Monday, November 2, 2009

What makes good TV?

Over on Facebook, I've been making a load of comments about various TV shows, usually none too complimentary. It's not that I've been rude, it's more that much of what I've been watching hasn't really lit my fire, even when it comes to really popular shows like House or West Wing. Some readers seem to think that I'm simply not taking to American TV, but it's not that at all: I barely watched TV in the UK either for the last couple of years, so I've been catching up on various series on DVD to see what I've been missing, and mostly finding myself disappointed.

I don't like reality TV, I can't stand makeover shows, and I find most talk shows vapid. I really don't like comedy that's too close to my working life, so shows like The Office and the IT Crowd drive me crazy. I don't enjoy police procedurals, particularly not of the CSI vein, and I don't like medical dramas. I don't like gritty depressing reality, I avoid soaps like the plague, and I get bored by "monster of the week" supernaturals.

It's not that they're bad TV. Some shows of these types are really good, and I'm not for a moment denigrating them as a whole. But I've watched way too much TV, and now I'm bored by most of it, just as I'd finding it increasingly hard to find books I like or films that hold me riveted to the screen.

Anyway, one person eventually asked me the obvious question. What do I like?


That's actually a tricky one.

The only broadcast TV shows I've watched in the last year were Top Gear, Mock the Week and QI, and that surprises even me, as they're not really the sort of thing I normally watch.

I like to watch stories: drama, adventure, action, mystery, and intrigue. I like exotic or historical settings, larger than life flamboyant characters, and plots that stretch the imagination and the credulity. I like either a good long story told as a serial, or I like simple, snappy, self-contained episodes that you can pick up piecemeal, rather than "arc" programming where you sort of need to see the individual episodes in order or you can get mixed up. I like touches of humour in serious drama, and I like to be awed and amazed occasionally by both the breadth of the writer's vision and the visual richness. But most importantly, I like not being able to write the next line of the script or being able to predict the plot twists. I like to be surprised.

My tastes aren't defined by any particular genre. I like science fiction, for example: Firefly was superb, Dollhouse was really good, the first three seasons of Babylon 5 were brilliant, I loved the first two seasons of Battlestar, and the recent Sci-Fi channel Dune mini-series were outstanding. On the other hand, Star Trek doesn't do it for me, Farscape was so-so, and I think I grew out of Doctor Who when I was about 15. I can't just say "I like sci-fi". I'm picky. Very, very picky. (Or "selective", as I'd prefer to call it.)

Similarly, Deadwood was one of the most enjoyable series I can remember, but that doesn't mean I want to watch more Westerns. In historical programming, Rome was utterly compelling, (and so utterly different from I Clavdivs), I've watched every episode of Sharpe repeatedly, North and South was good, if dated, but Charles II was dull, and Blackbeard was utterly dreadful. (He was from Bristol, for crying out loud, what on earth possessed them to make him a Scot?) It doesn't have to be serious, either: Middlemen is wonderful cheesy fun, and Warehouse 13 is good, tongue in cheek adventure.

In a nutshell, I never know what I'm going to like, and I often find the shows I like best weren't the shows I expected to like.

I know as well as anyone that there's no such thing as a truly original story: all stories are reworkings of existing material, and there are certain conventions that we expect story-tellers to follow if they're going to produce a "satisfying" story. However, there is still scope for originality. I love genre-crossing - that's why I enjoyed Firefly so much, with its "cowboys in space" riff. I like genuinely unusual characters, not the usual "tired/rebellious/maverick cop with an incongruous taste for jazz/opera/blues", or the formulaic "buddy duo forced to work together who then become friends" (and if they're opposite sex, several seasons of will they, won't they). I'm really looking forward to No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I wish I'd seen more of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, and I'm thoroughly enjoying watching Young Indiana Jones.

So, in short, my formula for TV success is this:
  • Take me to a setting that takes me away from my everyday life;
  • Show me characters that aren't cliched, even if they're stereotyped;
  • Make me laugh, make me gasp, and surprise me, all in one episode;
  • Give me sharp, tight writing, and;
  • Either stay faithful to the source if that's what you're doing, or bring together elements that haven't been combined before.
Of course, that's no guarantee of commercial success. If it had been up to me, I'd have turned down most of the successful TV shows of the last 15 years. I'm aware that what I like isn't what you'd call mainstream entertainment.

But that's the beauty of the Net, and it's where machinima and other low-budget or zero-budget techniques really win. No TV company, especially in today's economic climate, can afford to take a chance, but amateurs can. I'm finding more and more that my entertainment needs are supplied by Web series and amateur movies such as The Mercury Men, and their production values are getting better and better.


Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

I think TV works so long as you don't expect it to fulfill needs which really need to be met elsewhere.
If what you really need to do is write your own stuff, then anything you watch will be frustrating.
If you need more human connections, then fictional characters will never be enough.
If you need some form of escape, then tv can only add to that, not replace it.
Maybe you are looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing? -Kate

Matt Kelland said...

TV used to be my main source of entertainment, but over the last 4-5 years I've found it less and less satisfying. It's changed, and so have I, and I've found other things that I enjoy more - other activities and other sources of material.

I occasionally take a peek back at TV to see what's going on, to find out what others are talking about, but I'm finding fewer and fewer shows that appeal to me. It's significant that of the shows I mentioned as really enjoying, Firefly was canned & Dollhouse came close because they weren't popular enough. Most of the others were short-lived: there are people trying to make shows that fit my tastes, but usually they're just not economically viable on broadcast TV any more.

But basically, you're right, Kate. I'm not actually expecting television to provide me with entertainment any more. I was merely using it as a jumping off point to help understand what I want out of a show, and recognising that it's more likely to come from a different source these days.

Matt Kelland said...

From today's Hollywood Reporter:

"Colin Hanks is set to topline “Jack and Dan,” Matt Nix’s new 13-episode hourlong series for Fox. The straight-to-series project, which also stars Bradley Whitford, is produced by Fox TV Studios under the company’s international co-production model. It centers on Jack (Hanks), an ambitious, by-the-book detective whose habit of undermining himself has resulted in a dead-end position at the Los Angeles Police Department. Worse, he has been partnered with Dan (Whitford), a drunken, lecherous, wild-card cop who hangs onto his job only because of a heroic act years before."

What was that I was saying about formulaic tired cops and buddy movies?

Dave Morris said...

Kate, I see what you're saying but I thought Matt's point was simply that most TV isn't very good. I like drama. I especially like 13-hour dramas (Von Stroheim was right!). But I don't find enough quality TV drama to justify paying the TV tax we have here in the UK.

Still, taking the glass half full approach, at least this is the version of reality where we got a whole 7 seasons of Buffy :-)

Matt Kelland said...

Actually, no, Dave, that's not what I was saying. It's not about some raw measure of quality. I think that House, CSI, West Wing and so on are good shows. Even EastEnders gets my admiration for the professionalism that goes into making it.

Millions of people love them, and that, in my book, makes them damn good entertainment. They just don't grab me.

Dave Morris said...

Apologies, Matt, I underestimated the subtlety of your point! Well, in the past TV consisted entirely of shows that were watched very much in passive mode. People would put the TV on and sit back and consume what was on offer. (I was going to say like medication in a retirement home, but I guess that's just uncalled-for.)

The legacy of that approach to TV storytelling is still affecting even cable shows, in the same way that most UK movie writing is heavily influenced by the writers having come up through television. Hence most of the shows we see are still largely designed to fill time: CSI, House, etc... they're amiable enough but I'm not going to go and buy the DVD box set. (Eastenders must be the ultimate example - presumably nobody watches that on DVD?)

The shows we actively would seek out and pay for are less effective at pleasing the casual viewer who just has an hour to while away, but perhaps have a longer revenue tail. Snag is, the networks are not in the business of speculating whether Dollhouse will make them a good ROI over 5-10 years. Luckily the cable channels are getting increasingly willing to do that. And sometimes a long-arc, well-written drama series does sneak out on the major networks - eg Lost.

anaglyph said...

The Wire if you haven't seen it - completely redefines the concept of the 'cop show'.

I don't watch any television anymore. None. There's far too much good stuff elsewhere. I think the media-pushers know it and that's why people like Rupert Murdoch are scrambling to find a way to make their holdings pay. Newspapers and tv are dead. Viva la revolution!