We all have a friend or acquaintance or relative who doesn’t own a television and we all know the exact tone of voice they use to inform us of this fact. I have to admit that this used to fulminate in me the exact amount of shame intended when it left the speaker’s mouth. Back when Mork & Mindy and The Greatest American Hero and The Love Boat ruled the airwaves, it was right to be embarrassed about watching television. There was no way to defend 46 minutes spent with Bo & Luke Duke.
But if you tossed out your box full of glowing white dots after one particularly awful episode of Maude, you missed out on The X-Files, Millennium, Carnivale, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter (season 1), The Wire, The Sopranos… I’m just pulling these off the top of my head and I could go on doing that all night (but I won’t) because television in the last fifteen years just all of a sudden grew up.
The reason this subject even came up is because, owing to my fascination with the novel, I attempted to watch the miniseries of Stephen King’s IT tonight and I was flabbergasted at how unwatchable it turned out to be. Now my negative feelings about the novel are well documented as is my near fanbois crush on its author, but I never would have expected something as stilted and awful to come out of it like this miniseries. It was so bad, I started taking notes which I won’t post here because they’re just mean and I have a No Mean Posts policy.
I bailed about thirty minutes in when Seth Green entered as Richie Tozier and even he was awful. Seth Green! And that was the thing that got me started thinking. Seth Green is a comic genius and a decent actor. Richard Thomas is an excellent actor. Annette O’Toole and Tim Reid and, really, every other lead in the cast are and were accomplished actors. Why were they hitting their marks, over emoting and giving stilted line readings? They knew better.
That was when I remembered something that happened way back when I first signed up for Netflix. I got nostalgic and immediately began ordering up the shows I had loved when I was in high school and college, some of them listed above. My interest quickly died out when I had to sit through these incredibly slow paced offerings. Rockford going to the police department? Okay, so a shot of him going out the door, a shot of him getting in his car, a cut to the street in front of the department as his car pulls up to the curb and takes an unlikely open spot, a shot of him going into the building. And… finally, he starts talking to Detective Becker. And the pacing of the line readings is just very slow. Why? Because they have time. As much as six extra minutes per episode. Also, this is the pre-cable, pre-MTV generation. We hadn’t yet gotten hooked on quick cuts and jerky, wandering cameras and rapid fire, overlapping dialogue.
You think television underestimates its viewers these days? Try watching something from the seventies. Those establishing shots are everywhere. I found myself leaning forward during one scene in Greatest American Hero like someone waiting for the last note of “Shave And A Haircut” because a conversation simply would not end. They had gotten the point across, the drama had been inflated and deflated, the exit lines had been spoken, and Robert Culp just stood there. I wanted to yell, “Get out, stupid! The scene’s over! You’re holding up the show!”
But that’s not the problem with the IT miniseries. It’s at the root of the problem but it’s not the actual problem. We’d had MTV for almost ten years by the time IT came out. We’d had Hill Street Blues and China Beach and Twin Peaks by then.
The problem with IT? Good enough for TV. That’s the problem.
These days, we’ve grown used to seeing 22 short films during a television season but back then, back in the “good enough for TV” days, everything was done to a lower bar. With a few exceptions (the previously mentioned Rockford Files comes to mind, which still holds up to this day, believe it or not) the writing, the cinematography, the lighting, the direction is all done down to a level that I can only describe as, yep, you guessed it: “Good enough for TV.”
What is James Lipton’s withering attack on Tobias in Arrested Development?
Tobias Fünke: Are you calling me a coward?
Warden Stefan Gentles: There’s only one man I’ve ever called a coward, and that’s Brian Doyle Murray. No, what I’m calling you is a television actor.
Tobias Fünke: Ouch.
So what caused this swing toward high quality television after three decades of insipient mediocrity? Who knows, but I think it had to do with three things:
1) Writers are treated like crap in Hollywood with one exception: Television. In TV, the writer is the executive producer. The director who would rewrite his script in the film world actually works for him in the television world. Writers had steered clear of TV for years because of its reputation for low quality but then guys like Stephen J. Cannell showed you could actually make quality product there.
2) Then cable happened and all those new channels were looking for a way to compete with the Big Three. They started trying things, pushing at the sides of the box, looking for an edge.
3) And, finally, along came the inexpensive, high quality digital cameras (and the attendant digital editing bays) that could provide a filmic experience on a television budget.
For a while, we would get a few out of the box shows of superior quality (Twin Peaks, X-Files, Millennium, etc.) mixed in with the usual dreck. That was enough to draw the good writers with the new ideas and then, when the new digital cameras came in, that brought in the directors who wanted to make movies and the lighting experts would light a scene darkly and the cinematographers who weren’t afraid to put the color black on the screen.
Still, you have to wonder why in 1990 when King was established as the world’s most popular genre writer they would approach this miniseries with such a lack of passion. They obviously had the budget, they hired top name television actors, so it wasn’t made on the cheap. Stephen King is credited as one of the writers and the show was directed by John Carpenter’s cohort Tommy Lee Wallace. Who knows? Sometimes projects just don’t gel. Or maybe I’m just viewing it in retrospect with the altered vision of 20/20 hindsight. Maybe there’s just no way to go back and watch a show from the past without seeing it through a lens misshapen by the roads you’ve traveled and the things you’ve done in the intervening years.