Growing up, my brother and I loved television. And we watched a lot of it. In some ways, looking back, I think we were studying the medium even back then - debating the characters, the shows, the plots. On Saturday mornings, I would torture Jerry (brother) by telling him Crusader Rabbit was my favorite cartoon - which is wasn't - just to get him riled, to then have the real debate about which really was the best.
At 10, I had dream that I had to tell Jerry about. In it, someone asked me what television shows I watched. And with a bit of arrogance, I recall responding with "the good ones." Even back then, I was somehow confident I knew what good TV was. Regardless of whether that fact is true or not, television has always been part of my world, and something I am passionate - and opinionated - about.
Only in the last 10-15 years, when cable networks multiplied and evolved, has television become respected. Before then, if you worked in TV or was an actor on a show instead of a feature film, you were looked down upon. HBO, being the leader in innovative television programming, changed this. Now, not only is television acceptable, it is sometimes preferred. Yet I continue to have an on-going debate on this topic with my friend, Jason, who doesn't understand the appeal - either on an emotional or artistic level. I've never really swayed him - which is okay with me. (As naturally, I know I'm right.)
Last night I happened upon America in Primetime, a four-hour series, part of PBS' American Experience. I caught hours 2 and 3 - Man of the House and the Misfits. (Both, quite well done - plan on watching parts 1 and 4.) In the first, Ron Howard gives a description of television that stayed with me. I went looking for the clip or the quote this morning, and found PBS thought it was worth highlighting too. I'm no Ron Howard, but essentially here's what I have been trying to share with Jason through the years. (Quote below, full length video here.)
"Television is a writer’s medium and an actor’s medium. You know, directors, executives, they make a difference. But it's really about developing those characters. And when it's really well done, it provides the most kind of depth. They used to say it's because those characters are coming into your living room. And, I never believed that, even as a kid. I always felt it’s because, week after week, hour after hour, really feeling like you're connecting with those characters and seeing them cope with things - that, whatever the tone, whatever the outcomes, whatever the choices the characters make, you really start to feel like you just know them." - RON HOWARD, Director
That pretty much says it all. Television provides a platform, a palette, to dive deeply into a character, to reveal nuances of their motivations and behavior slowly, as life happens. (The medium also provides "socialness" - the watercooler talk about these characters evolutions week after week, even in the DVR age, when we aren't really watching in sync - which is also what I find to be part of television's appeal and staying power.) Film is at its best when a character (and a story) can be fully realized in 2 hours, when in that time, the audience fully understands and empathsizes with the characters. In television, it's a slower build. And if done really well - like in the case of The Sopranos (Tony Soprano: arguably the best television character, ever), or Mad Men, or Six Feet Under or even Curb Your Enthusiasm - the impact is equal to, if not greater, than the finest film on the big screen.
Other than the fact that film and television are both platforms for story telling, it is really hard to compare television to film. I love film too, but I'm probably a better student of television. And I see it the way Ron Howard does, in that I don't believe our connection to TV characters is about them coming into our homes, but more about how often we hang out with them. The very best television creators (along the lines of Lynch, Bochco, Ball, Chase, Lear) develop shows and characters that keep us interested for years - and in the case of cable, sometimes keep us waiting that long just for a new season. But it's those shows, the ones beautifully crafted to reveal characters and plot lines slowly, strongly and authentically - and the ones I'll wait for with anticipation - that keep me loving television.