[25 July 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
With the Emmy Nominations having been announced for the July 2010 to July 2011 television year, another season is officially concluded. Thanks to a sudden rush of outstanding end-of-the-year shows, what once looked like it was going to be a mediocre to average television season unexpectedly became strong.
Although the Emmys will announce the 2011 winners at its annual show on 18 September, I want to take some time to look back on some of the high and lowpoints of the past season. Beyond doubt this is not exhaustive although it’s certainly a personal list; these were some of the things that either most delighted or most upset me as a television viewer this year.
For each day for the next two weeks I am going to reflect back on one major highpoint and one major lowpoint of the 2010-2011 television year. And since everyone loves a countdown, let’s start with Number 10:
Highpoint Number 10: Mad Men survives
For the past four years Mad Men has reigned on the consensus selection as the best show on TV. It has received the most critical acclaim and won the most awards of any TV drama, though the latter is not always a measure of a show’s quality. In case anyone needs a reminder, which of Boston Legal, The Wire, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer got the most Emmy Nominations? Hint: It wasn’t either of the last two. But in its fourth season, Mad Men didn’t just stay good, it got better in what might have been its best season yet. The episode “The Suitcase” goes on my personal list of the ten best television episodes that I have ever seen and may have been the best episode of any show of the year.
Despite this continued excellence, had things turned out a bit differently, my tenth biggest highpoint would instead have been the number one lowpoint, because for a while it seemed that TV’s best show might end suddenly and prematurely. Or at least end with the show’s creator Matthew Weiner as the head. This was mainly a crisis over money, but also over a gaggle of other issues. The three-way negotiations between the producing studio Lionsgate, the cable network AMC, and creator Weiner revolved around the size of the budget for each episode, the amount of product placement in each episode, and the length of each episode. AMC wanted each episode to run for 45 minutes, two minutes shorter than in the past, to enable more commercials; in the compromise the season premiere and finale will run 47 minutes while the middle 11 episodes will run 45, though on DVD and VOD all will run 47.
At the end of the day an agreement was reached that will keep the show on for three more seasons, which will give Weiner, who now becomes one of the highest paid producers on TV, sufficient time to bring to a satisfying conclusion one of the finest shows in television history.
Lowpoint Number Ten: America’s Ongoing Obsession with Reality and Talent Shows
If there’s a single factor above all others that perpetuates low-quality television and blocks good television, it’s the TV viewing public’s continued willingness to watch talent and reality shows. These shows cause so much harm in so many ways that I can only gesture towards some of the more toxic effects.
First, the “talent” in the talent shows is rarely particularly talented. For every individual from these shows who make some sort of contribution to American music, there are a thousand who contribute absolutely nothing. Even most of the winners of American Idol are mediocre or average at best. I personally listen to one and only one former participant of any contemporary talent show and that is Adam Lambert, and even in his case my listening is limited to a couple of songs from his album that reside on my iPod. But even with his talent, I’m doubtful that he will have a substantial career. Why? Because in today’s music scene careers are for the most part driven not by vocal talent but by the ability to produce one’s own material.
To take merely one example, Samuel Beam, who performs under the alias Iron and Wine, has a fairly weak, thin voice by contemporary talent show standards. It’s a pleasant voice, but incapable of the vocal acrobatics and histrionics that drive virtually all performances on today’s talent shows. Yet, because he is an excellent songwriter he has been able to produce more outstanding music than any figure that any of these modern shows have produced. That includes Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson; though to her credit Underwood is clearly the most substantial talent that Idol has produced, mainly because she can write. Hudson has talent, but she is too heavily dependent on material penned by others. The same weakness is going to hamper Adam Lambert’s career.
Consider Bob Dylan. The preeminent figure in popular music for the past 50 years, it’s doubtful that he could have made it past the first round of any talent show.
I’m not even going to get into the dance shows, which are sad beyond expression. Though I would like to ask, when was the last time Dancing with the Stars (or Celebrity Apprentice, for that matter) featured a real star? Never? It has become a showcase for former stars of the second rank and former minor celebrities, with a smidgen of retired athletes.
None of the mediocrity of talent on these shows would matter if Americans didn’t watch them in such depressingly massive numbers. Fox TV has come close to clearing its schedule so that it can have Simon Cowell’s The X Factor this coming fall and American Idol in the spring. NBC has devoted most of an entire evening to watching fat people get less fat. As a result, all the networks want more and more shows of the same kind. As a result there are fewer and fewer scripted shows on the major broadcast networks.
Thank god for cable!
The massive success of the talent and reality shows has induced extreme impatience on the part of network programming heads. In the past (the “past” being defined as pre-Survivor) networks would often, though not always, keep a show on the air simply because they knew it was great or helped brand it as a quality network. They would hope to build an audience through advertising or winning awards or summer reruns or word of mouth. In today’s climate both All in the Family and Seinfeld would have been cancelled during or after their first seasons.
The best new show of the fall of 2010—along with The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire—was the tragically short-lived F/X series Terriers. Never heard of it? Well, point made. It was witty, well-acted, and exceptionally well-written, everything that the reality shows are not. But it was cancelled in mid-season despite critical raves because of low ratings. That it was outstanding was not deemed sufficient justification to keep the show on the air while they tried to build an audience.
As someone who loves to watch television, I get impatient with uninformed ignoramuses who love to pontificate on the badness or worthlessness of TV. In particular I butt heads with people who have watched almost no TV but have read either Neil Postman or Jerry Mander’s anti-intellectual scree Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (my personal candidate for the worst book I’ve ever read from beginning to end). These are people who haven’t seen Mad Men or Friday Night Lights or Six Feet Under, yet they inevitably snicker when you tell them how outstanding Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica is. All they know are the names of the latter two shows, but come on! Just look at the titles! They have to be bad.
I always consider these poor souls to be culturally illiterate. But if their points were directed at the talent and reality shows I would agree with them completely. Apart from the mediocrity of the talent, these shows–especially the reality shows–are akin to sadistic pornography. If people on these shows didn’t suffer, plot, and squirm would anyone watch them? Of course not. Just as no one would watch NASCAR without the possibility of a deadly car crash. Take away the possibility of people being nasty or behaving like absolute scum buckets and they’d get fewer viewers than Terriers .
There are, of course, exceptions, though most of these are on networks like Bravo. There are shows that do not have to stoop to people engaging in Machiavellian intrigues designed to destroy their competitors. But the majority of viewers are overwhelmingly on the side of the shows that show people at their worst.
Occasionally the developers of new shows go too far. Protests were loud and sustained against Kid Nation, a reality show in which kids had to build a society without adult supervision. Even the show’s creator admitted that it would remind people of Lord of the Flies, and the show was killed off due to public outrage. And most people were repulsed by the mere concept of The Swan (2004), in which women engaged in such extreme makeovers that extensive plastic surgery played a major role. These two shows proved that we aren’t willing to watch just anything, that there is a limit to the garbage they’ll ingest.
Networks love reality shows for two reasons: they are very cheap to produce and they get high ratings. The downside is that they have little or no syndication value, so their value is almost entirely up front. Neither will they generate much in the way of DVD sales. The box set sales for the failed Fox SF series Firefly dwarfs that of any reality or talent show. All of which indicates that these are shows for one-time consumption. We may watch and rewatch The Shield or Buffy or The Wire, but one viewing of any reality show will be enough.
Is there any hope for this situation improving? Not much. We can’t really blame the networks for this plague of worthless and godawful television. They don’t force people to watch The Biggest Loser or prevent them from seeing Terriers. This situation exists because the American TV viewer loves to watch crap. In other words, the networks aren’t to blame; we are. The fault lies not in the stars, dancing or otherwise, but in ourselves.