Television’s Golden Age

THS_facadeBack when I was in academia, my Film Studies chum Mark Jancovich and I would discuss how it was that television these days was so much better than the movies. And here we are twenty years later, and almost everyone has caught up with that idea. The movies are a zombified example of stuck culture: remakes and reboots and endless comic book films and cynical exploitation of a tiny constituency’s complete lack of critical faculties. Star Wars XVII here we come.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been experiencing the joy of watching my teenage children watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We’re up to Season 6, and last night was an orgy of delighted squeals as they watched ‘Once More, With Feeling’, the one with all the songs. The older one remembers hearing the theme songs from upstairs in bed when she was little; the younger one has been gorging herself on spoilers, via a friend who has already seen it. Watching that episode, you have to wonder how Joss Whedon ended up reduced to directing yawn-inducing interminable, plotless, superhero movies. Perhaps we’re in some crazy parallel universe, the Vamp Willow one.

Buffy ran from 1997 to 2003, which makes it a 90s show, though it refuses to confine itself to a single decade. It was in the 90s that Mark and I agreed that television is better than the movies. Back then, we based our opinions on such fare as The X Files (1993 to 2002); Homicide: Life on the Street (1993 to 1999); NYPD Blue (1993 to 2005); ER (1994 to 2009); Northern Exposure (1990 to 1995); and so on.

If these shows had parents, they were shows that started in the 80s, paving the way for the greatness to come: Hill Street Blues (1981 to 1987); St. Elsewhere (1982 to 1988); thirtysomething (1987 to 1991); and Seinfeld (1989 to 1998).

Anyway, all that preamble was simply leading up to this. People often ask me, what’s your favourite TV show? And I never really have much of an answer because I love so much that is on television at the moment. I love The Good Wife, and Game of Thrones, and Justified… But it was sitting down to watch Buffy with my kids that reminded me: christ, but that show was brilliant. So much good writing, episode after episode of brilliant performances, and a real emotional punch that showed it had heart. I think Sarah Michelle Gellar is brilliant in it, and the supporting cast (apart from Riley) are all superb. Buffy showed what television was capable of: that it could transcend the narrow confines of genre and become part of the vernacular. My idea of true happiness: watching my kids watching Buffy.


Brothers Grim

The Harvest (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

The real title of this post could be, Why I don’t watch Breaking Bad, but I didn’t want to give the appearance of posting link bait.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that the whole of the Twitter has been abuzz with the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, a show I have managed to avoid completely since I first read about it in one of those Guardian roundups of the new season of TV.

There’s no one reason why I haven’t ever sought it out. I posted on the Twit that it all seemed a bit grim to me, but that’s not the whole of it. Part of it is a constitutional resistance to anything championed by the Guardian, though that hasn’t meant (for example) that I haven’t watched The Americans and Homeland. While the latter is silly, I do quite enjoy the former. On the other hand, I disliked The Sopranos, The Wire, and finally admitted to myself how boring I found The Killing at the beginning of Season 3.

So there’s a list of the kind of chattering classes fodder I generally avoid. One of the things that enrages me about the current media narrative of TV is that only now are people acknowledging TVs superiority over the movies. I even heard Eddie Mair spouting the line on PM the other day. Fact is, some of us have been saying this since the early fucking nineties. This book was conceived by Mark Jancovich and myself in the 90s, and because I left academia shortly afterwards, Mark edited it with James Lyons instead. So it absolutely drives me insane when people discuss quality long-form television as if it was a new thing. Here’s a list of my all-time favourite TV dramas, in no particular order:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • NYPD Blue
  • The X Files
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Alias

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. Homicide: Life on the Street might have made the list, too. A lot of genre stuff there. Also not much that’s current, so here’s another list of stuff I’ve watched and enjoyed recently.

  • Justified
  • Saving Grace
  • Stargate Atlantis
  • The Good Wife
  • Fringe

Again with the genre, but on the whole you’ll have guessed that my tastes tend towards the glossier, big budget shows. Justified and Saving Grace have/had a bit of grit, and could be grim, but they also feature characters with a moral compass and a bit of heart. What I don’t like about these cable shows is that they tend to be unremitting in their negative view of humanity, not to mention the gratuitous nudity and incessant swearing. People like what they like, but I always suspect a little bit of adolescent delight in the swears. Another thing that I find bothersome is that, when I enjoy something, I like it to have 20+ episodes a season. These cable shows often max out at 13, and often have even fewer episodes. When I want to binge, I want to fucking binge.

I’m generally bored with cop/crime shows and always approach with caution. I hated The Shield, but did enjoy Southland. I watch the light stuff like Castle and The Mentalist, but I don’t regret the loss of Dexter to Sky.

Sky is part of the problem here. If Breaking Bad had started on Channel 4, who knows, I might have started watching it. But knowing I would always have to seek it out online or buy boxed sets, I just couldn’t be bothered: too much friction. Fringe and Battlestar are two rare shows that I actually bought as DVD sets. But if Breaking Bad did turn up on Freeview, I would feel that it had already been watched for me, so I wouldn’t bother. And, no, a satellite dish and a Sky subscription will never be an option. I’m not being all left wing: I do pay Sky for my broadband, but since I’ve no interest in 90% of their content, I’m not paying for it.

So it’s the grimness, it’s the Guardian’s endorsement, it’s the brevity of the seasons, the fact that it’s yet another crime show, it’s the friction in obtaining it. My sister tweeted me to attest that Breaking Bad is not grim and is actually quite funny. So I read a bit more about it. I hadn’t even realised that it was the bloke out of Malcolm in the Middle. And you know what? When I learned it was him, I was even less interested in watching it. I also tried to work out if there were a decent number of female characters in it. I mean, does it pass the Bechdel test? Most of my favourite shows have strong female roles, don’t they? I hate blokeish stuff.

And that last point, more than anything, explains my lack of interest in Breaking Bad. If someone convinced me that it wasn’t male-centred macho bullshit, maybe I’d watch an episode.