I really don’t care for television. Cheesy sit-coms, episodic crime shows, terrible reality series–the whole ordeal just seems like cheap thrills exacted on an unsuspecting public looking to “veg out” to the most mundane “entertainment” known to man.
The other week, though, I sat down and watched the Martin Scorsese directed first episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” The show stars Steve Buschemi as a crime boss during the early days of prohibition. The pilot was a little over an hour long. And it single-handedly made me re-think my original attitude toward television.
Okay, maybe not single-handedly. I have been indulging in “Mad Men” since season one, and have started to catch up with “True Blood.” While “Blood” is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, “Mad Men” contains some of the best writing and character development I’ve seen. In either movies or TV. Ever.
Although I stated my general disdain for the television format up-front, I will concede that we have had a few good television shows in the past. Still, each show felt somehow smaller than a movie, both in production value and ambition. Each storyline, in general, was wrapped up in a half-hour or an hour. Even shows with ongoing series-long storylines like “The X-Files” basically conformed to the formula, picking away at a bigger plot while being very careful not to overstep their serialized bounds.
Now things are different. Each episode of “Mad Men” really doesn’t feel like a single story. Hell, it doesn’t even feel like a full chapter of a story. Instead, “Mad Men” is developing as a full-on and complete narrative that complicates itself, takes unexpected (but perfectly plausible) twists, and develops plot threads for the “long haul” instead of the short term.
It’s like watching one long-as-hell movie that stretches over multiple seasons.
Or maybe that isn’t doing it justice, either. A movie has a limited amount of time to tell its story. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and the plot is usually fairly straightforward. It usually follows a three act structure and wraps itself into a pretty little package. Shows like “Mad Men,” then, may be more akin to a novel. They can go on as long as they want, they pride themselves on character and story, and they are careful never to let the style overcome the substance.
Either way, I’m happy. Because the reason I love movies is that I love narrative. I love the development of amazing characters and plot in a way that tells a complete story that matters–and isn’t just washed away at the end of the episode so the formula can be repeated “next week.”
The other side of this surge in “Television Cinema” is the huge leap television is making in production value. The show producers are willing to drop more money per episode, and the shows look amazing. The aforementioned “Empire,” for example, boasts big name actors (and an iconic director) as well as fantastic lighting, convincing costumes and production design, and period sets that would rival any Hollywood film. So the question must be asked…why can the TV studios all of a sudden afford all these bells and whistles. In a word: cable.
It’s a little counter-intuitive when you first think about it, but cable, in trying to reach its niche markets of subscribers, is able to spend more money than the major networks who mass-market to the entire TV-owning public. This is because they’re after something much more meaningful and financially viable than advertising dollars. They want subscribers.
Every person who gets HBO, for example, has to pay a premium to see it. That money is cold hard cash that is worth infinitely more (per viewer) than the advertising moneys that come in for broadcast TV. Add in the ever-expanding DVD and Blu-Ray market, and it’s no mystery why stations like HBO will spend millions of dollars on a show that gets lower ratings than most broadcast television shows.
Also, HBO and the like aren’t nearly as content-hungry as broadcast networks. While NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX have hours and hours of content to fill in order to keep their networks chugging along, HBO has a little more freedom. They can make only a few shows, supplement their network with movies, and call it a day. By promoting three or four big-budget shows, they can ensure that they pull in lots of subscribers without having to fill an overblown programming slate. And because people get hooked on shows and follow them, HBO and AMC can get away with limiting the number of episodes per season to 12 or 13–whereas other networks must make 20-24 episodes. Instead of chasing constant ratings week after week, the cable stations just have to hook you once for that subscription fee. Instead of making ridiculous amounts of content, they can focus on quality and still make more money.
Still, there are some serious drawbacks to television, even in its current incarnation. For one thing, when a television show is successful, the producers find it insanely difficult to end the thing. What ends up happening is that a show will languish onward for years until it finally runs out of steam. Recently, “Lost” tried to curb this phenomenon by setting an end date. Still, the show went on longer than it should have, and many viewers left unsatisfied.
Similarly, “Mad Men” was trying to put a cap on its run. And you could feel it. The show seemed like the producers and writers were really driving toward a specific end point…a finite set of character arcs that would stand alone as a great example of narrative.
But now, the show is getting popular, and the producers are talking about extending it. Guess what? You can feel it. This season’s episodes have been a little less subtle, slightly less thought-out, and more overtly dramatic. Small character flourishes that used to build to a climax are thrown to the forefront, and you can feel the producers trying to hook you in the short term and forgetting the long-term.
That’s the problem with television. Any good story has a good beginning, middle, and end. But if the story is good, the show keeps getting ratings. Its not until it starts to falter that an ending is tacked on, and the whole thing collapses under its own weight.
But I feel like that might change, too. HBO seems to understand the limited shelf-life of their shows, and they bank on ending certain shows and beginning others in order to draw in new subscribers. Could this lead to true “tele-novel” style shows with a definite ending?
I hope so. Because I get drawn into these shows in the same way I would a movie. I want the story to be compelling. And, like any good movie (or any good story) I want it to end, and end well.
Because unlike a movie, if the show drops the ball in the last act, you’ve wasted more than just a couple of hours.