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Telephilia: Has Television Become a More Relevant American Medium Than Art Film?

By Celluloid Liberation Front | Indiewire May 17, 2013 at 10:31AM

Every medium stimulates and meets the sensibility of an audience as well as, impacting its orientation, political and otherwise. Television has been historically associated with distracted cultural consumption, a medium more suited to influence viewers rather than make them think.
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Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston
Lewis Jacobs/AMC Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston

"Television is a formidable thinking tool. You are like an analyst to whom society's subconscious would be offered wide open…" --Serge Daney

Every medium stimulates and meets the sensibility of an audience as well as, impacting its orientation, political and otherwise. Television has been historically associated with distracted cultural consumption, a medium more suited to influence viewers rather than make them think. While the written word allowed for deeper reflections and articulated, complex thoughts, TV had to rely on the superficiality of spectacular images to attract viewers' attention. Cinema somehow bridges these two realms by constituting an art form that is both entertaining and enlightening.

As the 21st century started rolling, both cinema and the press started experiencing a paradigm-shifting, economic and existential crisis fuelled by the availability of free content on the internet. In the bid to preserve their traction, both cinema and editorial products lowered their standards, capitulating to the cult of celebrity and the plague of gossip. Fearful of alienating shrinking, largely "gate-crashing" audiences, as well as admittedly being unable to finance bolder endeavours, they both opted for blander content.

Audiences, despite what most people seemed to be so sure about, were apparently willing to chip in for challenging cultural products.

As tabloids and blockbusters appeared to be the only financially viable forms of infotainment, television, disputing its unsavoury reputation, began offering quality, informative and pay-for entertainment. Audiences, despite what most people seemed to be so sure about, were apparently willing to chip in for challenging cultural products. It is significant in this respect that the creator of one of the first quality TV series, David Simon of "The Wire," is a former investigative journalist who translated his craft from paper to ether. What had once been the prerogative of investigative journalism became a televisual possibility. Writing, not directing or acting, is the leading skill.

Not that television had never produced high-end series before Tony Soprano decided to confess his insecurities to a psychoanalyst, but the HBO-launched tTV renaissance presents unique features. Quality TV prior to "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" had mainly been the creation of established directors lending their lenses to the now defunct cathode-ray tube (Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz," Lynch's "Twin Peaks," Von Trier's "The Kingdom," etc.) There had of course been honourable exceptions, like Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner," but the new televisual wave featured no big names either in front or behind the camera. At a time when only star value seemed the only bankable asset in the film industry, TV proved the exact contrary, and successfully so. The writer/creator supplanted the director, Hollywood stars made way for ensemble casts mostly composed by relatively unknown actors.

Choral narratives challenged the individualist aspects of modern life and cinema. Society, as opposed to individuals, took the center stage after 30 years of cultural exile. Reality TV had represented the apex of a television genre and a societal tendency inwardly projected toward the personal dimension of life. A close and morbid relation with the spectator whereby gossip as opposed to current affairs represented our veritable bond with "reality." A type of televisual show whose very subject was not "the world" but the "I" deprived of any idea(l)s or principles, the terminal stage of the narcissistic process that began in the '80s. On the ashes of reality shows, the new TV series emerged. Emotionality and impulsive identification, which characterized reality TV, have been challenged by the rational elaboration and discerning understanding that new series require.

'The Wire'
HBO 'The Wire'

At a time of economic and social crisis, critical thought became once again a necessity that American television series managed to articulate where art cinema, with its clearly European ascendant, failed. Crisis and critique, after all, share the same etymological root; crisis can sometimes usher renewals. Not that arthouse cinema hasn't produced any remarkable film in the past decade, but it certainly lacked the cogency with which TV series relates to the present and its most pressing issues. As art cinema retreated into the solipsistic dimension of privileged lives, TV delved in and reconnected to the public sphere of common concerns. While television had, throughout its history, presented facts as "inevitable" and "neutral," today's TV series pierce the surface of reality to expose its inner workings.

A series like "The Wire," for instance, in clear opposition to the Hollywood morality, explored the socio-economic roots of "evil" to expose the relativity of "good." By adopting the stylistic conventions of the "cop show," David Simon subverted its core by dissecting with almost Marxist rigour the structural malfunctions of American society circa the '00s. "Breaking Bad" took the quintessential protagonist of sit-coms, the middle class American family, and literally dissected it in its every aspect. Money and lack thereof, lies and manipulation are the elements keeping the American family together in post-collapse America. Love, mutual understanding and harmony all belong to a tele-fictional past.

Vince Gilligan's creation combines noir elements with a mounting, Shakespearian narrative progression embroiled into a crystalline clockwork plot where everything matches and falls into pieces at the same time. A multi-seasonal narrative arch fully exploiting the temporal possibility of serial storytelling supplants the old episodic structure of traditional TV series. Aesthetically, "Breaking Bad" rivals the finest cinematography. From the acid green and sand yellow of the first two seasons to the sun-setting tones of season three. From the blood dark red of season four to the livid blue of the last season, constantly measured against the crystal blue of the purest meth, the cinematography in "Breaking Bad" is an integral part of the narrative.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Rectify






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