Monday, June 4, 2012

Audun Engelstad: It's not TV - or is it?

It's not TV - or is it?
by Audun Engelstad

. . .

TV vs. High Art

It is perhaps an outdated discussion, but there seems to be a repeated tendency to see quality and popular culture as two different and mutually exclusive entities. If a product of popular culture is endowed with an aura of quality, it ceases to exist as popular culture. Instead it moves to the realm of the art world. Historically, we can find this view expressed in W. H. Auden’s (1948: 151) classic article on the crime genre where he suggests that Raymond Chandler is not writing detective fiction, but rather serious studies of a criminal environment, and that his books “should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.” And Tzvetan Todorov (1977), in his famous article “The Typology of Detective Fiction”, claimed that any experiment with the established features of the genre, in order to improve upon them, implied a move towards serious literature. In line with arguments like these, popular culture and high art exist as two different systems – and never shall the twain meet.

Needless to say, this position has been challenged, in particular as a consequence of the interest postmodern theory has taken in popular culture. Jim Collins (1989) has demonstrated how crime fiction applies many of the strategies that define the writings within a modernist realm, such as a highly sophisticated play on intertextuality and the foregrounding of a self-conscious style. Indeed, much of the postmodernist aesthetics have been invested in blurring the boundaries between high and low culture, re-circulating tropes, forms, and narrative schemes established by popular culture. Apparently, postmodernism has put an end to the divide between the two art systems, it is all one mix now. Or so it seems at times, but perhaps it is not that easy.

The reason for bringing this issue up again, even though it is easy to get the impression that it is settled, is that the conflict between high and low appears to be embedded in the slogan that defines HBO as different from television. And much of the literature on quality television, a term that until recently was something like an oxymoron, is bent on drawing attention to traits like narrative complexity, character density, and a distinctly defined style – traits that otherwise belong to the field of high art. At the peak of postmodernism, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, television looked quite different from today. Perhaps this is the reason why the notion of artworks within television comes so belatedly to television studies.

The notion that the HBO television drama raises above the medium seems to be advocated by the series’ creators as well as HBO’s advertising department. Both writer-producer of The Sopranos, David Chase, and writer-producer of The Wire, David Simon, have in several interviews expressed a general lack of interest in television drama, and, it seems, in television altogether. Such a position is quite puzzling when looking at the track record of the two of them. It is obvious that they are well-seasoned within the trade of serial television drama. Chase has a background as a writer and a producer for television series such as The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure. Originally, his ambitions for The Sopranos was for it to be a movie, and he has stated that he treated every single episode as an equivalent to a stand-alone film. Much can be said about such a claim, but it definitively works towards distinguishing The Sopranos as something other than ordinary television drama. As for Simon, he was a former crime reporter who was introduced to television as a writer and producer on Homicide: Life on the Street, based on his book Homocide: A Year on the Killing Street. As en executive producer and writer for The Wire he has made a point about bringing in creative people with little or no background in television. This, obviously, serves the impression that The Wire was conceived as unrelated to television. Both Chase and Simon, in their publically well-known statements, express a disdain towards television drama, what it is recognized by and what it achieves (see e.g. Biskind 2007 & Goldman 2006).

TV Auteurs

Whether or not Chase and Simon’s disdain for television is reasonable is beside the point. By their positions they – consciously, or not – apparently align themselves with the nouvelle vague filmmakers who revolted against the current state of French cinema and called for a politics of auteurs (fig. 4-5). If we follow this line of argument, Chase and Simon et al, do not necessarily express a desire to make something else than television – a film, a visualized novel, or something else – rather the goal is to make television drama into something other than what it is otherwise recognized as, yet still television drama. In other words, to explore and stretch the possibilities of television as an art form.

The idea of an auteur within television has been something of a contradiction in terms. The influence of auteur criticism arrived in USA in the 1960s at a time when cinema had lost the competition against television and found it necessary to distinguish itself from television. Ironically, some of the auteurs that came out of the period known as the Hollywood Renaissance had their background in television, such as Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Arthur Penn and John Cassavettes. Within cinema, the auteur is recognized as a person with a strong artistic impulse, the director who rises above the craftsmen on the film set, acting on an impulse to tell something of significance or of poetic value, and who is able to transform cinema to an art form worthy of serious debate. Television, on the other hand, is typically centered on personalities in front of the camera – the talk show host, the news anchor, the leading star of the soap series, and so forth. Take, say, The Late Show with David Letterman. The form follows a fairly strict format, and it really should make no difference who is doing the various jobs behind the camera. They are all replaceable. The only one that cannot be replaced without altering the show is David Letterman, the television personality. David Letterman can probably (and he once did) take his show to any other network channel, and it will still be recognized as The Late Show with David Letterman. The HBO drama series, by contrast, elevates the executive producer to the role of the artist. All though less pronounced, it is much the same position that Robert J. Thompson gives the producer in his study of quality television series of the 1980s and 1990s.

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