Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Jeez, Louise, look what you could’ve watched on television Sunday night: The third-season premiere of HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” a compelling drama that dabbles bravely in issues of life, death, truth, beauty and the precarious line between reality and illusion. And, also on HBO, an “encore presentation” of last year’s first-rate and unflinching docudrama miniseries “The Wire,” about crime and dope, and more life and death, in Baltimore.
Among notable things about both these shows: the artistic freedom under which they were produced. The creators probably had more control over their work than 95 percent of our working American movie directors do. “Six Feet Under” and “The Wire” are auteurist television. They’re both adventurous and ambitious in the way they use the medium, and thus they advance it to another level.
But you don’t have to use the medium adventurously to end up with good television. Sunday night was a riot of variety: The third-season premiere of “Queer As Folk,” Showtime’s daring American adaptation of a British series about gay life in a big city … another episode of “Alias,” the ABC espionage series that lures viewers with sex and violence but is still a sophisticated exercise in style … Part 1 of “The Salem Witch Trials,” an utterly dreadful CBS miniseries that nonetheless features, in its impressive cast, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Ustinov, Alan Bates, Gloria Ruben and Kirstie Alley.
Even NBC, the network that often seems as proud of its garbage as of its quality items, had three solid hours of heavyweight drama on the bill: the nostalgic “American Dreams,” the nifty and gritty “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and the innovative “Boomtown,” whose producers really are trying to stretch the episodic drama format, even though the template can seem stubbornly unstretchable.
The truly creative people who do stellar projects for HBO may have ideal conditions to work under, but their counterparts selling shows to the commercial networks, broadcast and cable, probably deserve more respect, because they have to get through so many more roadblocks and obstacles to make something fresh and distinctive. The networks put no particular premium on originality; it’s not a priority for them. Their preference in programming: Be a clone.
HBO’s example has helped bring about at least a slight change in that attitude, however. What we may be seeing in scripted TV, though not in the unscripted kind, is an attempt to reverse the dumbing-down process that prevailed for years. Storytelling on the dramatic series and some of the comedies has become considerably more sophisticated. Commercials have too, of course; some of them blaze dazzling trails in the art of narrative compression.
Sunday night’s bill of fare included such respectable if not wildly remarkable shows as Dick Wolf’s remake of the Jack Webb classic “Dragnet” (one of the true auteurist landmarks of its time, the way Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” was); a Discovery Channel special produced by the BBC about the building of the pyramids; two episodes, a new one and a repeat, of Fox’s “The Simpsons,” one of the greatest sitcoms of all time and the only member of that club still in production (others include “Seinfeld,” “Cheers,” “I Love Lucy” and the Nixon presidency); Fox’s cheeky “Malcolm in the Middle”; “The Shield” on the FX cable network; the motion pictures “Ben-Hur” and “Grease,” both in letterbox format, on TCM, the greatest movie network ever; “The Osbournes” and “Jackass” on MTV; and a “Sopranos” rerun on HBO.
That is more good television than anyone could possibly consume, even with a couple of VCR’s or a TiVo going. And it was the first Sunday night after the February sweeps, so no network can be accused of being on its best behavior just to help its affiliates (in fact, the more intelligent a show, the more likely it won’t air during the sweeps, but that’s another problem, and this particular column isn’t about problems anyway).
One old canard about TV that can easily be retired, if it hasn’t already been, is that it turns your brain to mush, or to vichyssoise, or into a lead balloon or whatever. In fact, TV gives brains a lot of exercise, perhaps more than ever, just in the way the brain has to adjust to the various rhythms and textures and cadences that a single night of television can present. The commercials are at warp speed, the shows are at a faster pace than the shows of two or three decades ago or even one decade ago. The editing is more sophisticated and the contours less linear.
On the pay-cable networks, especially HBO, storytelling techniques are becoming more challenging all the time, but the audience keeps up. It would be fascinating to plunk somebody out of 1955, when almost all television shows adhered to the same rhythms and narrative patterns, and most commercials were straight-on and simplistic sales spiels, and plop them in front of an evening of television in the year 2003. For one thing, the viewer would have a hard time determining what product some of the commercials are even advertising (truth be told, I have that same problem sometimes myself, though I know if I hear “It’s a Beautiful Morning” it will be that pest Dorothy Hamill and her damn Vioxx tablets, which happen to be for the treatment of arthritis pain though usually the ad never says so).
But even network programs, which always lag behind commercials in use of technology and in kinetic inventiveness, look a lot different now than they did 30 or 40 years ago. Establishing shots are mere blinks of the eye, if they exist at all. Violence and sex are, of course, much more explicit, but that’s content and not style. Lighting, camera angles and editing are all likely to be distinctive and vary from one show to another to an incomparably greater degree than they once did.
Our TV-trained brains are quite capable, on the other hand, of adjusting to changes in the tempo and timber and tone. We can channel-surf through the decades and encounter television programs and movies produced during innumerable eras over a roughly 100-year period. Very very late Sunday night, so late it’s Monday morning, one can see, on the Game Show Network, a black-and-white episode of “What’s My Line?” that aired 40 years earlier on CBS-and for all the visual sophistication and attenuated rhythms of modern TV, it’s easy to adjust to the pace and grace of “What’s My Line?” and enjoy it as much as it was enjoyed the first time.
Nothing could be worse for television and its role in American life than for us to sit around marveling at it all day; to be satisfied with it is to encourage stagnation. We criticize it, pick at its flaws like scabs to help propel it forward. Even though the networks are largely in the recycling business, the new version of an old chestnut is never exactly the same as the original. Television is always in motion. It keeps spinning like the earth. It keeps beating like the human heart.