It's TV week, the week of premieres for the fall's scripted dramas.
Television as entertainment is frequently dismissed as having no intellectual value. "The Idiot Box" and "The Great Wasteland" are just two nicknames for our TVs, and let's face it, for much of what is on TV, that's fitting. However, the role fiction plays in our lives can be an important one. For most adults the thing most likely to introduce a new interest into their lives, the thing that is most likely to expand their views on societal ills, introduce them to new cultures, or new ideas, seems to be what they choose to view in fiction.
Clearly not everything on TV has the possibility to achieve anything that lofty. Most of it is dreck and rightly termed so. Some of it truly isn't and the difference lies in things beyond fiction or reality TV. Some scripted dramas rise above the level of mediocrity and present characters viewers end up caring about deeply. To craft a story that contains characters who are nearly interchangeable with people takes a tremendous amount of skill and not a little bit of luck.
Most of the people I know seem to watch Mad Men now. My husband and I have been watching since the first season, and to say the show is well written is an understatement. However, it isn't just that it is well written, that's just one of the challenges scripted dramas must meet to deliver a good product, the key difference for Mad Men is that it pulled off a casting miracle. Every actor cast on that show is a bang-on perfect fit for their character. Jon Hamm leads that pack playing the morally ambiguous Don Draper (aka Dick Whitman). Hamm delivers a riveting performance playing a character who is not strictly likable.
James Gandolfini pulled off the same trick playing Tony Soprano for years, although I was never able to get into The Sopranos. It was never my cup of tea, but a lot of people cared deeply about the fate of Tony Soprano.
For years I was told to watch The Wire and since I am an HBO subscriber, I did give it a try. The story failed to grab me and I abandoned the series. Still, friends kept telling me I was missing out and recently my husband and I sat down to give the series another try. Four episodes in my opinion was still the same, I wasn't invested. The drug world, and the cops battling it in Baltimore was failing to hook me. The material was interesting, but the characters were slow to make me invest. Plus, the drug kingpin bears the amusing name of Avon Barksdale, which sounds like the name of the Lacrosse team's captain at a particularly snooty prep school. Also, he's played by Wood Harris and he's this very pleasant looking man. At first I thought the main villain lacked menace. Something about Wood Harris's face just says, "Really, you'd be safe letting me pet-sit for you."
Until the sixth episode when Avon Barksdale becomes a truly frightening figure. In fact, a lot of characters begin to gel in that sixth episode which was not incidentally given the same title as the series. The episode opens with a terrifying image, fully indicating of what Barksdale is capable, but more importantly in the background of the story Lance Reddick's character slowly begins to commit career suicide and as a viewer, you don't quite get why. Harris is an actor with the kind of face that could, and does blend in with a crowd. Nothing about Reddick blends in. He's tall, elegant, imposing, ominous sounding, his face is startlingly beautiful. You probably don't know his name, but once you've seen his face, you will never forget it. No way on this green and verdant Earth could Lance Reddick have ever pulled off a life of crime. You have to look at him whenever he's on screen, no matter who he is playing, Lance Reddick has incredible physical presence.
That story hook. Either a drama has it or it doesn't. By the end of that episode the show does very quietly reveal why the rather mysterious, possibly power hungry, secondary character has risked everything he ever wanted to keep the wire case alive. There aren't any big speeches, it's a very quiet revelation but at that moment the fictional world came to full life and I wanted to know everything about all of the characters. Where there had been character constructs I was trying to get into, there suddenly stood a fully fleshed human being. Not entirely good, but possibly good enough.
All fiction seeks to make us feel. Really good fiction makes us feel when we aren't even sure we're comfortable doing so. The Wire had a five year run, and it never garnered an Emmy. A fact which critics still bemoan as being wildly unfair.
I don't know what's going to emerge this season as being a great show, filled with characters people can care about, but the reason people watch TV is not simply to have something on in the background. Or a way to kill an hour. People look for reasons to feel. To have emotions about things beyond their daily lives. To expand their personal universes.
Most of the shows being launched will come and go without much fanfare. Mostly because they will lack the ability to deliver that story hook, or they won't be given the time to do so.
But I like the true reason behind watching TV, going to the movies, or reading. People do want to feel for characters outside of their immediate lives.
It's always made me hopeful that what that truly indicates is that people are far more caring than the evidence of the news would sometimes indicate.