Typing Faster

December 8, 2009

The Aughts: When TV Became Art -OR- When Everyone Learned to Shut Up and Trust the Showrunner

Emily Nussbaum has a nice article over at New York Magazine looking at what the past decade has meant for television. All in all its been a pretty special time.

Just listen to the chronology described at the start of the article.

On January 16, 2000 Big Pussy slouched up Tony Soprano’s driveway, hiding his terrible secret. It was the first episode of the second season of The Sopranos, and everywhere, on cable and network, artful programming was on the rise. In April, HBO aired The Corner, the precursor to David Simon’s The Wire; in May, Buffy the Vampire Slayer closed its fourth season with the dream-finale “Restless.” In July, Freaks and Geeks completed its single perfect season. Sex and the City was a national sensation, The West Wing had begun the previous fall, Jon Stewart was finding his feet on The Daily Show, Adebisi was murdered on Oz, and Curb Your Enthusiasm debuted, violating the premise that viewers couldn’t tolerate a hateful protagonist. HBO was in its heyday; TiVo in its infancy. As Sinatra crooned over The Sopranos‘ opening scenes, it was a very good year.

It sure was. It was a good year that led into a great decade. And it really is incredible, looking back, just how good the television of the last decade has been. Add shows like Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Deadwood, Rome, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and on, and on, and on.

The irony of it is that while the decade produced some incredible television shows, it’s also the decade that produced reality television.

Of course, 2000 was also the year Survivor debuted, that bug-eating guilty pleasure critics denounced as the apocalypse. On Fox, Rick Rockwell married Darva Conger on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, attracting 22 million viewers: a faked-up spectacle, starring unpaid unknowns, yielding a massive jackpot.

Pretty much describes reality tv in a nutshell, doesn’t it? I’m sure I’m not the only one who hoped that reality tv would go the way of Darva Conger’s marriage (she got it annulled a month after the show aired), but that obviously hasn’t happened. And while you could probably call the aughts the decade of reality television, I think you’d be a doing a disservice to the medium.

…for anyone who loves television, who adores it with the possessive and defensive eyes of a fan, this was most centrally and importantly the first decade when television became recognizable as art: collectible and life-changing and transformative and lasting. As the sixties are to music and the seventies are to movies, the aughts – which produced the best and worst shows in history – were to TV. It was a period of exhilarating craftsmanship and formal experimentation, accompanied by spurts of anxious grandiosity (for the first half of the decade, fans compared anything good to Dickens, Shakespeare, or Scorsese, because nothing so ambitious had existed in TV history).

It was an incredible shift in the way people thought. Before the aughts no one in their right mind would think to even mention television in the same breath as Dickens or Shakespeare. This was change with a capital “C.”

To recognize how radical a shift this was, you need to recall the easy contempt television inspired for 50 years, back when it was “the vast wasteland,” “chewing gum for the eyes.” Even the greatest TV creators knew enough to be reflexively self-mocking; they labored in a compromised medium, built to sell soap. But as this decade began, it had already begun to dawn on viewers that television was something that you could not just merely enjoy and then discard but brood over and analyze, that could challenge and elevate, not just entertain. And a new generation of prickly, idiosyncratic, egotistical TV auteurs were starting to shove up against the limits of their medium, stripping apart genres like the sitcom and the cop show, developing iconic roles for actors like Edie Falco and Michael C. Hall. As the years proceeded (and technology inspired new styles of storytelling), even network TV could stage an innovative series like Lost. On pay channels, especially HBO, it was a genuine renaissance: Show-runners like David Chase and Alan Ball and David Milch and Michael Patrick King (and his Sex and the City writers) reveled in cable’s freedom, exploring adult themes in shocking, sometimes difficult ways.

The New York Times pretty much lost its mind over The Sopranos, but even in retrospect, David Chase’s nasty masterpiece was a prescient creation, a symbol of what was taking place across the schedule: It was an auteurist twist on a classic genre, featuring a dislikable protagonist and stylistic risk-taking startling for TV (dream sequences, oddball pacing, film-quality visuals). In the last years of the nineties, Joss Whedon attracted a passionate cult following with his very different but equally ambitious series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, freed not by paid cable but by the invisibility of the WB. Blending teen romance with classic horror, Buffy had adult resonance disguised by its juvenile title and lo-fi looks – and it was the precursor to ambitious genre programming including Veronica Mars, Alias, Battlestar Galactica, Whedon’s Firefly, Lost, and True Blood.

Who would of thought that the creative resurgence of television as a medium would coincide with the rise of empowered showrunners? Showrunners who were given free reign to realize their artistic visions? In a lot of ways the aughts are a mirror image of what happened during the seventies in the feature film world, just substitute writers / showrunners for directors.

Chase’s and Whedon’s very different voices would come to represent the new style of TV making, less sentimental and more freewheeling, willing to alienate viewers, capable of a slow build not over episodes but over whole years – in striking contrast to the slick, interchangeable legal and medical procedurals, the syndication-friendly format that dominated the networks. On HBO, Alan Ball turned Six Feet Under into a stage for questions about mortality. Aaron Sorkin built a liberal holodeck on The West Wing; on FX, The Shield examined the intertwining nature of corruption and heroism. J.J. Abrams co-created the philosophical puzzle-box Lost; David Milch shocked the Western to life on Deadwood; Vince Gilligan interrogated one man’s slippery moral slope on Breaking Bad. On Canadian television (and reruns, thank God, on Sundance), the drily hilarious Slings and Arrows slashed through three matchless seasons from 2003 to 2006. Showtime built its own boutique-cable brand, with naughty series that reveled in dysfunction – the best being Weeds and Dexter (and the loopiest, Ilene Chaiken’s The L Word). The decade of innovation was capped by the rise of Matthew Weiner, another sly, combative auteur inspired and trained by David Chase, whose narcotic Mad Men brought back the watercooler debates of The Sopranos.

Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment. It was by nature collaborative, requiring and rewarding compromise from those who created it. But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist, a risk in an industry dependent not only on advertisers but on the willingness of viewers to continue to let you in, week after week. When his online fan base howled at tragic plot turns, Whedon argued, “It’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” Chase resisted fan worship of Tony Soprano by grinding our faces in his anti-hero’s repulsiveness. In an interview just before the Mad Men finale, Weiner mused, “You know what, I don’t want to have the tail wag the dog; I don’t want the audience deciding what I do. Because I don’t think in the end they’re the best judges of that.” This doesn’t mean that every nose-thumbing auteur made great TV: Take, for example, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a tantrum about television, on television. But despite such misfires, there was something revelatory about this personality type, characterologically resistant to people-pleasing, with a bratty – sometimes self-destructive – insistence on a legacy beyond that night’s ratings.

Now I’m just going to ignore all the bits about artistic entitlement and bratty, self-destructive behavior, and instead I’ll focus on the positives. If you look at the list of great shows produced in the last ten years, and then take a look at the writers responsible for those shows, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that behind the majority of these shows stands an empowered, successful showrunner.

It’s something that television writers have been saying for years. If you want great shows, then hire the right writer for the job and get out of the way. We all want to write the next Sopranos or Wire. Get out of the way, let us get on with it, and hopefully the next ten years will be as good as the last.

And if it makes you feel any better you can always fire us if things don’t work out. I don’t think any writer would disagree with that.

Check out the rest of the article. It’s a good read.

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