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Jan. 25 2012

I love TV, but I pay for it

By Reed Hessler | Posted in Host Blogs | No Comments

This discussion of the state of television is turning into a WBJC roundtable. Sorry guys, but my wife and I love TV. And, yes, the fact that we pay a large monthly satellite TV bill  has a lot to do with it. In fact, I will pontificate as much to say I believe we are living in a golden age of television, and that in the last fifteen years television has turned into a major art form.

I did not always feel this way. Indeed, years ago I was a television snob, proud of the fact that I almost never watched. When I got cable and eventually satellite TV, it was only to watch movies. But once we subscribed to HBO and other premium channels about ten years ago, we started to check our their weekly shows and gradually got hooked.

HBO revolutionized television with “The Sopranos”, and its subsequent shows followed suit. “The Wire” has been called the closest thing to the complexity of the novel ever created for TV. Showtime and now American Movie Classics have created other great original programming. I am astonished at how “Mad Men”, my favorite show at the moment, manages to reinvent itself not only from season to season, but from episode to episode. At first I marveled at its uncanny recreation of the early 1960′s, but I stayed to marvel at the characters, including one of the finest performances by a child actor I have ever seen: young Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper, who has aged from age six to the brink of puberty during the show’s four seasons. (And “Mad Men”, by the way, is on basic cable.) The best of these shows, following the HBO model, have done away with the television norm of weekly, self-contained short stories following the lives of the main characters in episodic fashion, and created an arc that develops a single story over one thirteen hour-season. Beyond this, subtle and often enigmatic character and plot development that require viewers to use their brains to understand  what is going on elevate the best of these shows to the level of art. Admittedly, HBO has alienated many viewers with this approach. With a show like “The Wire”, it is impossible to check out random episodes at one’s pleasure and understand what is going on. Instead of solving a different crime every episode, in the tradition of television crime dramas, “The Wire” took an entire season to solve a single case, and over five seasons explored the lives of about a hundred major characters from all walks of life. But at its core, the humanity of “The Wire” (whether evoked through humor, tragedy, or the mundane events of daily life) was both clearly recognizeable as the common humanity I experience in my own life, and deeply moving, as all great art should be.

Of course, this is an investment of time (not to mention money) that one may not be able or choose to make.  And these shows are certainly not family entertainment. But neither are many of the best theatrical films, or for that matter plays and novels.

Other shows my wife and I have liked include HBO’s “Treme” (about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), “Deadwood” (especially the first season), and AMC’s “Hell on Wheels”, which just concluded its first season. My wife and I were underwhelmed by the first season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, but the second season took our breath away. BBC America’s “The Hour”, about British television newscasters in the 1950′s, was excellent. I would add my recommendation to those who like “Slings and Arrows” (about the travails of a Canadian Shakespeare company on the Sundance channel a few years ago). Although it took me several episodes to warm to it, the second season was awesome. I could make a much longer list, and indeed some cable shows are simply fun potboilers like HBO’s gory vampire saga ”True Blood”, or clever concepts like Showtime’s drug dealing suburban mom comedy “Weeds”. 

But before I conclude I want to give a nod to broadcast TV. My wife and I are also big fans of “Downton Abbey” on PBS, and no one does adaptations of British novels better than “Masterpiece Theatre”.  Not to mention public TV’s myriad history documentaries  that have taught me more history than I ever learned in school. My wife watches “The Good Wife ” on CBS, and I’ve seen enough episodes to enjoy its intelligently drawn characters and remarkable plot concept (an attorney breaks up with her husband and then has to deal with him professionally). My wife also likes “Modern Family”, a twenty-first century take on the classic TV sitcom. I know there are many fine shows I have never seen simply for lack of time or interest.  So even the much maligned broadcast TV has much to offer.

And as for the bane of contemporary television, reality and/or competition shows, surely some moments of grace can be found there too.  My wife faithfully views ”Top Chef” and “Project Runway”, which I practically have to force myself to watch. But at least, as she points out, they are reality/competition shows based on talent not conniving. The one competition show that I truly love, on the rare occasion I see it, is “Iron Chef” (octopus cheesecake, anyone?).

Sure, there’s a lot of  television programming that I find abysmal, but wasn’t that always the case? And these days there is just so much to choose from. Hey, if you don’t want to pay a hefty satellite TV bill, you can always rent most of these shows from Netflix.

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Reed Hessler

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Reed is WBJC's evening host. His full bio can be read here.

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