The Great Creativity Challenge

Bill Gibron

Ever since the coaxial met the cathode ray, a competition has raged.

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 Scantily clad models doing "aerobics" have long since been replaced by urbane comedy, intense drama, and a diversity in subject matter and approaches that regular network programming could scarcely attempt.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.

The Sitcom

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.





'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.