Sunday, July 19, 2015

Serious like a good crying jag

Inveterate television watchers have been extolling the worth of cable drama for some time now, honoring the programming as solid evidence that television has entered a new Golden Age. It's a view I share in large part. There has been and continues to be so much interesting and artfully convened fiction and comedy spread  out along the cable channels that participating in a TV show carries the sort of prestige that had been the exclusive claim of movie work. Small wonder for the tremendous ground swell in quality, as movie producers, directors and writers, finding it more difficult to get serious dramatic films produced for theatrical release, approached premium cable stations like HBO and Showtime, along with FX and AMC on the non--premium side, to see if they could get their projects done. The rest, of course, is a changed industry, with new technologies, more viewing options , and more demand for original content. Not everything that has emerged in the vein of serious cable drama has been compelling, which was to be expected by anyone who knows the basic dialectical precept that "quantity changes quality". (Consult your Hegel, Marx and Engels for more elaboration, or browse this handy cheat sheet on the issue). The upshot of that abstract dictum is that familiarity breeds contempt on the audience's part, who eventually become so saturated in the fundemental mechanisms of serialized drama that what was once fresh and refreshingly unexpected becomes cliched  and , further, lends itself to parody. Worse, the dramas parody themselves. That would be a sad state to find ourselves in, a sad state to return to, not much different than when the broadcast networks ruled the airwaves and ruined us with decades of shtick.

This is to put forward that the sort of drama introduced to cable television introduced with the 1997 HBO prison series OZ  has been around long enough to develop, inspire further plot innovations and variations to the extent that the quality fiction programs we've come to know have developed their own generic structural particulars and developed , as well, their own cliches. Part of that seems to be the draining of humor, even gallows humor, from a good amount of the newer dramas and the drastic draining of any ironic sense that might give the relentless pursuit of gloom a breathe space or at least a chance to laugh hysterically at some sudden funny quirk that would release tension before building it up again. 

The Atlantic Magazine has an article titled "Why Prestige TV is So Depressing" .This article is a pretty good overview of the current crop of prestige dramas that have filled the cable channels. I pretty much share the opinion that television has matured to the point that it can have splendidly plotted, directed and acted serial dramas that provide the grittier and compelling twists of the human heart at war with itself (a paraphrase of Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech quote), an audience desire that theatrical motion pictures have not been able to do in large part for at least the last 20 years. 

 Humor in these most recent series,, though, seems to be on vacation and matters are several shades too dire and too serious . Game of Thrones should have been conceived as a limited series with an end game in sight, different from Martin's unfinished novel series. This last season was a humorless trudge for the most part , and killing off the characters you're sympathetic with is no longer effective means of keeping interest.The end of this many -layered saga is open ended and the story arcs , given the shuffling pace of the last two seasons, appear that they'll require several more seasons before anything resembling a conclusion arrives at our doorstep.

Focus is the key for series that want to dwell in the baser aspects of our nature. We would benefit from producers, writers and directors having very good outlines of where their proposed serial dramas begin and end, that the adventures in the middle area are interesting but don't wind up in a dead end or mired in the metaphorical swamp of distracted character chatter. We need more dramas with that have the element of irony , surprise and humor, dark humor of course, to make the complicating action of flawed characters seem more vivid--those moments of relief make the dramatic momentum have more power. Think Sopranos, think Six Feet Under, think Breaking Bad. All isn't lost, though, as we have Fargo, Better Call Saul at our disposal, shows that realize that dramatic power isn't limited to a cast of frowny faced psychopaths, rapists and killers who are working out their issues sans a punchline of any sort.