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(To read how this all started go here. This took a while to extract, but it's a bit of an epic, I'm afraid.)
I WAS LAID OFF in the middle of a work day, with my laptop open to a TV column that I'd just started - a review of a CBC documentary featuring architecture critic Christopher Hume touring Canada's largest cities to comment on their liveability. I was enthusiastic about the subject, and looking forward to getting a chance to say something about a subject near to my heart - city life, and the particular joys of being an urbanite - once I'd dispensed with the critical niceties about editing and camerawork.
I'd actually been planning my farewell column, on and off, for years. From a full-blown retrospective summation of everything I'd learned over the years, to a brief note tacked onto the end of an otherwise normal column, I'd been prepared to make my exit from the longest steady gig I'd ever had as a journalist.
Writing a TV column - nearly 1200 columns, over four-plus years - wasn't a job I wanted, or even applied for. It was dropped in my lap one day when I was still the paper's photo editor, and the reporter who'd been doing it had decided to take a week off quite suddenly. I'd been writing the odd feature, and had convinced our previous editor to let me write a weekly DVD column for a bit of extra freelance money - a gig I had until early last summer, when the editor who laid me off took it away, citing tight budgets and space.
I'd told our then-editor that I didn't know really know anything about TV - that I hadn't actually watched it for over 15 years, and that I'd only started watching again recently, after my wife had moved in with me. She said she didn't care - she thought I could do a good job, and that it was only for a week, in any case. I said sure, I'd give it a shot, but that I'd have to make fun of the whole ridiculous situation, and when so moved, I'd make stuff up. She said fine - whatever you want.
A week later, the reporter came back, but my editor said that I'd done a much better job with the column that she ever had, and that it was mine from now on. It was a classic example of how the paper, in its pre-union days, had of incrementally adding to your job until you were literally sweating from the effort of your daily responsibilities, but I've never been unambitious, and there was something addictive about the daily soapbox. I figured I'd do it for a year, at which point I'd probably have offended someone and be relieved of my pulpit.
I had no idea that it would go on for so long, and that I'd miss it when it was suddenly taken away from me. By the end, as the paper had increased circulation and opened in new markets, I was - and I say this with some disbelief, and defer the truth of the statement to all the people who told me this - probably one of the more influential TV writers in the country, scary as that thought was whenever it occurred to me. I was definitely watching a lot more television by the time it was over than I did at the beginning, and had developed a fondness for the whole messy, slapdash medium, and the anthill of activity behind it.
Well, that's all in the past now. Here's my final column, as I would have written it, if I had unlimited space and not the usual 375-400 words (or less,) and if I'd had the chance to hand in my two weeks' instead of being shown the door and replaced by unpaid interns. Oh, you didn't hear about that? Since I've been held hostage by the subject for so many years, I'll probably keep writing about TV here, in addition to other subjects, but this is the last time I'll try to write for the paper's column format.
Oh, and for the record, I never liked Intellevision. It's better than Tube Talk - the title of the column I inherited - but nowhere near as appropriate as Idiot Box, the name I suggested as the column approached its 500th installment, and which the paper's management insisted on changing last year, insisting that it "insulted the readers." I never got that; who was the idiot - the one reading it, or the one writing it? I think the answer to that was always pretty clear, but there's no arguing with the irony-challenged.
AND NOW THE END IS NEAR... Due to some sloppy bookeeping, I'm not sure if this is my 1,161st column or my 1,166th. I neglected to save my first week or so of the TV column I was asked to write four years ago, so let's just call it an even 1,170 and leave it at that. In any case, this one is the last.
I didn't watch much TV when I started writing this, and I still don't now - at least compared to most of the other columnists I've been reading while looking for stories. I was, at least according to the standards of the time, a TV addict back in the late '70s, when I was an unhappy pre-teen looking for distraction on the handful of standard broadcast channels and the scant few extra that drifted in and out on the VHF dial. My experience of television still has that era as its context - a time of abysmal choice but stunning ratings, which I pray we'll never see again.
Being dropped into the cockpit of a daily column and told to fly around the world a few times meant a steep learning curve, and one that I'm still on as I write this. Looking back seems as good an excuse as any to share a few things I've learned about television since I began writing this column.
1. THERE NEVER WAS A GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION ... and there never will be, which is probably a good thing. Of course, if you read any standard history of the medium, at least two periods will be described as a golden age - the '50s, when it was either typified by wildly popular shows like Sid Caesar, The Honeymooners, Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, or highbrow dramatic vehicles like Playhouse 90, The Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Television Theatre and anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The latter was either the start or the mainstream zenith of the careers of people like Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote and Gore Vidal, and the former was simply the high point of "destination television" - shows that you could often rely on half of the population of the U.S. to be watching when they aired. They're fascinating to watch today - relics of a time when vaudeville still had a huge influence on stetch comedy and variety shows, and when the business of making television was still suffused with an obligation to educate and edify, and high culture was still largely accessible to the average person.
But very little of it holds up today, and much of what does succeeds mostly on novelty or nostalgia. It was still a medium in its artistic and technolgical infancy, and when it wasn't copying the cramped but anxious style of b-movies (Hitchcock, Twilight Zone) it was still in thrall to the conventions of staged drama and comedy.
The '70s is often cited as the second golden age - the era of M*A*S*H and Norman Lear and Mary Tyler Moore's hit shows and their spinoffs. While you'd assume that TV had bogarted some of the inspiration behind the Hollywood renaissance of the early '70s, there was little of the grit, creativity or intensity of The Conversation, The French Connection, Dirty Harry or Straw Dogs in the WJM newsroom or Archie Bunker's Queens living room.
Even M*A*S*H, based on Robert Altman's movie of the same name, bore only a surface resemblance to its inspiration, which was probably a good thing - it would never have been a hit if it had copied the loping pace and abrupt shifts of tone in Altman's film. What all the shows had in common, however, was a striving for social relevance that probably felt ennobling to many of their viewers at the time, but which feels dated, even maudlin, today.
Both M*A*S*H and All In The Family suffered when they began taking longer breaks from comedy to linger on dramatic situations that devolved into morality plays that made tuning in more duty than pleasure. It's no surprise then that their ratings were sinking steeply when they left the air - though the record-setting numbers for the finale of M*A*S*H speak to their popularity at their peak - or that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the least political of the bunch, went out on a creative and ratings plateau, and remains the most watchable of the lot today.
A lot of writers have made a case for HBO and the quality cable revolution being the third golden age, with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Dexter, Weeds, Damages, Mad Men and Breaking Bad setting the bar higher than ever before on the small screen. Maybe it's just my bias showing, but it's a persuasive argument, though I'd argue that what we're seeing isn't really a golden age for television but movies.
All of these shows are cinematic in style, with talent and production values equal to all but the biggest budget Hollywood product. Thanks to digital effect technology and superior scripts, however, that gulf is narrowing, and from where I sit a few weeks before the Academy Awards, I can't name a single Oscar contender as watchable or satisfying as the best of what's on TV today.
I don't think it's a coincidence; having rejected the virtues of classical structure and character development in the great unlearning of the last thirty years - a perhaps unintended consequence of that cinematic renaissance in the '70s - Hollywood has become negligent at delivering a truly satisfying story, as poor as European art cinema or - even more shamefully - state-supported cinema such as Canada's.
All that energy has to go somewhere, and it found a place on television, where subscription cable gave it a place to thrive, and an audience was waiting - one clearly dissatisfied with what it was getting in movie theatres, and with a well-honed appreciation for well-made visual storytelling thanks to the migration of rep houses to TV, and the advent of cheap DVDs that made building a home library affordable, as well as providing tutorials on movie history and production in the shape of special features.
So when you're watching the fifth hour of the second season of Mad Men, you're probably appreciating the visual craft of a mature medium, and the sort of richly detailed story that movies can't - and probably could never - deliver in the cinema. This was probably the sort of thing Fassbinder had in mind when he made Berlin Alexanderplatz for West German Television back at the dawn of the '80s, just as the cable revolution was starting to take shape.
Which isn't to say that television doesn't have unique virtues of its own - it's just that when people talk about shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men, they're saying more about the creative dead end of the cinema than they are about the maturity of TV. Which brings me to...
2. THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH REALITY TV. Whenever I told people what I did for a living, the first thing they'd usually do is make sympathetic noises about having to watch a lot of crap, and reality TV in particular. I might have agreed at first, but after four years and many hundreds of hours of watching, I've become a stout defender of reality television.
There is, no doubt, a lot of crap on TV, but there's a lot of TV - far more than there was ten or fifteen, never mind twenty or thirty years ago. Aphorisms like "500 channels and nothin' on" have an easy cynical appeal, but if they were ever true, they won't be soon, as those 500 channels branch out into archives and video on demand systems that turn the TV experience into some vast, expanding TiVo - or should, if this medium is going to survive.
I have a rule when reviewing comedies - if I laugh, I can't be too hard on it. The result is that I can never be too harsh about Adam Sandler if I'm going to be honest. Presuming that same honest about my TV habits, I can't say that I categorically hate reality TV if I watch a lof of it - and I do.
From Hell's Kitchen to Kitchen Nightmares to Top Chef and How Clean Is Your House? to any number of the dozens of real estate shows that air on HGTV and TLC every night, if you walked into the study where my wife and I relax every night you'll probably find us watching a reality show. What Not To Wear, Tim Gunn's Guide To Style, Time Team, Man Vs. Wild, 17 Kids And Counting, Till Debt Do Us Part, Project Runway, Holmes On Homes - any of these shows will still my thumb on the remote as I surf up and down the dial, and I'm confident there will be more.
Reality TV is much cheaper to produce than any quality cable series or network sitcom, and while this is sometimes mentioned as proof of its insidious and debilitating nature, you can also look at it as an inevitable adaptation to the brute facts of the business, as budgets tighten in response to the a business model that's shuddering and shifting into some new shape, while demand for programming remains ravenous.
This is all good and proper, and hardly proof of TV's creative decline. Far from it; no other medium I can think of - not publishing, not movies, and certainly not the music industry - has adapted this swiftly and creatively to its changing social and economic circumstances. Which brings me finally to...
3. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS REALITY TV. Variety show, talent competition, soap opera, family drama, documentary, sitcom - there's probably a little of all of these in the DNA of a reality show, and there's at least enough of any one or two that the really new, innovative part of reality television is actually quite slight, and usually more a matter of production logistics and financing than programming.
It's hard not to admire the marketing savvy of Gene Simmons, who found a way to update a '50s family sitcom like Father Knows Best or Ozzie And Harriet on the cheap, using him, his family and their retinue of b-list celebrity friends as the cast and an endless chain of sponsorships to provide settings and situations for free. I don't think anyone can watch Gene Simmons Family Jewels without smirking as each prominently branded experience draws Gene and his family onto a private jet to the Kentucky Derby or a ski resort where wackiness ensues, Gene endures a humiliating comic comeuppance, Shannon exhibits her sly control of her potentially wayward common law spouse, and the kids exhibit common sense far beyond their parents.
It's a formula as rock-ribbed as an episode of Green Acres, and I don't think that the obvious contrivance bothers any halfway savvy viewer. Which led to the great epiphany of my career as a TV critic: Contrary to conventional wisdom, I think our relationship with television is far more sophisticated and nuanced than anyone - even the people who make it and write about it - is willing to admit, or even imagine.
I was never tempted to write down to my readers. At first, it was simple arrogance and ambition - I refused to write about what everyone kept calling junk with a condescending tone that I knew would become tiresome. But after coming to appreciate the knowing complicity that people have with television, and the abundant vitality of the medium from top to bottom, I realized that I could write about TV with the same presumption of intelligence that a movie reviewer or a book critic expects of their audience. It made the job enjoyable, and rewarding in ways I never anticipated when it was dropped in my lap. I'll miss it, and the shadowy but respectful relationship I had with readers. Thanks, and good night.
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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.
punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.
i look nothing like william powell.
rick -at- rickmcginnis.com
no comments - i can't be bothered with the extra work, to be frank - but if you have something to say, I might print it in the margin over here.
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