Reading Versus Watching: Why I Watch
Why do we like what we like? As with many things, what we like and what we don't usually is a gut reaction, something we justify rationally after the fact. In television, movies, books and other narrative media, what we like often has no relation to any kind of aesthetic criteria; we have so-called "guilty pleasures," things we like despite our own better judgment. (My guilty pleasures include "Superman: The Animated Series", which I freely acknowledge is a show primary aimed at children.) I've been thinking about the television shows I like and why I like them, to see whether there's any kind of connecting thread between them. Talking about this is also useful to you, the reader, to know what kind of litmus paper I'm using to judge things. So, here are my favorite television shows of all time, in no particular order:
- "Northern Exposure"
- "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel"
- "Kung Fu"
- "The Simpsons"
- "South Park"
- "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" (Jon Stewert and after only)
- The new "Doctor Who"
- "Monty Python's Flying Circus"
"Twin Peaks" might have made the list, but I haven't seen it since it was on television in the early nineties and I need to watch it again to make sure it holds up for me. Some shows might have made the list a few years ago (say, "The X Files") but have been knocked off by the reevaluation of reruns. Other shows were on the cusp, but didn't quite make the final cut ("Rome," new "Battlestar Galactica," "Blackadder"). Still other shows I can acknowledge the objective quality of but for one reason or another don't appeal to me personally; for example, "The Sopranos" is clearly a high-quality show, but I just don't generally go in for mobsters unless they're directed by John Woo.
Several things become readily clear by this list. Putting aside any questions of the admitted geekiness of some of the selections, recent shows are clearly better represented than older ones. There are only three shows that first aired before 1989 ("Seinfeld and "The Simpsons" both appeared in that year), and none before late 1969 (when "Monty Python" premiered). It could be argued that this has to do with my age, but then again I'm not alone in thinking television has steadily gotten better. I would certainly rather watch "The Simpsons" than "The Honeymooners," "Deadwood" than "Bonanza," "Farscape" than "Star Trek," new "Doctor Who" than old "Doctor Who," "Lost" than, well, almost anything.
Also, all of these shows are American with the exception of the British "Doctor Who" and "Monty Python" and the arguably Australian "Farscape." This has everything to do with what's aired on US television; foreign TV shows just aren't shown in great supply (and certainly not in the way US television is exported to other countries). For instance, I'm a big fan of Hong Kong cinema, but I have no idea what's going on in Hong Kong television because I have no exposure to it. I think this is partially because of a disparity between the overall perception of television and film; we think of film as a high art form, therefore it behooves us to search out movies from all quarters; television, on the other hand, is a pandering wasteland of disposable culture, so it doesn't get translated or repackaged or widely disseminated in foreign countries. This perception is, however, contrary to the actual facts of the matter, which is that American television these days is dramatically better than American (especially Hollywood) cinema. I can't think of a single Hollywood movie that's come out in the last few years that can even stand up to the quality of "Deadwood."
So what else do my favorite shows have in common? You could say they're all "smart," though that's a pretty nebulous distinction. (And there are other shows that are very smart that nevertheless put me into a coma— to wit, The West Wing.) There's an element of the fantastic in most of them: only "Deadwood," "Daily Show"/"Colbert Report," and "Seinfeld" are intended to be realistic, in the literal sense of the word. ("Kung Fu" rides the fence, while comedies like "Simpsons," "South Park" and "Monty Python" are all decidedly surreal.) I'll be the first to tell you that I have an attraction to the fantastic in fiction, to magical realism, to Science Fiction and Fantasy and to some extent Horror. On the other hand, I openly despise many of the staples of the "Spec Fic" culture, such as "Star Trek" or "Babylon Five," and I merely tolerate someone like JRR Tolkien. Much of this I explored in depth in my RvsW on Science Fiction.
Another feature most of these shows share is a general complexity. They all have complex characters with complex and interesting interrelations, except for "DS"/"CR," which are intellectually complex, and "Monty Python" which is complex, period. This is one of the main problems I find in early television shows like "The Honeymooners" or "Dragnet" or "I Love Lucy"; plucked out of their time period, the characters seem bland and two-dimensional. Even "M*A*S*H" and "All in the Family," which are known for being revolutionary for their time, don't really hold up to our modern standards except by way of nostalgia.
Some of these shows are completely unprecedented; before them, television had never seen the likes of "Buffy" or "Northern Exposure" or "Kung Fu" or "Monty Python" or "The Simpsons." Others take very old ideas and reinvent them; "Seinfeld" was a buddy sitcom, whose basic format goes at least as far back as the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," and the new "Doctor Who" manages to even maintain a rough continuity with its predecessor program (at least as much as "Doctor Who" can be said to have continuity). But even those programs are in some way reinventions of old ideas‐ each of these shows has some kernel of the unique and underivative about them.
Finally, all these shows are entertaining and in some way, fun. You can almost feel the writers smacking their hands together in joy while they were writing. The shows come on and you, as the watcher, just want to grin. They are not boring television.
So, if the shows I like can in some way form a set of aesthetic criteria, for television and for narrative media in general, it would probably be complexity, lack of derivativeness, entertainment value and a lean towards the fantastic. That, I think, also explains many of my favorite books, from One Hundred Years of Solitude to All the Names to The Counterlife (not a definitive list, but a sampling). And so now if I pour derision on "Star Trek" or "CSI," you'll know exactly where I'm coming from.