Monday, April 10, 2006

Big Tent TV

Hey? Whaddaya know? A best-of-TV survey! Check out the rules here and vote here. OR DIE.

Anyway, I was out under the REAL South Dakota Dark tonight, and it was (mostly) magnificent. It feels remote here after a year in SoCal (even the state's biggest city of Sioux Falls), but I was surprised at how quickly and easily I shifted into rural mode. It's also nice to not have to deal with traffic. For a little while at least.

Anyway, I'm here to talk about big tent TV. And what is that? I'll tell you (in a hopefully abbreviated fashion, simply because I'm in vacation mode).

Big tent TV is TV that works as both entertainment and intellectual fodder. A lot of times, it can simplify or dumb down things (or bury its truly interesting stuff in the background). It often has little to no subtext. In short, it's trying to appeal to the masses, sanding down most (if not all) of its rough edges.

I come to these thoughts because I've been wondering lately just why I love Lost and The Sopranos so very, very much. Both shows seek a large audience actively. Both shows are the kinds you can just turn your brain off to at the end of a long day. But, and here's the key, both aspire to be something more. And both occasionally pull it off (actually, in both cases, I would argue they do so often enough as to actually work on some intellectual level).

One can see this typified when one looks at fan response to the shows' character-development episodes. On The Sopranos, especially, some fans are IMMENSELY put off by this. "Time to get back to the killing!" they seem to say. But the killing isn't always what interests the writers. They also want to examine, to probe, to consider. (This is seen to a lesser extent on Lost on the episodes where the show's "mysteries" are not uncovered in some way.)

Like I've said, this can be embarrassing. The Sopranos handles some of its characters in a fashion that just seems stupid (the Paulie Walnuts subplot involving his true parentage was needed for the storyline, but it didn't really work). And Lost turns out episodes that are just cringe-inducingly bad (usually anything involving Charlie, though most of the characters have never met a cliche they didn't like).

Both shows, though, are saved by some graceful writing. Sure, the plotting on Sopranos can be stupid and the dialogue on Lost often borders on ludicrous (though, to be fair, both sins come with the territories the shows operate in). But the writers on both shows can still pull off more good scenes than bad in almost all of their episodes. And that's enough to keep most coming back from week to week.

To be fair, there are a lot of ambitious shows that desire to do more that just don't work. The Prison Break flashback episode was a piece of ludicrous hokum (I spent most of the episode mocking the TV. . .and comparing the whole enterprise to Lost, which at least tries to find a dramatic reason for most of its flashbacks). And Desperate Housewives COMPLETELY lost it when it stopped being a mildly amusing soap satire and turned into a story about The Way Things Really Are in the Suburbs.

But often, it's so fun to see true ambition in TV that I'm willing to forgive some things. Especially in a show that is both entertaining AND intellectually stimulating.

To put it another way: I think Deadwood is, hands-down, a GREATER show than anything on TV right now. It's loaded with poetic writing, vivid characters and a real spirit of generosity that's lacking on other shows. But it's also intellectually rigorous. You can't just sit back and turn off your brain or do other things while it's on.

And that's why, if I have a new Lost or a new Sopranos and a new Deadwood on the TiVo, I'm often more excited to watch one of the two former than the latter.

I don't LIKE or RESPECT Deadwood any less. But sometimes I need that buffer.

1 comment:

Edward Copeland said...

When The Sopranos is on, it's really on (as in this season's 4th episode), but I found this week's episode lacking. Truly I think the audience's impatience with the show has less to do with a lack of bloodshed but with the insane indulgence of long gaps between new episodes HBO has allowed. Something is lost when you are away from the characters for that long a time.