Friday, March 31, 2006

The Golden Age of Television

It has always amused me that people who attack television as a negative influence and proclaim a desire to give up watching never seem to express the same desire to abandon seeing movies, as though the movie is somehow a higher art form. In the past, such a distinction might have been possible to maintain, but not anymore. Television has experienced a monumental revolution in quality over the past 5-7 years. Of course, I am not suggesting that there no longer exists morally degrading shows on TV. The bad always coexists with the good in any medium. What I am suggesting is that good television has, in the past half decade, gotten immeasurably better.

Part of this is due to the cream of the Hollywood crop (writers, actors, directors) realizing that television allows them creative opportunities that film could never accomplish, such as the ability to develop characters and plot lines over the course of twenty-two episodes rather than having to try and cram them into two hours. Consequently, many of the top artists in their fields now employ television as the canvas on which they now express their art.

So I was intrigued to find confirmation of my theory in the newest issue of Entertainment Weekly. In an article titled "TV is King!" EW's film critic (notice this is written by a FILM critic) argues that what appears on television today is of greater quality than what is appearing in movie theaters. She writes:

Any episode of any Law & Order is better than half the feature-length dramas released each week. Any episode of The Office is better than 80 percent of the comedies. Any episode of The Wire is as good as anything nominated for an Oscar. Television is where interesting indie filmmakers like Michael Almereyda and Darnell Martin go to direct episodic dramas when Hollywood runs out of uses for them, where Crash writer-director Paul Haggis goes after he wins an Oscar, and where great actresses like Jean Smart and Stockard Channing go to dazzle when they age out of Hollywood's camera range. It's where I go every day for cultural grounding, amazed at what point-and-click riches there are to be found while sitting in my sweatpants.

In line with this, here is my list of what I consider the ten best dramas on television right now.

1. 24
Provides more suspense, dramatic tension, and adrenalized action per minute than any film released in the last ten years.

2. Lost
Part mystery, part morality tale, part spiritual meditation, all genius.

3. Battlestar Galactica
This apocalyptic space drama offers intriguing reflections on religion and the quest for meaning and purpose in the universe.

4. Smallville
This show is about much more than simply the birth of a superhero. It is preeminently a show about how fathers shape the lives and destinies of their children. (Jonathan Kent and Lionel Luthor shape their boys in quite different ways.) The very first episode of this show set the tone for its emphasis on moral and character development. Young Clark Kent is walking into the first day of classes at high school when he drops his books. Lana Lang picks one up and says, "I see you are reading Nietzsche. So, what are you, man or superman?" Clark Kent replies, "I haven't decided yet."

5. Veronica Mars
Clever dialogue and great acting combined with intricate mysteries.

6. Invasion
A roller-coaster ride of a story that also works as an allegory about the strangers among us.

7. Gilmore Girls
To be honest, I have never watched an episode but I do have four seasons of the DVD's to pour through this summer. I include it here because of all the high praise I have heard from others and, especially because if I didn't, I would have to answer to my sister and niece.

8. Supernatural
One of the few televised attempts at horror that genuinely succeeds at being scary.

9. CSI
A show so culturally influential it has spawned articles on the "CSI Effect." Also the favorite of some college president's I know.

10. Everwood
A quality drama with strong characters that regularly addresses moral issues in all their complexity.

One final note: In the same issue of EW, Stephen King writes an article titled "Confessions of a TV Slut," in which he confesses to having ignored TV much of his life until he recently came to recognize the dramatic increase in quality. He lists the six shows to which he is currently most addicted, four of which find a place on my list as well (Veronica Mars, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, 24).


At 12:44 PM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

um, I don't know how it fits in, but you cannot mention the high value of television without mentioning football. It's the only reason I have cable.

At 1:32 PM, Anonymous John R said...

For the life of me I cannot figure out how to watch all of the great television and still find time to get anything else done. That's why I got rid of the television a few years ago. I was doing fine until AOL came out with some old shows from the seventies that I can watch on the computer.

But aren't you the guy that wrote his dissertation while watching TV?

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Josh.Graves said...

I would add "Without a Trace" (which comes on right after CSI) and "The West Wing"--which is on its way out.

"Without a Trace" finds meaningful ways to weave in family, addiction, dysfunctional relationships into a compelling public service dept. dedicated to recovering lost persons.

"The West Wing" had some of the best dialogue on television period. Contrary to popular belief, the show was not anti-Republican. The writers found ways to bring up issues from the Clinton/Bush administrations in meaningful ways.

There is even a scence when President Bartlett goes one on one with God in a Catholic sanctuary following the death of a life-long friend. It is one of the purest lament scenes I have ever viewed on television.

Love reading your blog, Greg.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger k2 said...

i second the in2tv bit. i, too, have been watching kung fu, and welcome back kotter.

At 7:29 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

You evidently have way better cable than I do; I don't recognize some of those. That's okay -- I don't have time to watch the few shows I'm currently addicted to, all of which are on your list (I feel so validated!:-)

You will love the Gilmore Girls -- mainly because of the development of all of the characters in the town. You will recognize someone you know and/or are related to in each character.

At 9:57 PM, Blogger chris said...

I too would include sports in this list inasmuch as they take the time to highlight various "inspirational stories" of the players involved. They usually have to do with overcoming tragedies such as street violence, lost loved ones, separated from parents trapped politically in other countries and/or personal injuries. I have also heard many examples of "contemporary Christian" bumper music during segways particularly on CBS during the NCAA tourney including Switchfoot and a tract from the Christian rock opera HERO.

Have you ever done any research on "Christian music" industry growth and how kids are responding to them vs. the typical pulpit preacher or Bible school teacher?

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Always happy to provide validation. From what I've heard, my summer immersion in Gilmore Girls should be enjoyable.

At 8:56 AM, Blogger Greg said...

I haven't really done much research on that in a while. A few years ago, I taught a class in which the subject was raised and my students largely said they didn't listen to Christian music as much as secular simply because the music wasn't as good. This has been a problem that has plagued the Christian music industry. The focus for a long time was on the message. Christians were so concerned about putting out a different message from what's in the culture that they paid little attention to the art through which they were trying to communicate that message. My sense of the matter, however, is that Christian artists have now realized this and I think the quality of the music is improving rapidly. But, I suspect that for those people who listen to it regularly, Christian music may have as big or bigger an influence on their theology than does the sermon.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Jim said...

Speaking of contemporary Christian music on TV - Tuesday had a song by Kutless on Scrubs and Mary Mary's Shackles on American Idol...

(I don't normally watch American Idol, but I heard about it on the radio and borrowed the recording from my brother.)

BTW, echo the "validation" thoughts...I only watch a few shows, but Buffy is probably my all-time favorite. The first episode my wife and I watched was Once More, with Feeling. After that we rented or downloaded all the previous seasons and watched it until the finale. It's probably the only show (besides Angel) that's non-current show in which I've seen every episode.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Jim said...

That should read:

...the only non-current show in which I've seen every episode...

Jim, wishing blogspot allowed editable comments (without deleting them and re-posting).

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I am proud to say that I was a faithful viewer of Buffy from the very first episode that aired. I also have to say that I thought "Once More, With Feeling" was not only the greatest Buffy episode but one of the finest hours of television I have ever seen of any show.

At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do love CSI! I continue to enjoy your writings. The main reason I am commenting is just so that I can come before Ron Cox in the comments!

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Greg said...

It is very important to stay ahead of the Cox's.

At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CSI, 24, and any of the Law and Order shows are the ones I'm addicted to.

That, and episodes of Ask This Old House.

For the rest of the time, I'm doomed to watch Wiggles videos and Wheel of Fortune with my 7 year old son. :-)

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

I do so look forward to chatting about "24" this summer. I just watched all of season 3. I counting the days till President Logan gets popped by Jack. Sad to see the banker go down last night. I liked him.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Ditto. I was surprised at how quickly I became attached to the banker in such a short time.

At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

Since I am a banker, I made the comment while watching that I hoped they didn't kill the banker. I may be wrong but I don't think you can overide those time locks on bank vaults. At least on the good ones. Once they are set, they can't be opened until the appropriate time.


Post a Comment

<< Home