The Passenger #1

Tonight: TV Wasteland, or: In Between Episodes.

On last week’s broadcast of the radio show This American Life, host Ira Glass confessed his love for The O.C. He actually listed all of his favorite modern TV shows, but most striking was his passion for that prime-time teen soap opera. You see, Ira Glass is your classic smart guy, the host of an NPR radio show and certified horn-rimmed glasses-wearing hipster nerd. (If you are not fond of either hipsters or nerds, don’t be put off—the positive qualities of each cancel out the negative qualities of the other. Think John Cusack in High Fidelity.)

I missed The O.C., so I cannot speak for it, but Mr. Glass made a good case for why he loved it—or how he loved it. It was a regular highlight of his week, a time when he and his wife could sit together (on the couch, I presume, under a comforter and behind an array of fabulous comfort foods) and follow a serial drama, presumptively played out smartly and honestly, but not without its share of ironic humor and delicious plot twists. Mr. Glass admitted that he and his wife spiritedly sing along with the theme song at the start of every episode. I understand this.

I want to celebrate television, that long-denounced but unprecedentedly popular medium. I want to welcome this golden age and even accept that the proclamations of the death of cinema may be true. But mostly I want to tell the world about how most of my friends are make-believe, and how much I love them in spite of it.

Truthfully, I don’t actually own a television and haven’t owned one for the last nine years. I did live in a house with cable TV, but except for a few frustrating dalliances (and the annual Oscar telecast, a different kind of frustration), I never utilized it. I think those parts of television—the subscription, the channel surfing, the commercials, the months-long breaks in between episodes, the slack-jawed resignation—are all worthy of the bad reputation TV has had since its debut.

But the content these days. The programs. The stories and characters. I am lost to it. There is so much television nowadays, some of it has to turn out right. It’s the ten thousand-monkeys law. If you can filter out the junk, as I have done by restricting my viewing to DVD collections, there’s so much that is excellent about television that it is beyond denial. These days, if you aren’t watching television, you’ve been left at the station.

But it isn’t only the quality of television, it’s the experience. It’s the format. It’s the way you can turn TV night into date night, or the way TV night can become the most emotional night of the week. What I love about television is its ability to suck you in, temporally and emotionally, and how often lately that I am willing to take that plunge.

What I love about movies is having a communal experience with a thousand strangers. I love to fill my sight and hearing with a new human experience and feel all the people around me jump and laugh and cry with me. What I love about the movies is what we first felt at the movies, a hundred years ago, and what I haven’t felt for a long time.

The cinematic experience has become two extremes for me: either I see a popular movie on opening night with a rough and disrespectful crowd in a twenty-screen multiplex or I see an instant (or authentic) museum piece with a distant and unfeeling (and often snoring) arthouse audience. And let us say nothing of the French, who do not eat or drink or laugh or move during a film, even a film as fun as A Prairie Home Companion. The only exhilarating experience I have had at the cinema in the last few years was at a screening of Buster Keaton’s The General in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. There was live music by The Alloy Orchestra and a full audience of all ages. This crowd laughed and cried and cheered and redeemed all movies and audiences everywhere.

The cinema has become the new wasteland, complete with commercials. It’s all so awful and empty. No one has a clue out there, and if you can name me five movies as good as the five best shows on television, why, you’d have my sincere thanks, because I’m looking for a reason to care. (And let it be said that my favorite film of the last few years, Mulholland Drive, was made for television, mostly.)

I’ve been inundated with too much Hollywood crap on one front and too much of the glacially-paced and joyless foreign cinema that purports to be the anti-Hollywood on the other. I respect films like The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu and Climates, but how can I consider them in the same league as my favorites, films like The General and Vertigo and E.T.? What happened to the joy of telling a story? Vertigo goes as deep into the human soul as any film I know, but it is also consistently watchable and always compelling.

The movie-lover’s secret to staying sane is to always keep in mind, week by week, that each film year produces five great films and ten good films. With about ninety good years behind us, and all those other films that are redeemed by a performance or timeliness or a certain weirdness, there really is a wealth of films to watch, even if what’s playing in the cinema this week is unappealing (and it generally is).

In the last few years, what made film worth following has happened to television. With the invention of television recorders and the introduction of current and classic series to DVD, it is now possible for viewers to choose what they watch. And what’s better, television has evolved because of it: the miniseries has become the maxiseries, with single storylines lasting entire seasons and a depth of character nearly unseen in (my) history of television. Add also a slew of new and newly empowered TV masterminds willing to take television and the filmed narrative in new directions and you have an art form worth getting excited about. Where has the joy of storytelling (and populism) gone? Down the tube.

These days, I dedicate many happy hours to TV, time I have stolen from cinema and literature (and writing), but I feel no shame in it. It is quality time, and some of these shows incite a passion in me that few things in art or life can arouse—and when it all comes together, when I sit down on a couch with my sweetheart, under a blanket, my belly full of a good dinner, my muscles relaxing after an active day, and a new episode of a favorite show about to start, why, what feeling is better than that? (And so much the better that these days, my sweetheart will happily watch four or five episodes in a stretch with me.)

Look out for part two, in which I will write about those works of art worthy of such praise.

Comments

LoveMy2Guys said…
ode to TV...finally, a blog entry that reaches me.

California..California...in Cali
we sang along as well. Good times, the price is cheap. DVR has changed the way we watch TV. Live TV sucks..fast forward through Tyra Banks yaking to see what girl won't be America's Next Top Model. Watch Survivor challenges in fast forward. Record 2 hours each morning of MTV's videos, and fast forward through the boring ones. The only thing is practice makes perfect. Aunt Coco and Leo sort of suck at it. Don't chose to fast forward at the warp speed if you can't hang!

Veronica Mars, Lost, Entourage, and Prison Break are all on my saved Netflix list. Nothing brings more joy into my home then my baby...second is losing sleep at night due to being stuck in a marathon. I don't want to say its better then sex, but it sort of is. The excitement of hoping that the episode that just ended is not the episode to end the disc..please God, let another show follow, we only have 1 disc left!

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