PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
Ever since the coaxial met the cathode ray, a competition has raged. At first, it was as one-sided as a Fox News Special Report. Cable TV consisted of reruns interspersed with sloppy original content, its only creative spark being the ability to buck standard broadcast censorship laws to deliver some T&A (a show like John Byner’s Bizarre isn’t remembered for its witty repartee). The last three decades have seen cable’s steady ascent into television brilliance. Scantily clad models doing “aerobics” have long since been replaced by urbane comedy, intense drama, and a diversity in subject matter and approaches that regular network programming could scarcely attempt.
For a while, it looked like cable would win the war of worthiness hands down, making its lack of limitations work for, not against, its artistic invention. With a succession of critical hits, premium channels (Showtime and HBO) and basic cable outlets (Bravo) showed the networks what lazy aesthetic charlatans they had become. But recent years have seen a turning of the tide, the networks reclaiming territory where cable had supposedly set up permanent shop. Just a few months ago, it seemed like all anyone ever talked about was The Sopranos. Now, it’s what will happen next on 24, or if we’ll ever see the monster on Lost‘s not so deserted island.
Ever since the coaxial met the cathode ray, a competition has raged.
Have the broadcasters finally wised up and embraced the innovations that cable made famous, or are they conjuring their own, original glass teat delights? Or it could be that, in this moment when technology allows for easier cross-migration, both sides are striving to reach the same amusement goal? Whatever the case may be, if we look at the four major programming categories (avoiding specialty programming and news altogether), we can see the creativity gap closing. The question then becomes who’s on top, or, more importantly, why.
Three cameras, a cast of recognizable character types, witty one-liners, and cornball circumstantial chaos: this is the formula for situation comedy. It worked for Lucy and Jackie, even when tackling subjects like bigotry and poverty. Somewhere along the way, the laugh track started sounding forced, and the sitcom was declared D.O.A.
You have to give cable credit for messing with the blueprint. Both The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm prove that experimentation can lead to classic comedy laughs. Yet an alternative programming mindset can also screw things up (read: Unscripted, or even Arli$$).
But it’s the networks who know real consistency, and have the track record to back it up. While it may be too soon to predict whether NBC’s Americanized version of The Office will be the next Friends or Seinfeld, it is clear that CBS won’t suffer when Everybody Loves Raymond ends. Waiting in the wings are a number of shows (The King of Queens and Two and a Half Men, to name but two) that might become long-term hits in their own right. For cable, sitcom success is a rarity. For the networks, it’s all part of their standard operating procedure.
It’s impossible to discuss the popularity of adult-oriented animation without mentioning the Family Guy phenomenon. But instead of citing DVD sales figures and fan-board boasting, let’s focus on the fact that network TV finally “got” the value of such alternative, irreverent programming. You’d think The Simpsons would have proven that point. But the failure of Futurama (from a popularity, not production standpoint), only confirmed the belief that animation just doesn’t attract primetime viewers (Fish Police, Capital Critters or Family Dog, anyone?).
This thinking changed when Family Guy sold a few million DVD sets. And cable is mostly responsible: when Futurama and Family Guy wandered over to the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim,” both previously ratings-challenged shows became huge, drawing demographically attractive audiences. Not to mention South Park, which continues to do its damnedest to leave no sacred cow unscathed. It consistently proves that cartoons can be crass and politically charged at the same time.
The Continuing Drama
Call it the Twin Peaks syndrome. Ever since David Lynch’s genre-bending series, dramatic television has been in frenzied, unfocused flux. Shows featuring square-jawed doctors and cops catch-phrasing their way through crime scenes gave way to ER‘s blood-and-guts glories and CSI‘s corpses viewed in excruciating detail. Apparently, if you can’t win them with intelligence, you wow them with technical wizardry and seeping wounds.
It was The Sopranos that altered that landscape. With its complex, carefully crafted characters and attention to cinematic detail, it was the wake-up call that both cable and the networks needed. Recently, both Deadwood and The Wire have been hailed as likely replacements for the soon-to-be-signing-off mafia drama. While Deadwood makes the old West raunchy, The Wire places its cops and robbers dynamic squarely in the realm of the moralistic, not the mindlessly violent.
So cable will continue to dominate the quality conversation, right? Not necessarily. Broadcast has stolen some of coaxial’s thunder however, with two quasi-retro re-imaginings. Lost and Desperate Housewives are the very definition of water cooler programming. Housewives reinvents the Big D (Dallas, Dynasty) days of nighttime soap operatics with a fresh, self-referential approach. Lost, like Peaks before it, lives and dies by its quirky intrigues.
While cable may have birthed reality programming (MTV’s The Real World), it was broadcast who took the ball and ran with it. CBS took TRW a slutty step further with Big Brother. And if TLC distorted the BBC’s Changing Rooms into Trading Spaces, it took ABC and an ex-Spaces cast member to really prove how to overstate home improvement. Extreme Make-Over: Home Edition is perhaps the pinnacle of what makes reality TV so strangely addictive. Call it Queen for a Day with a homestead exception. Helping the needy never seemed so glamorous or self-serving.
Cable channels do try to out-reality the networks. HBO still offers Taxicab Confessions, Real Sex, and the morbidly fascinating Autopsy series. And in the past few seasons, cable has given us the Gottis, Dog Chapman and his Hawaiian bounty hunter posse, and the Duke and Duchess of Denseness, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson. When push comes to shove, what satisfies your guilty pleasure jones—a visit to the ER, or a bunch of mindless moneygrubbers arguing over the departed’s last will and testament? The answer is obvious.
Come to think of it, there really is no contest here. Instead, it appears a spirit of healthy antagonism has lead to a real renaissance amongst television’s creative community. Once cable was considered the last bastion of quality TV, but the network have responded, not only with the “tried and true,” but also with some daring programming. As the “vast wasteland” is becoming more fertile, the winner is the audience.