Sunday, October 23, 2016

Is This Really the Third Golden Age of Television? Stick a Fork In It.

I once threw a television set off a bridge. I called it an art project at the time. The authorities would've called it littering. Had I been more into the showmanship aspect of this conceptual expression I would have gathered an audience. As a college art student I was making a statement, I believed. I was also going for a certain explosive effect that I was anticipating as the glass onion hit the rocks.

I'm not trying to be mean. Television is an incredibly powerful medium, but as more than one person has noted -- David Foster Wallace most vividly -- it is a powerful distraction from getting other things accomplished. At its essence, network television is clickbait.

Google defines "clickbait" as "content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page." It's an internet-era term that I think applies to TV as well.

Wallace notes that one major feature of television is that it's an effortless medium to imbibe in. He writes,  "Easy and undemanding, requires nothing of us, as a result we as a nation are mentally lazy. This is normal to avoid work, which is why few people strive to paint like Leonardo da Vinci or play piano like a virtuoso. We pretend to be philosophers but we really don't do the heavy lifting of philosophers."  

* * * *

It's in this context that I wanted to share a few observations, prodded by my recent re-reading of Difficult Men by Brett Martin. Martin's book is a detailed examination of the players and proceedings of what he argues is "the third Golden Age of television. His premise is that the original Golden Age (fulfilled in the 50s) and the Second Golden Age (a period in the early 1980's) has been experiencing a third, led by a host of influential HBO shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire. These story serials have taken viewers into new territories, producing cult-like fan followings. Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and The Shield are premiere examples of the form.

Martin's book highlights the bold writing, as well as the manner in which exceedingly flawed characters are regarded heroically. It's heralded as a "raw realism."

The chief aim of Difficult Men is to put these groundbreaking scriptwriters on a pedestal and throw accolades.

But at certain points Martin shows too many of the cards in his hand. No question these scriptwriters are exceptionally influential. Are they making the world a better place?

Raw. Realistic.

What was the secret to HBO's success? Martin expressed the problem like this: How can we (HBO) make people pay for our content when they already get more than enough on Network TV... FREE? Well, the answer was not complicated. Show things that you can't get on prime time: breasts and the kind of language that is forbidden there.

From its racy beginnings more than three decades ago today's shows make early HBO look like grade school.

After reading Difficult Men I decided to test the waters a watch one of the series that got raves from the author of this book: The Wire. The story takes place in the inner city of Baltimore. Drugs, gangs, crooked cops, crooked officials higher up the political seawall... corruption and social cancer, all authentically portrayed with solid acting, interesting characters, etc. etc. etc.

As we're going along in episode four the script writers did something that made me roll my eyes. It's well known that Hollywood insiders love to see how much they can get away with. As in any field, people are competitive. So a screenwriter looks for an opportunity to get into the record books for something as meaningful as, um, "Let's see how many times we can get the F-word into a movie?" Yes, a noble pursuit that we all want our children to aspire to. The Wolf of Wall Street packed 506 of them into its 3 hour feast. There was such a buzz about this achievement that you knew ahead of time it was not "a family movie." 

But those screenwriters are competitive and that Scorsese film has been surpassed already with a 900 word F-bomb massacre.

What's the point? It's obvious. People are still watching and this confirms their cynical view of human nature.

Episode four of The Wire (someone can correct me if I'm wrong) takes a page from the Scorsese playbook with a bit of dialogue that is so unreal only a screenwriter could write it.

Remember, the main idea of writing fiction is verisimilitude. That is, the story needs to give the appearance of being real. What you don't want is for the reader (or audience) to have a mental pinprick that produces the thought, "Pshaw, that would never happen." Which is exactly what I experienced in the scene I am about to describe involving detective William "Bunk" Moreland played by Wendell Pierece and detective James "Jimmy" McNulty, played by Dominick West.

There has been a shooting at a residence. These two detectives arrive to check it out. The dialogue our screenwriters apparently provided went as follows. (I have mis-spelled the critical four letter word and replaced it with a euphemism.) Here's the dialogue, as delivered:

Fork
Mother Fork
Fork, fork, fork, fork, fork.
Fork, fork, fork, fork.
Fork
Fork
Fork
Fork
Fork
Mother Fork
Aw Fork
Aw Fork
Fork, fork, fork, fork, fork.
Fork.
Oh, fork, fork, fork.
What The Fork
Forking-A
Fork
Mother Fork
Fork me.

On paper this must have been funny to someone. Raw? I guess. Realistic? Do you think this would be how two detectives would talk for ten minutes when investigating a crime scene? Now I am not suggesting they do not us the F-word. What I am saying is... where are the in between words, like, "What happened here?" or "Oh man, like whoa... Is he still breathing?"

Maybe I lack the experience as a television watcher. The scene struck me as too stupid to be taken seriously. So much for The Wire.

Alas. No wonder our visions of the future are so dystopian. 

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