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October 25 2008

Is There Intelligent Life on Television? An interesting discussion from the Claremont Review of Books on the maturation of television as a medium, one that has now "developed the aesthetic virtues traditionally associated with books -- complex and large-scale narratives, depth of characterization, seriousness of themes, and richness of language." Mentions of Joss, Buffy, BSG, and the like naturally follow.

Excellent! Thanks, Vague. I can use this when I cover media with my English class. The textbook, true to form, has completely glossed over any discussion of new media and its impact. This article bridges that gap nicely.

I just love it when Whedonesque gives me teaching material!
Nice article but I wouldn't have minded seeing mention of groundbreaking television productions from outside the US.
Thanks from me too - not because I can use the article in any meaningful way in the world :) - but just because it's nice to read intelligent dissection of the role that different media play in our lives, and how they reflect each other.

I could disagree on some points, and on the whole it's a slightly dry analysis, but overall - yes, to anyone who watches the good stuff on tv today, it is not news that it is every bit as capable of reaching the heights as the Victorian Novel that everyone so idolises. (And don't get me wrong, I love a good Victorian novel, but I see the same themes and complexity in Angel and Buffy and Firefly as I do in Our Mutual Friend and Les Miserables. And I love it, and I don't understand those who write either medium off on the basis of being too shallow or too outdated, respectively.)
Dr Who rings my nogin quite well.
Nice article but I wouldn't have minded seeing mention of groundbreaking television productions from outside the US.

Yeah that leaped out at me too Simon. I've no problem with an American author for an American publication writing an article that only talks about American television BUT how about using that qualifier (i.e. 'American') every now and again ? It's a bit irritating to read 'television' repeatedly used to describe one part of the world's output in that medium as if it basically covers everything that's worth covering (and to not even mention non-commercial television - like e.g. the BBC - seems like a bit of an oversight).

That aside, not a bad essay, well written and thoughtful (and it suggests a couple of books I might seek out too).

I'm not sure I agree with the largely technological emphasis he places on TV development though, it surely played a big part but it seems like there's an element of competitively seeking novelty that's missing from the analysis i.e. when a medium gets to a certain minimum age people have already seen so much of it that there's a pressure on creators to produce stuff the audience hasn't seen already and that seems to lead to more complexity by itself (e.g. blending genres, subverting tropes, breaking the fourth wall etc.).

And hand in hand with that is that creators can rely on viewers to be familiar enough with the medium's conventions so that they know when those conventions are being broken to good effect (and further, the creators themselves have grown up with the medium and know both what it has done and what it can do - today's showrunners aren't old vaudevillians or radio writers or novelists/playwrights slumming it, these are guys and gals that love TV in and of itself and I reckon that shows).
Excellent thoughts, Saje! Now, please wrap them up in a harden steel-casen and fire them towards the networks. Pretty please?
Yup Saje, I guess that's part of the medium maturing that he is talking about. (Using those two words together just made me want cheese.)

As to the American bias... I was more amused than anything else. There's the criticism of a foreigner who wasn't willing to familiarise himself with the culture enough to enjoy it... and that's fair, but I did definitely get a between-the-lines patriotism coming through. Particularly enjoyed the defence of capitalism through tv evolution. On the other hand, it's true that the comparison he's mostly drawing (complex arcs and classic novels) is truest of American shows, on the whole - Doctor Who may have mythology and Life on Mars had energy and concept - but nothing to compare with the character arcs in a Joss show.

there's a pressure on creators to produce stuff the audience hasn't seen already

You'd think so, wouldn't you? And then there's Big Brother...
Is there Life on Mars? Yes, two of them! ;)
Then there's the unpleasant reality that he's talking mainly about shows no longer running. . . .
The Dr. Horrible DVD should include a "Goat Song."

Oops, already does . . .
DaddyCatALSO, that same thought occured to me as well, and I took a moment to grimace.
Yeah, but his point about critics frowning on new media is still relevant.
DaddyCatALSO said:
"Then there's the unpleasant reality that he's talking mainly about shows no longer running..."

He simply seemed to be going for critically acclaimed + familiarity. Stuff most people who go after quality TV have had a chance to see or at least sample. A whole lotta folks haven't had the chance to see Mad Men (me), Dexter, and whatever other hits you can think of, any relatively still young series.

I don't think it was an indicator that there's nothing good on TV lately, 'cause that sure ain't true.
Nice article but I wouldn't have minded seeing mention of groundbreaking television productions from outside the US.


There's television outside the US? My egocentric world is askew!

But in all seriousness, we Americans tend to miss those important limiting adjectives that get in the way of our mental global domination. It reminds me of the World Series for baseball when all the participating teams are American. What about some of the Japanese teams? Can't they ever be World Champions?
Well, there are Canadian teams, too. See? Very worldly.
Hah, I once heard an American sports journalist interviewed about that very topic. He was stalled for a second and then hit back with "well, your soccer 'World Cup' doesn't include an American team!"

British reporter: "uh... yes it does."

American reporter: "...oh."
Hah ;). In fact the USA's been in the finals more times than Scotland in the last 20 years (and of course when you throw the 'American' net a bit wider, Brazil have won it more times than anyone else).
In the author's defense, I bet the Claremont Review of Books doesn't have a wide circulation outside the States. It would be natural, under those circumstances, to assume that the adjective "American" was appended by implication. I'm sure the author didn't think about certain television series having large, cult-like followings...some of whom might be (gasp) furriners...

The U.S. men's soccer team has been in the World Cup finals every tournament since 1990. I watched the '94 Cup that was held here, and was heartbroken when the U.S. played a much more talented Brazil team even for 80 minutes before finally surrendering the game-winner. Because I am a glutton for punishment, I have continued being a fan. We're gonna win the Confederations Cup next year! (Okay, no, we probably won't. But hope springs eternal...)
In fact the USA's been in the finals more times than Scotland in the last 20 years


Oh....grr. But on the plus side... um. I can't actually think of a sporting plus side for Scotland right now. Oh, curling! We won something in that once.

[disclaimer: skittledog is only Scottish when patriotic moods are upon her. By all technical definitions, she is English.]
Dunno, whenever I meet someone with a slightly tenuous claim to Scottishness I always ask them "Who do you support when they play X [usually England] ?". If we were a great side it wouldn't tell you much but since we're not (apart from occasional flashes) I reckon it's a pretty decent indicator of who they self-identify with - you have to feel something inside to perpetually root for the losers.

(Scotland's World Cup song from France '98 made me smile in a wryly proud sort of way. It was the Del Amitri one called "Don't Come Home Too Soon" - sappy video aside, I defy any other country to send their team to a World Cup with a song - a frikkin' ballad no less - basically just asking them not to go out in the first round ;)
Heehee, I remember that. And oh, clearly I support Scotland against England, always. No-brainer. I grew up in Scotland, and I remember at age 17 the really strange feeling of watching an England-Germany game on tv with a bunch of other English people (but still in Scotland) and actually supporting England. It was so odd, and felt quite treacherous.
Then there's the unpleasant reality that he's talking mainly about shows no longer running. . ..

I would say that's because the article is built on the arguments and issues raised in several books. As such, there's a timelag built in. Nothing in the article suggests he thinks that the essential point about the medium has changed - quite the contrary: If he did think that, the article would pretty much have to be about what happened to ruin the medium's newfound depth. In that case, I think it's fair to say the piece would've been discussing Big Brother,rather than Buffy.
Damn! The article is not available anymore, you have to be a CBR subscriber (need to pay) =/

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