From scarcity to abundance, the new creative surpluses on TV

22b3d3da86aef9a2ea7ab5c038ec6c15Spoiler alerts for:  
Game of Thrones
Luther, Homeland
The Good Wife
House of Cards
Nashville, Scandal
Arrow, Teen wolf

Rest in peace:

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones

DS Riply (Warren Brown) on Luther

Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland

Will (Josh Charles) on The Good Wife

Zoe (Kate Mara) on House of Cards

Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and Lamar (Powers Boothe) on Nashville

James (Dan Bucatinsky) on Scandal

Moira (Susanna Thompson) on Arrow

Allison (Crystal Reed) on Teen Wolf

The characters of TV are falling.  No one is safe.  Zoe on House of Cards appeared to be a character so dear to our hearts, so embedded in the HoC narrative, she was safe from harm.  This made her death on a subway platform in the first episode of the new season especially shocking.

The old convention was clear.  TV was bound by a contract.  Once the audience had connected to a character, once we had identified with that character, the character got a pass.  Nothing bad could ever happen to them.  They were safe from harm.  Especially on a subway platform.  Well, everywhere really.

But now that so many of these TV characters are dying, something is clearly up. Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly sees dark motives.  She believes that shows use these deaths as a way to goose ratings and build buzz.  These deaths, she suggests, may be  “gimmicks.”

Maybe.  We could look at this another way.  In the old TV, characters represented an investment and an achievement.  In spite of its creaky, often predictable mechanics and talent shortages, TV  managed to make a creature we found credible.  Life was created.  (Even if it did resemble the work of Dr. Frankenstein.)

In fact, writers weren’t all the good at creating new characters.  And we, as viewers, weren’t all that good at grasping these characters.  This was, after all, an era of creative scarcity.  In this world, characters got a pass not for humane reasons, but because they were triumphs against the odds.  Once we writers and viewers had conspired to cocreate a character, whew, job done, and let’s not put this miracle at risk.

But these days, show runners and writers are less like Dickensian accountants, and more like drunken lords of endless liberality.  “You don’t like that character, well and good.  How about this one?  Want another?  I’ll work something up over lunch.”  The new creative potentiality on tap in TV is virtually depthless.

Why?  Better writers have come to TV.  All writers have more creative freedom.  Every show runner is eager to take new risks.  They recruit the writers who can help them do so.   Actors are demanding new and juicier roles.  The industry is a little less an industry and now a creative community, where the depths of talent are so extraordinary something fundamental has changed.  This world (and our culture) has gone from one of scarcity to one of plenty.

And we viewers are helping.  We got better too.  We are smarter, more alert, better at complexity, unfazed by novelty, and apparently, so possessed of new cognitive gifts that you can throw just about anything at us and we will rise to the occasion.

We viewers may once have struggled to master the complexities of a show, and resented anyone who taxed us with new characters.  Now that’s part of the fun.  Throw stuff at us.  We can handle it.  Indeed, increasingly, we demand it.  Viewers are happy to meet new characters and see what they bring to existing and emerging narratives.

Perhaps killing off characters is not a gimmick after all.   This might be a way TV manages to keep itself fresh and engage the new cognitive gifts of their viewers.

This is one of the things we can expect to happen as popular culture becomes culture.   TV was once the idiot brother of literature, of theater, of cinema, of the Arts.  No self-respecting writer wanted to go there.

Then, quite suddenly, they did.  (I think of David Milch as Writer Zero, the first man of astonishing talent to buck the trend and make the transition.)  And in the 35 years since Milch made the move, many have followed.  These days just about everyone is banging on the door.  Even people who thought they wanted to write for Hollywood.  And this takes us from that “make-do” model that prevailed on both sides of the camera.  (TV did the best with what it had, and viewers made do with the best they could find.)  Over 35 years, we have seen the death of good-enough TV.

As the migration of talent continues, everything changes.  Creative scarcity gives way to creative abundance.  Pity the shows that have yet to get the memo.  And watch, ultimate spoiler alert, for more of your favorite characters to die.   With our new creative surpluses, there are more where they came from.  Plenty more.

Difficult Men. Gifted Women (Young writers, start your engines)

I just downloaded the new book by Brett Martin.  It gives an insider’s view of how cable transformed television with shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield.  (This transformation matters to an anthropologist because as TV goes so goes American culture.)

In particular, this is the story of “difficult men” like David Chase, David Simon, Ed Burns, Matthew Weiner, David Milch and Alan Ball.  The implication is that it takes some unholy alliance of the cantankerous and a deep, enduring oddity to foment a revolution of this order.  

As the publisher puts it on Amazon, these men gave us shows that gave us

“narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom.”

Well, that and better television.  Way better television.  Helmut Minnow’s “wasteland” is now producing something remarkable, and several intellectuals (below) owe us an apology.  

But Martin’s book raises a question.  Some of the new TV is being written and produced by women. Ann Biderman gave us Southland and most recently Ray Donovan.  Shonda Rhimes isn’t “cable” but with shows like Scandal she takes advantage of (and pushes) the creative liberties the cable revolution makes possible.  And then there is Bonnie Hammer now consumed, one guesses, by administrative responsibilities but in her day a creative force to be reckoned with.  There are many others, I’m sure.  (My memory stack holds three and no more.)

We need a companion piece, a gendered view.  We need a look at the revolution in TV and American culture driven by the rest of the industry.  There may be absolutely no difference between male and female creatives in this industry.  And that would be a fantastic finding. Yes, but what are the chances.  Almost surely there are tons of differences.  And they await the young writer prepared to dive in and phone home.  

Bibliography

Ewen, Stuart. 1976. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fussell, Paul. 1991. Bad, or the Dumbing of America. New York: Summit Books.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1967. The New Industrial State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Klein, Naomi. 2000. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Picador.

Leavis, F. R. 1930. Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture. Cambridge: The Minority Press.

Minow, Newton. 1961. “Television and the Public Interest: An Address to the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C.” American Rhetoric. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm (September 27, 2010).

Postman, Neil. 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness. New York: Penguin.

Seabrook, John. 2001. Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture. Vintage.

Sennett, Richard. 1978. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Vintage Books.

Trow, George W.S. 1997. Within the Context of No Context. Atlantic Monthly Press.

The Counter Argument may be found here:

Carey, John. 2002. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Academy Chicago Publishers.

Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. Riverhead Books.

Nussbaum, Emily. 2009. “Emily Nussbaum on When TV Became Art: Good-bye Boob Tube, Hello Brain Food.” New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/arts/all/aughts/62513/ (August 7, 2010).

Poniewozik, James. 2003. “Why Reality TV Is Good for Us.” Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,421047-1,00.html (August 1, 2010).

Steinberg, Brian. 2010. “TV Crime Does Pay — the More Complex the Better.” Advertising Age. http://adage.com/mediaworks/article?article_id=147203 (November 23, 2010).
 

Get Difficult Men here at Amazon.  

Calling all journalists (ok, some journalists)

If you were 22, recently graduated from the college of your choice, and fizzing with literary talent, where would you be headed?  Novels? Broadway? Off Broadway? Television?

Exactly. You would be headed for TV. This is where the action is.  (Let me read the following programs into evidence:

House, Modern Family, Mad Men, The Good Wife, Glee, Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory, Dexter, Fringe, The Closer, Weeds, The Office, The Big C, The Simpsons, Psych. Just for starters

TV is where people as vastly talented as Aaron Sorkin and David Milch now ply their trades. This is the Globe of the moment.  This is our London in the 16th century.  This is our Paris of the first half of the 20th century.  LA is it.  

A couple of days ago, when I was noting the sheer volume of good programs on TV, I failed to see there is no culture without structure.  It just didn’t occur to me that for Hollywood and Burbank to be turning out good TV, there has to be an influx of talent of every kind (writing, directing, acting, casting, etc.).  

Hence my image, here, of Hurricane Fred.  This is meant to represent talent being pulled from all directions into Los Angeles.  (Yes, I know, Hurricane Fred had nothing to do with LA.  Work with me.)

You say hurricane.  I say virtuous cycle.  The better TV gets, the more talented people come, and the better TV gets and the more talented people come…and so on.  

Which means at this very moment there has to be a 22 year old getting off the bus in LA preparing to make his or her fortune in this the great center of popular culture, make that American culture.  

Which means that there is one whopping story to be written here for Rolling Stone or someone, the story of great talent pouring into a city now prepared, sometimes, to make it welcome.  This means there are bars where aspiring writers meet to aspire.  There have to be places in town where talent eddies.  There has to be a whole lot of networking going on.  

If I were not preoccupied with other things, (the proposal for the new book is as of this evening officially done. Publishers, start your engines), I would fly to LA and start an anthropological investigation of LA and its literary subcultures.   So, I can’t.  How about you?

Leslie Dektor, inventing a camera inventing a culture

This little essay was written for my new book, Chief Culture Officer, out in the fall.  There is some question about whether it will make the final manuscript and I want to get it on line so that Dektor can get us due and so that film buffs can get their mitts on it.  (Let the debate begin.)

When NYPD Blue launched in 1993, it was praised for the work of Dennis Franz, new kinds of dialogue from Steven Bochco and David Milch, and an ensemble style that built on the innovations of Hill Street Blues.  But what made it striking for many people it was the visual style, the camera work.

NYPD Blue had a restless camera engaged in what sometimes seemed like amphetamine photography.  The camera would begin at the roof top of an 8 story apartment in neighborhood and scrape downwards to the street, and then sprint horizontally to the station house.  Where most shows would “jump” from scene to scene, NYPD Blue liked to careen between them in real time.  Indoors, the camera continued to fidget and drift, fixing first on one detail and then another. The NYPD Blue camera might as well have been a kid with ADD.  Even when “moored” on an actor, it rocked in place

Some people called it the “shaky-cam.”  Others called the style “floaty” or “hitchy.”  And many frankly hated it.  “It makes me seasick!”  “It gives me vertigo!”  Stop the presses.  Or at least the camera.  It looked like the motion of a handheld camera but it wasn’t.  The restlessness was induced, manufactured by a fluid head and the camera operator. Gregory Hoblit, the first director of photography, brought it to the show, and it was cultivated there by Mark Tinker.[i]

It turns out the restless camera was the creation of a guy called Leslie Dektor, a South African who has lived in the US since the 1980s.  Dektor learned his craft at the knee of his mother, a documentarian.  And he honed this craft as a still photographer working in the fashion business.  He invented the restless camera while making ads for Levi’s and AT&T.  The guys on NYPD Blue gave Dektor full credit.  When directing the camera, Tinker would say, “dektor over to Sipowitz.”[ii]

Dektor’s innovation is now a fixture of television. It’s used across a range of shows: Homicide, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Reno 911!, and The Shield.

I called Leslie Dektor to ask him about his invention.[iii]  He was very kind.  \I got the feeling he was expecting me to fail to grasp most of what he said, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t disappoint him. There were a couple of long pauses in the course of the conversation where I could see him staring at the phone as if to say, “where did this guy come from.”

Dektor told me that he wasn’t trying to create a “technique.” He said he was “trying to find the moment. I wanted to get to the moment almost a beat too late. I wanted to give an importance to the moment.” The idea is “discovery.” Dektor wants the camera to find the moment, to occupy the moment, to “retrieve the moment from its banality.”

The trouble with some photography he says is that its “manicured,” by which I think he means “premeditated.”  Indeed, the film camera has many masters: the producer, the director, the director of photography, the camera operator, the editor.  Cameras are thoroughly “bossed around.”

Dektor gives the camera back its liberty, the better to get accident, spontaneity and the ordinary back into the scene.[iv]  Dektor told me his camera work is not about technique.

It’s about sight.  It’s about breathing, I don’t ever think about it.  If someone like me thinks about it, it becomes technique.  [Photography is something that works when] it’s just something.  It is [a process of] opening yourself up.  [The camera] is an extension of yourself.  I don’t even think about the camera.  The camera moves.  The camera itself forces you to move a certain way. […]  I never know what I’m going to do in a situation.  I never let people know what I am going to do with a piece.  I want the moment to be the author of the moment, and the actors to be the author of the moment.[v]

I especially like Dektor’s idea that the camera should come to each scene “a moment too late.”  Surely, this was a camera incapable of bullying or inquisition.  A late camera comes to the scene breathless, eager, as if to say, “wha’d I miss?”  This camera is not the boss of anyone.  It’s ingenuous, alert, ready for anything.
I asked Dektor why the camera rocked in place.

I would let the camera vibrate because I wanted to be prepared to make the next move.  It’s poised for movement.  I wanted frame to be rubbery to prepare myself for the next move.  You never wanted it to go rock solid.  You wanted to keep the softness, the vibration.

When Fritz Lang went to Hollywood in the 1930s, his style of movie making irritated cast and crew.  There was no room for fluidity, improvisation, or adjustment.  Lang came to the set with every shot specified down to the tiniest detail.  And it had to be shot exactly that way.

Hollywood has moved steadily away from this kind of premeditation and control. Robert Altman was famous for throwing actors together and seeing what would happen. Hollywood learned to love improv and to take advantage of accident.  Judd Apatow, Christopher Guest, and Mike Leigh all harvest the gifts of a freeform approach.[vi]

Dektor created a camera that is helping create this culture.

________________________________________
[i] Wolk, Josh.  1999.  Victimless Crime.  Entertainment Weekly.  May 25, 1999.  http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,84404,00.html

[ii] Anonymous.  n.d. “Through the Lens: The Look of Blue.”  Disc 4, Side B.  NYPD Blue [on DVD].  Season 4.  Steven Bocho Productions.  20th Century Fox.  This wonderful little documentary appears on the DVD without attribution.  I recommend it.  There were lots of innovations on the show beyond the restless camera: the use of many light sources, mixing and matching light temperatures,  shooting not just from above but below, running the gamut  from near darkness to blinding overexposure.  Wow.  That’s my anthropological assessment.  Wow.

[iii] Dektor and I talked by phone on December 17, 2008.  We talked for about an hour.  I thank him and Faith Dektor for giving me the time.

[iv] Just to be completely clear, everything from “Indeed, film cameras…” to the end of this paragraph is my surmise and my language.  I hope it captures Dektor’s intention, but it may not.  Just so you know.

[v] This sounded anthropological to me.  That’s the objective of the ethnographic interview, to be absolutely attentive to what the respondent is saying, to accept his or her terms, and to respond to them.  What you don’t want to do is the manhandle the interviewee or “manicure” the interview.  I said this to Dektor.  There was a long pause.  Oh, dear, I thought.  Then he said, “that sounds right.” Whew.

[vi] “Leigh’s distinctive film style—in which the commonplace is often tinged with the extraordinary—has been dubbed “social surrealism,” or as Leigh prefers to call it, “heightened realism.” He prefers to work without a script, writing the film as he rehearses with his cast, improvising and collaborating together.”  Simon, Alex. 2008.  MIKE LEIGH: THE LORD HIGH EXECUTIONER SPEAKS OUT.  The Hollywood Interview.  October 30, 2008.  http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2008/10/mike-leigh-hollywood-interview.html