of effective storytelling; what works and what doesn't, and WHY. But on an ongoing basis, as with a TV show or comic? I just can't do it. Simply put, I've better things to do with my time.

What I'm discovering this means is that my threshold for acceptable quality in serialized fiction is getting tighter and stricter with every passing year. It used to be that if a show had a couple of elements that I found even passably interesting, I'd stick with it - even if the rest were mediocre beyond belief. (What else could account for my watching ER for ten years?) But today? I look at a lot of the shows coming out - shows that friends of mine are watching, and presumably enjoying - and they don't interest me enough. I think about watching it for 20 hours out of a year, and ... it's not enough to pull me in.

  • Flashforward sounds like it has an interesting starting point. Moreover, it sounds like the kind of genre I most enjoy: One single fantastical element as a starting point, but otherwise real-world and character-driven. But the premise does sound limiting, in the snarky "What do they do in the other two-dozen episodes?" sort of way.
  • Fringe sounded ... well, frankly it sounded to me (and everyone else) like a blatant X-Files ripoff. Which, the way that show oozed its way out the door, is not a great memory to evoke. I kept saying maybe I'd watch it, because I've watched everything J.J. Abrams has done and enjoyed it all ... but again, I just couldn't find the desire.
  • And just the other day my sister Kari asked if I was planning to watch the new V. I joked that I first wanted to watch the original miniseries, since when it first aired my parents wouldn't let me stay up past my bedtime to watch it and a part of me was still mad at them for it. But in all honesty, I look at the new show and, well...
Don't get me wrong: There are still things I've not yet watched, and want to. I feel I've heard enough about True Blood to give that a shot. And I've yet to hear anything less than an absolutely stellar review of The Wire.

I do believe that serialized fiction can become incredible works of art when done well, and there are shows I've watched in the past decade that demonstrate this powerfully. That show me something I've never seen before, and move me emotionally - whether that's excitement and mystery (Lost), fear and dread (Jekyll), laughter and astonishment (Spaced), or love and loss and wonder and hope (far too many to count, though JMS and Joss get heavy nods). But it seems that more and more, the shows that are coming out don't inspire enough confidence for me to actually watch even the first episode. For me to give up enough of my time to see if they're actually worth the time they take up. Is this because I'm becoming a progressively more discerning viewer? Or that the shows that have been coming out are actually that much less? (Or, quite possibly, both?)

I still do love television as a medium, and look forward to the next time a show knocks my jaw to the floor and leaves me speechless and shocked from its brilliance. It will happen again; I know it.

But I must admit, it's a far cry going from someone who loved television so much he had TiVo for 8 years - to someone who doesn't even have cable.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 5th, 2009 12:13 pm (UTC)
Maybe you're just beginning to become a cantankerous old codger. :)
Nov. 5th, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC)
I typed a long reply to this and LJ ate it. :(

I don't have time to rewrite it right now, so here's the gist:
I think it has a lot more to do with your time and energy constraints than the quality of television. You have a television comfort zone, and going outside that means risking spending time on something that may not turn out to be awesome. (Of course, that means you miss out on things that are awesome...)
Nov. 5th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
Hmm. That *might* be fuzzy language at the end, or I might have completely failed at making my point. Which is:

Yes, it's true that I have far less time these days than I used to, with the result that my time is much more valuable to me. But one thing that hasn't changed is the need for Great Art in my life; it really is one of the things that nurtures and fulfills me.

What has changed is what makes the cut. Whereas before I would make time for shows that were "pretty alright", any new shows I now add must have indications of being friggin' stellar - whether from online reviews, friend raves, or something else.

I don't want to miss out on Awesome, and if I'm paying attention then I shouldn't. But I also no longer wish to spend my time on shows that might eventually be good - or might, honestly, kinda suck.

If it turns out that the show is worth watching, I'll hear about it. After all, as they say, quality will out.

Edited at 2009-11-05 08:19 pm (UTC)
Nov. 8th, 2009 06:31 am (UTC)
I watched the first season of True Blood, and half of the second season. The first season rocked my socks off. No kidding, I had ants in my pants weekly waiting for the next episode. The second season I was really disappointed with, especially because the first season was so awesome.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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