Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): My Adventures in Television: I begin a Wednesday tradition

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My Adventures in Television: I begin a Wednesday tradition


From now on, Wednesdays will be devoted to entries in my "viewing diaries" for various TV series - most of which I will be watching for the first time

As we slip further into the twenty-first century, the long-standing division between cinema and television continues to blur. The experimentation and artistic quality long assumed to be the provenance of film are increasingly found on TV and perhaps more importantly, definitions of the medium are changing. Shows like True Detective and the upcoming renewals of Twin Peaks and The X-Files promise to tell enclosed stories rather than stretching themselves out over multiple seasons to keep viewers tuning in. The term "showrunner" has come to mean what "auteur" did for a previous generation - a designation asserting the television show's right to be considered an artistic venue and not just a vulgar commodity. Meanwhile the gulf between art and entertainment has grown wider in movies, always a sign that decadence and decline have set upon an art form, while many of the most-discussed and loyally-followed TV shows manage to fuse the satisfactions of good drama, the challenges of complex characterization, and (to a still somewhat limited extent) the flavor of adventurous style.

Or so I hear. I have not seen most of the acclaimed and/or popular shows of the last decade, and have missed out on many earlier precedents (like The Prisoner or The X-Files) which supposedly helped pave the way for shows with overarching mythologies and enclosed, but extended, stories. I am now planning to address this oversight.

My prejudice has always been toward movies, better suited to deliver the catharsis and transcendence I look for in any artistic experience, narrative or otherwise. The strengths of television - its ability to slowly develop characters and invest us in their personal struggles, the excitement of knowing that the story could go anywhere, the room for creative growth on an open timetable - often seem to be compromised by the demands of the serialized format (on the other hand, the even tighter constrictions of purely episodic television have never interested me very much at all). Storylines can wander, but not too far, and they usually must reach a somewhat perfunctory conclusion by the end of the season. Characters can grow and change, but must be careful of the two extremes: to change too drastically, so that the initial charm of the series has lost its magic, or to stay too inert, so that the transformation we long for in narratives remains untapped.

As a kid I watched plenty of television - mostly kids' stuff, like Nicktoons, though from the fourth season or so I was a regular viewer of Seinfeld with my parents (I also recall tuning in every week for The Simpsons in the early nineties). As a teenager and young adult, I favored videos and movie screenings to TV shows and I can't think of any series I kept tabs on post-Seinfeld. Eventually in my early twenties TV-addict friends got me back into the habit with The Office and Lost although I lost track of both towards the end. There was one big exception during my personal TV dark age: The Sopranos. I think I saw every single episode, mostly when they aired. So far, that show exemplifies (to me) the incredible heights and the frustrating limitations of truly ambitious serialized storytelling. Watching from season to season, I came to know the characters well, to care about them in spite of myself, in spite of themselves. I think the moment I realized that The Sopranos was going to be something truly special arrived early in the first or second season (I think it was the second). Tony could have killed someone who seemed to truly deserve it, a killing we would have cheered with bloodthirsty enthusiasm...and then he didn't.

Why? He couldn't even really tell us himself, except to drunkenly quote a Jimmy Cagney movie, but it just felt right. David Chase could have gone the easy route and he didn't, and somehow it was so much richer this way. Later of course, the reverse trick would be pulled, allowing us to think Tony or other characters were good guys beneath the macho bluster and criminal corruption, only to pull the rug out from under our cozy expectations. Was he a sociopath after all? Had we been cheering for evil? The long form of Sopranos allowed for grace moments, close-ups on character on milieu before zooming out again to focus on something else. I remember an episode that followed the tragedy of a prostitute whom we hadn't met before, a truly powerful hour of television and a reminder that characters who hover in the background (as the strippers always did in the Bada Bing, more decor than ensemble) have their own stories to tell. This reminder would be much harder to achieve in a feature film.

Because of the supportive framework and the popular hook built into its concept, The Sopranos did not have to choose between narrative and avant-garde forms. Its dream sequences became legendary, frequently achieving David Chase's oft-cited (but seldom sourced) claim that he wanted to make "Twin Peaks set in New Jersey." Some dreams consumed entire episodes, free-associational Jungian riffs that exasperated viewers tuning in for the latest Mafia kill - other dreams stretched over multiple episodes, leading us to wonder if they were dreams at all or visits to another alternate reality. (Slight spoiler ahead...) Remember when a comatose Tony experienced life as a mild-mannered, slightly addled businessman in...where was it exactly? Too exotic to be Vegas. Seemingly too Americanized to be a foreign resort. Too tantalizing to be any immediately identifiable location, in fact. This was the endless possibility of everywhere and nowhere, or at least that's how I prefer to remember it, and hope my memory is correct. As those searchlights pierced the empty skies, roaming the suggestive yet elusive landscape glimpsed beyond that picture window, it was impossible not to conclude that maybe television could accomplish anything after all.

Some episodes worked almost like short films, while other evoked a feeling that we were watching a masterful, leisurely visual novel unfold. Of course that second tactic is problematic because despite all the freedom HBO provided, despite David Chase's imagination, The Sopranos still had to reign itself in and hit certain beats, whether it was truly ready or not. I remember one particular story arc which stretched over an entire season; I eagerly awaited its resolution only to be disappointed by a pat, perfunctory, look-at-the-watch-oh-it's-time-to-end-this-one-now denouement. I noticed this pattern and despaired that, rather than build toward a conclusion or even allow for really radical changes in its onscreen world, Sopranos would simply spin its wheels till it ran out of gas. I was reminded that TV is not the movies after all. It could reach heights for sure. But could it reach the highest heights? Could anything satisfy the pent-up desires of eight years and eighty-six episodes (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want even the vaguest hint of an answer)? If nothing else, The Sopranos' audacious non-ending was the perfect resolution to this paradox, ending with a brilliant anti-bang.

A year after Sopranos ended, I fell under the spell of an older show, Twin Peaks, whose possibilities and achievements go even further, as do its frustrations and discomforts. My blog was brand new at this point and I created my first-ever episode guide in an attempt to track this wild roller coaster of a TV series. I then moved onto other matters for a half-decade, although anyone who has recently paid attention to Lost in the Movies knows that Twin Peaks re-captured me hook, line, and sinker last spring. It will probably never let me go again. What can I say about the show that I haven't already? Plenty, as it turns out, and I plan to discuss the show once a month (along the feature film, in fact perhaps more often the feature film). For the most part I will be examining specific subjects rather than looking at particular episodes, so these posts will go up on Mondays rather than Wednesdays, which I will reserve for episode guides.

There will be one exception, however. Next Wednesday, on the twenty-fifth anniversary, I will offer general reflections on Twin Peaks in a post that will hopefully consolidate the multitude of thoughts and feelings I've relayed in various modes for the past year. Then when Showtime re-airs the first and second season I will create a new episode guide, fusing elements of my previous entries with new observations on the show. And when the new episodes air in (hopefully) 2016 you can be certain I'll be covering them week to week. Immediately after each episode I will probably express my first impressions before returning later in the week to offer a more Apollonian view. Satisfying - and compulsive - as it is to draw together the threads of Lynchian mystery, there is something about that first bracing contact with the unknown which can never really be bettered and I look forward to experiencing it again. It's been too long.

For the most part, I do not plan on covering new shows while they air. That would put me on their schedule, whereas most of these upcoming viewing diaries will be written on my own time and shared only once they are completed. I discussed some possibilities in a recent status update - but I can tell you for certain what to expect in the near future. In June I will (finally!) continue my Neon Genesis Evangelion series with Bob Clark, and a new guest, the Japanese blogger Murderous Ink. Later in 2015 I will cover the classic British TV series The Prisoner. Longer viewing diaries for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire will probably not start posting until next year but as soon as they're ready, or I have otherwise gotten far enough ahead of the game, I will start covering multiple series every Wednesday. At some point, there may even be four or five series getting covered simultaneously (at which TV Tuesdays and TV Thursdays might be on the horizon). After all I don't want to create too big of a backlog of unpublished entries, even if I do want to keep the writing pace manageable. The idea of knowing what my blog will be posting when I'm 40, 50, even 60 is a bit too unnerving to contemplate.

But before any of this, the first viewing diary is already written and ready to go up in two weeks, after the Twin Peaks anniversary piece. It's True Detective. I watched this rather quickly over the past few weeks (another benefit of writing the viewing diary in full before publishing) and captured my initial impressions after each episode. Already I cringe looking back at some of my expectations or deductions but that's the fun of this exercise, really. There certainly is something to be said for taking the grand view and offering a sweeping, well-informed take on a work, as I have with Twin Peaks. There's also something to be said for entering with fresh eyes, and allowing your reactions to unfold in tandem with the show itself. That's what I'm going for here and so, it goes without saying, spoilers will not be an issue.

At the end of each viewing diary, for my final entry I will round up all the episodes in one convenient spot, offer a few concluding thoughts, and share many images if possible. I should also note that I will be mixing miniseries (not two-part TV movies, but actual multi-episode miniseries) with much longer TV shows. When I reach the end of a show that spun off feature films - for example, Star Trek or Neon Genesis Evangelion - I will cover those films as part of the series too, the only exceptions to my Wednesdays-are-for-TV rule.

I will still continue to write about movies (and offer other random posts, like visual tributes and video essays) every Monday, and hopefully will be adding a more formalized film series on Fridays in a few months - but in the middle of the week, every week, for the forseeable future, we will be getting lost in television.

Can the possibilities of television be fulfilled? Do its limitations impose inevitable compromises? I look forward to finding out, and I hope you'll tune in each week to find out with me.


SCHEDULE

Apr. 8: Twin Peaks at 25
Apr. 15 - Jun. 10: True Detective, season 1
Jun. 17 - Dec. 2: Neon Genesis Evangelion (including the films)
Dec. 9 - Mar. 30: The Prisoner

Sometime in late 2015/early 2016:
A Twin Peaks "ultimate episode guide" (mixing elements of my previous work, including essays, interviews, images, and videos with a fresh response to each episode) will post simultaneously with Showtime's re-airing of the series, whose schedule will - I suppose - depend on the airdate of the 2016 limited series (as yet undetermined).
Each week that the new series runs, I will probably post two responses to a given episode - one just relaying my immediate impressions, the other exploring the episode in greater depth following reflection, discussion, and maybe re-viewing. Or maybe I'll just do the "first impressions" post each week and save more formal pieces until after the series airs? Get to work, Mr. Lynch. Give him whatever he wants, Showtime.

Other series I would like to cover (which I will post simultaneously with the above, if they are finished early enough): Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files, The Killing, Top of the Lake, Millennium (not something I'm familiar with, but this was recently suggested to me), Hill Street Blues (if I can get my hands on any copies - absent from Netflix, Hulu, and any libraries I can find - for substantially less than the $125 Amazon offers...) and hey, maybe a re-watch of The Sopranos?

I know there are tons of recent, highly-acclaimed shows not mentioned here - House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, Carnivale, Six Feet Under, etc etc etc... And don't even get me started on the classic series I haven't mentioned yet, many of which are probably far worthier than the stuff I've listed. And I'm sure Bob has a million animes I should check out... I've got my work cut out for me, especially considering that at present I can't access Instant Netflix or Hulu, by far the most convenient tools for this sort of exercise. But for whatever reason that first set of titles is what jumps out at me. We'll see how it goes. I did start Game of Thrones recently and wasn't getting into it. I know, there must be something wrong with me...

Also, a couple favorite miniseries I would like to cover episode-by-episode: I, Claudius and Brideshead Revisited

Note: no comedy here, I know! I do like to laugh, honest, but when writing viewing diaries I am mostly interested in covering stories and characters as they unfold over multiple episodes. Most sitcoms I've seen are - surprise! - situational in nature, with a premise that keeps individual episodes locked in as standalones. But if anyone has suggestions for comedies that break this mould or would otherwise provide interesting material to write about, let me know below.

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