Best of the Boob Tube, Part 1

Before Melissa and I were married, I watched very little television. Various sporting events comprised the vast majority of my TV viewing palette, along with a few select shows on HBO. Network television might as well not have existed: I never watched scripted shows on the major broadcast networks or cable channels. My belief was that most of the shows were boring and predictable, and by and large that was true at the time. But things have changed, and as Melissa and I introduced each other to our favorite shows and tried some new programs along the way I found myself enjoying multiple shows, some of them on the broadcast networks. We watch some reality shows like American Idol, but I like quite a few of the dramas and comedies on a variety of different channels. Some serials are better than others of course, so I decided to put together a list of my favorite scripted TV programs currently on air. There are good shows we haven’t yet watched (eg, Mad Men), and Melissa and I have shows we like together and some we like individually. Below is my personal list, and to be sure she has no desire to watch several of them, just as I have no desire to watch Grey’s Anatomy.  Thankfully there is high quality programming in just about every genre, but it was not always so.

For most of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s television was in a creative slump. There were very few good shows, and most of the regular programming was packed with cookie cutter sit-coms or night-time soap operas. There were good programs like CheersSeinfeld, and ER, but for the most part Americans did not have a compelling reason to tune in to the networks in prime time.  Most of the comedies were light, trite, repetitive bilge, and most dramas were predictable and contrived. Up until 2005 I watched virtually no network television other than Seinfeld and ER, and even ER got old after its 7th season.

The premium channels (HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, etc) – led by HBO – offered a reprieve in the late 1990s and early 2000s by producing high quality shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, both of which were immensely popular and enjoyed widespread critical favor. Both shows were profoundly influential, adding a depth and complexity to television that hadn’t been realized in the past. The Sopranos is widely considered the greatest television show of all time – it’s certainly one of my favorites. It has spawned the proliferation of numerous cable and premium channel dramas, which attract big-name casts, sophisticated  writing, high quality production, and ever-increasing viewers. Indeed, there are so many good shows on cable and premium channels today it is literally impossible to watch – much less follow – all of them, even with the help of DVR. Cable productions like Mad Men – which I have never seen – were not possible before The Sopranos.

The trend has trickled down to the networks, which have greatly improved the overall quality of their shows. Dramas like The Good Wife and Parenthood were non-existent a decade ago, but now there is at least one high quality drama every night of the week on network television. Comedies have been completely transformed, morphing from the cheap set, canned laughter, and slapstick tripe that existed through early 2000s to complex intelligent humor exemplified by Modern Family, 30 Rock, The Office, and hour long “dramedies” like Ugly Betty, Glee, and Chuck. And action-adventures like 24 also received an upgrade. With across the board enhancement of their productions of all genres, the networks are offering the best programming in television history.

Not everyone is a fan of FCC regulation.

Yet in writing a list of my favorite shows, I cannot claim intellectual consistency without acknowledging the difference between network and cable programming, and the even greater different difference between cable programming and premium channel programming. Network programming (as seen on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC)  is limited by strict content rules, along with need for a broad-based appeal. The networks are the most widely viewed and widely available media for scripted programming, which means they have great er legal restrictions, sponsor-mandated restrictions, and public restrictions. The FCC regulates the public networks much more carefully than cable channels, a circumstance that limits the amount of profanity, violence, and sex that can be broadcast. In addition, the networks are limited by sponsor proclivities. Taking extreme positions or advocating widely unpopular ideas can lead to fewer sponsors and less money. And of course the sponsors are driven by public appeal – a network show can’t take risks in terms of controversial political or religious commentary. In the same vein, network shows are much more prosaic, standard, and formulaic than their cable and premium counterparts. They often lack the complexity and sophistication of the cable shows, largely because they have fewer resources and executives are not willing to stray far from the standard fare.

Cable shows have more latitude, both in terms of FCC regulation and sponsorship tolerance. They are allowed more leeway in taking political stands, and can provide edgier themes that might not be feasible on a public network; a show like Nip/Tuck could never air on ABC or CBS. Content is still regulated because cable channels are part of public programming; they are bundled in with a group of channels and are not purchased independently the way premium channels are. Thus they are still considered public broadcasts, and while they have more freedom to push the envelope and develop broader themes and characters, they cannot match the premium channels in terms of creativity or content.

Premium channels have the best original scripted shows by a comfortable margin. They are not constrained by content, sponsor limitations, and they can take significant risks with their programming. Plus they have far greater budgets, investing many more millions on a given show than cable or network channels could ever spend. In terms of content, the premium channels can show virtually anything short of pornography. The violence is graphic: in last year’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand a victorious gladiator cuts the face off a vanquished opponent and wears it like a mask in his next fight. Sex and nudity are common, language is completely unlimited. While this freedom of content leads to plenty of gratuitous sex and violence (a nod goes to Big Love for keeping this to a minimum), it can also lead to more realistic portrayals – anyone who has lived in New York knows the profanity-laden dialog of The Sopranos is far from gratuitous.

But what really separates the premium shows from the rest is their quality and sophistication. Unlike network and cable shows, premium dramas offer much richer character development: Tony Soprano is a hero and villain, thinker and thug, cold-hearted killer and tender-hearted animal lover, often all in the same episode, if not the same scene. Network shows tend to have clear good guys and bad guys: cops chasing criminals, doctors fighting disease, spies beating up bad guys, etc. The line between the good guys and the bad guys is clear; the central characters are rarely anything more than mildly flawed, and when they do make mistakes apologies and reconciliation are common. Contrast this with the heroine of Showtime’s Weeds (Nancy Botwin, played by Mary Louise Parker) who is a drug dealing widow, a refugee, astoundingly selfish, and above all a terrible mother – there is little “good” about her. In Big Love the central polygamist family members are the protagonists in many ways, yet we are sympathetic to those who reject their lifestyle. The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire feature criminals as their main characters, something that would never happen on network shows.

And the premium shows can take creative and artistic risks the network and cable shows cannot. Case in point is Deadwood, a gritty Western that is truly Shakespearean in its tone, characters, thematic elements, and dialog. The show aired on HBO from 2003 to 2005, but never would have aired on network or cable. Aside from the violence and language, it was far too provocative: throughout the series the central character carries on a conversation with the head of a murdered Indian chief he keeps in a box in his office, and Chinese immigrants dispose of dead bodies by feeding them to their pigs. HBO can take risks on those sorts of stories, but the networks cannot. Even the historical dramas, such as Showtime’s The Tudors and HBO’s Rome, contain a production quality and historical realism too intense for anything outside the premium channels.

So while my list mostly contains shows from HBO, Starz, and Showtime, I must admit the playing field isn’t exactly level. And of course any list like this is inherently subjective: I’m sure plenty of you will disagree with at least some of my picks. In the next post – to follow very shortly – I will list my favorite, most anticipated TV programs. Stay tuned…




Filed under Miscellany and Tomfoolery, Reviews

2 responses to “Best of the Boob Tube, Part 1

  1. Interesting post Mason. For me, I had pretty much given up on TV completely until I sat with you guys to watch some programs -programs that I probably never would have watched on my own. My biggest problem is that most shows tend to put me to sleep, kind of like a lullaby or a sleeping pill. Or maybe I have a sleeping disorder?

    One of the things that is surprising to me, although I suppose really shouldn’t be, is the reflection of a different morality than I remember before. If there was a “mean” (average) morality in the era of the Dick Van Dyke Show, there is certainly a different one in Modern Family. For example, it seems as though every major program has to contain homosexuals in a very positive light, as if all homosexuals lead wonderful, balanced lives. While I suppose it is a bit of both, I wonder if television programs reflect society, or if television producers attempt to impose certain values on society that it may or may not endorse? While I’m sure there are other examples, homosexuality is one that stands out. I’m not ready to start a crusade about this, because in the end, I’m not sure if it really matters if programs reflect society or if parts of society attempt to push certain agendas via the broadcast media. I’d say that’s predictable.

    Another observation that stands out to me is the usage of violence versus sex. For the past 20 years it seems to me that the broadcast media in the USA tended to include much more violence than the broadcast media in Europe. Programs with any violence receive restricted ratings in the European system, while nudity doesn’t. Plus, most of the Spanish films that I’ve seen tend to always include nudity and sex scenes, regardless of the rating. Again, it makes me wonder: does the media reflect the mean of society, or are producers pushing their own agenda? Again, it is probably a little of both. At the same time, I find it interesting how the starting and ending points vary in different cultures.

    And then one other observation seems appropriate. For most of my life I felt like I could count on programs and films in the USA to “end well”, or for the main characters to struggle with conflict of some kind, but for them to work it out in the end, and good prevails. In many European films that I’ve seen, seldom do the main characters triumph in their conflict. Most times the programs and films end with the conflict unresolved. I wonder if that kind of general theme is also finding its way into North American media? (I really don’t know.) Again, is the media reflecting society, history, and/or cultural values?

    I tend to ask myself (not others!) questions while I’m watching TV: What am I watching? Am I approving, disapproving, questioning, and talking about the values and the themes after I view programs? What do I tolerate, and what do I abhor? Is it nudity, sex, violence, profanity, and/or are there underlying values and themes that fly in the face of my own core values? Does the media influence my thinking, my values, and even my beliefs? Does what I’ve seen cause me to question or doubt what before I held dear?

    Okay, I’ll conclude my blog on a blog with one last thing! I personally mostly like to watch programs that touch my emotions: humor and laughter are at the top of my list. Make me laugh! (Seinfield, a show about nothing) Along with Susan, I also like true stories where characters deal with conflict and then find some way to make it on through the conflict. (My culture?) I don’t mind crying either, especially when the characters are selfless in their desire to help others. The end.

    • masonymelissa

      Good points, abuelo. I would just make a couple of comments.

      First, I agree that the portrayal of gays on most TV shows reveals at least a subconscious agenda. Modern Family, for example, portrays two gay men with an adopted daughter living a “normal” suburban life. While there are such families, the majority of gays across the country to not live such a permanent monogamous lifestyle. Some do, but most do not. Yet Modern Family is more of a parody, a show that mocks political correctness. On the surface all of the families are modern and politically correct, but on closer inspection the individual characters themselves are really just stereotypes. The gay men are both effeminate, and the running gag is their inability to accomplish handyman type chores, just as the Latina housewife mispronounces English words and bungles common English phrases. I don’t think Modern Family is trying to advance a pro-gay agenda, but their depiction of the gay characters’ family is not normative.

      Also, I think your comment about the difference between American and European movies/television is accurate. Most American stories have an optimistic or happy ending – most European films do not. After reading the Norman Davies’ European history book I understand why. European history is filled with wars, crimes, deceit, oppression, persecution, and corruption. Not to mention the many dashed dreams of a better world. World War I was supposed to be the war that ended all war, yet just two decades later another water came along that dwarfed the death and destruction of the first. It’s easy to understand the European cynicism and negativity, as reflected in their movies and TV. The United States, in contrast, has had a relatively triumphant existence. In its roughly 350 years – including the colonial period – America has only had a total of 30-40 years of genuine hardship.

      I don’t think the European or American view is better or worse than the other. Americans tend to be forward-looking and optimistic, which isn’t always fair or accurate. Yet to view the world in completely nihilistic terms is also off base. I like shows that don’t always have the formulaic happy ending, but I don’t like movies or TV shows that are predictably depressing. Like you, I enjoy stories of characters who overcome hardship and difficulty, but that don’t guarantee a positive outcome. For example, in the series finale of The Sopranos, the main enemy is defeated, but there are plenty of loose ends that are never tidied up. In one sense they won, but in another their victory was not and never could be complete.

      I like shows that are unique, intelligent, and thought-provoking. Or just fun, escapist entertainment. I guess on some level that includes just about anything…

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