During the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the first season of Homicide: Life on the Street, the predecessor to the HBO’s marvelous Baltimore cop-drama, The Wire. Like The Wire, Homicide is a coarse, deeply cynical police procedural about the hard-scrabble lives of Baltimore detectives fighting a two-front war against both petty, narcissistic city bureaucracy and a skeptical, resistant public. And though it doesn’t have the intricate, season-long story arcs or fiendishly obscurantist dialog of its pay-cable counterpart, in terms of density and difficulty, it seems to push the limits of network television about as far as they’ll go. It’s not the sort of show that anyone would ever describe as “accessible.”
But it is, however, deeply evocative and engrossing–an early example of the elevated, novelistic trend we’re currently seeing in television. Almost fifteen years after its initial network run, Homicide is still a chilling, savvy look at the grim business of playing the unloved, underpaid housemaid to a city’s murderers. It’s not just compelling storytelling (though it certainly is that), it’s also a resonant cultural artifact–a diorama of death and urban decay set against the creaking machine of city bureaucracy.
And it seems to me that it’s this cultural element of shows like Homicide, and now The Sopranos, The Wire, and maybe even pulpier shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, combined with the increasing popularity of DVD box sets, that suggest that television may transcend its throwaway nature and acquire a new permanence.
Critics like Terry Teachout and Mark Steyn have argued that there’s no such thing as “classic” television. But, with much respect to both of these critics, that may no longer be the case. In his most recent Atlantic column, Steyn references Teachout’s essay “The Myth of ‘Classic’ TV,” and then writes:
Indeed, the more “classic” your show, the more ephemeral it is. Getting into Ovid or Gregorian chant is a piece of cake next to getting into thirtysomething fifteen years on. Conceivably, one might find oneself in a motel room unable to sleep at four in the morning and surfing the channels come across St. Elsewhere. But they made 137 episodes of multiple complex interrelated plotlines all looping back to Episode 1: if you’ve never seen it before and you stumble on Episode 43, who the hell are all these people and what are they on about? By comparison, if you happen to catch, say, an episode of Naked City from the late ’50s, you might not know who the detectives are or recognize Billy May’s wailing theme tune, and the whole monochrome thing might be a bit of a downer, but you can still pass a pleasant hour with a self-contained one-hour cop drama. The “better” television got at its art, the more transient it became. I doubt The Sopranos will be an exception to this rule. Ninety percent of all the people who’ll ever be into it are already into it.
Steyn is certainly correct to say that shows like Homicide don’t lend themselves to the trivialities of syndicated kitsch. Most cable reruns work, essentially, as sleeping aids. The bland background hum required for effective afternoon cable programs or late-night channel surfing material doesn’t mix well with the drawn-out ambiguities and complexities of these shows. And if cable reruns were all we had, then that would be that.
But television, especially of the long-form serial variety that HBO specializes in, is becoming more novelistic. The characters are richer, and there are more of them. The plotlines are more involved. The sense of place–the upper middle class New Jersey of The Sopranos, the urban hellhole of Baltimore in The Wire–is carefully cultivated. The lines between good and evil are far less clear. These shows, unlike so many that came before them, exhibit all the elements of classic novels, and when the literary types of the future look back for signs of how our culture saw itself, it may be that what they look to are shows like these.
Moreover, the transitory nature of television is changing, as DVD box sets allow us to approach television in a way that preserves–even enhances–its novel-like aspects. Binge-watching these shows in commercial free, multi-episode gulps is a perfect way to experience the “multiple complex interrelated plotlines” that Steyn sees as a flaw in regular broadcast viewing. The rise of the DVD medium means that a show like Homicide, which, as with an excellent novel, provides both an accurate portrayal of a place in time and a gripping narrative populated by scads of well-crafted characters, is no longer consigned to the wastelands of syndication. You can enjoy it on the show’s terms and your schedule.
Even the physicality of the DVD medium lends it the sheen of a collector’s item, giving it roughly the same permanence, as well as personal significance, as a book on a shelf. A mid-afternoon rerun requires nothing of you; you can turn it off, flip the channel, fall asleep–you get no say as to when or whether it airs. But a DVD is yours; you chose to buy it, to put it on your DVD rack, and eventually to sit and watch it. In doing so, you bestow importance on it. You may not remember what aired at 9 p.m. on Thursdays a decade ago, but you’ll remember what’s on your shelf.
As our culture becomes more visual and more technology-dependent, we’re also seeing a muddying of the boundaries between imagery and text (witness the surge of video blogs on YouTube supplanting the text-blogs of MySpace and Blogger), meaning that film–yes, even television–is simply going to be less stigmatized as a “lower art.” While some will undoubtedly continue to think of the medium as best suited for delivering forgettable thrills and lowbrow titillation, younger generations accustomed to serious-minded TV and overall visual culture won’t make such distinctions. Instead, they’ll grow up watching and re-watching box sets of their favorite shows in the same way that older generations read and re-read novels. And when the next generation of storytellers reaches adulthood, it may well be that they choose television as their preferred medium, furthering the migration of the long-form narrative from books to screens. It seems likely, then, that these at least some of these shows will resonate–and yes, maybe even become “classic.”
Peter Suderman is assistant editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He blogs on film and culture at www.alarm-alarm.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl