It’s the Golden Age of Television (or at least it’s the second or third incarnation of it). Certainly it’s a gilded era for watching TV, an activity that has changed so enormously since the box first appeared in the corner of our lounge rooms that it bears almost no resemblance to its 1950s beginnings. Novelist Morris Gleitzman offers some ideas on why our viewing MO has changed.
Fawlty Towers is in the air at QPAC, and just a whiff was enough to send me scampering off for a nostalgic re-squiz. Just one episode. Or two. OK, all twelve, which was certainly nostalgic, but left me thinking more about now than then. Our brave new play-all, on-demand culture. Access all areas, dude, and skip the titles. If like me you enjoy a bit of delayed gratification, thank God we’ve got election promises. So I was left pondering, are we happier with bulk telly on tap?
Yes, I think we are. When Fawlty Towers was first broadcast, one ep a week, two series with a four year gap, the TV industry’s business model was to make us wait. And wait. In the hope that we’d fill the aching void with whatever was being advertised and/or This Day Tonight.
No aching void these days. We don’t even mind sitting through ad breaks, not with sixty eight episodes of Arrested Development on our phone. Compared to the series length we’re used to now, Fawlty Towers is a slip of a thing. Six hours all done. I was in bed by two thirty, barely feeling binged at all. Reflecting how in thirty seven short years TV has gone from drip-feed to force-feed. With us self-administering the Netflix nozzle, unfussed if our frontal lobes turn into foie gras.
We use food terminology a lot these days when we talk about TV. Partly because half of what’s on air is about food. But also because the new technologies of viewing present us with the same issues that we in fortunate societies have often faced with food. The savoury guilts and perverse pleasures of gluttony. Come on, admit it, the last time you did twenty episodes of HBO in a weekend, your head might have ached but your spleen was singing, right?
I think, though, that binge-speak is only telling part of the long-form TV story. So come with me to a kinder cultural theory, one that says we’re not greedy guts or feeble-minded escape junkies or fools who don’t value our time and bandwidth. That if we choose to spend nineteen hours of any given twenty four hanging out on a corner in Baltimore or getting indignant in an idealised Oval Office or up to our necks in mud and mofos in a wild west frontier town pig pen, maybe it’s because the experience is giving us something we can’t get elsewhere.
There are certainly things going on in the likes of The Wire and West Wing and Deadwood that movies can’t offer. For a start, the characters hang around for more than a hundred minutes.
We get to know them and all their messy human contradictions because they’re not preoccupied with moving breezily through a three-act Hollywood agenda, down, up, down, up, down, up, and off into the emotional sunrise triumphant and self-actualised and not needing us any more.
Compared to these movie one night stands, series characters are available, sometimes for years. And the way they blunder around, failing to solve their problems, also for years, how human is that? One step forward, two steps back. You want to put your arms round them. (Mostly. In Deadwood only if it’s bath week.)
So heart-warmingly wonky are their trajectories, these old friends of ours, and so incomplete their achieved dreams, we can’t help but feel they’re actual real people. Even if they do suffer fools a bit less gladly than us (Sopranos), and have a slightly more organised grasp of their domestic finances (Breaking Bad).
Of course we’re not the first to yearn for this. Back in the fourteenth century Boccaccio was the box-set boy with multiple seasons of his Decameron. And thousands of ratings periods before that, in India, the Sanskrit temple play Mantrankam was being performed in ever longer versions, packed with ever more examples of daily human foibles, until centuries later it took forty one days to watch. They knew how to binge, those Brahmins.
Then or now, long-form heroes usually arrive at some sort of resolution or redemption or rebirth eventually, but down such convoluted, hapless, plot-tossed paths we never feel shamed by them or inadequate in their presence. (Well, not often. Watching the Peter Capaldi character in The Thick Of It or any of the characters in Deadwood, I do sometimes wish I was better at swearing.)
Series characters eventually get to where we’d like to be: a little bit better off than where we are now, but in a human rather than a Hollywood way. The goals vary – emotional security, peer status, self-respect, personal and social insight, and sometimes the gains aren’t huge (slightly-cleaner fingernails in Deadwood), but series characters console and inspire by reminding us that being stuck wherever we are now doesn’t have to be permanent.
Unless, of course, we’re in a sitcom. Sitcoms are how we pay our respects to the human truth that some of us are incapable of change. By season twenty seven, the folk in The Big Bang Theory will probably be running the CSIRO, but they won’t have changed inside. Thus proving the Third Law Of Thermodynamics: you can never destroy a sitcom character’s lovable dysfunction, just spin it off.
There’s another type of unchanging character peering balefully out from certain series. They tend to be shorter than average (the series, not the characters) and these characters, usually housed in familiar but slightly twisted cop procedurals (True Detective, Babylon, Red Riding) are so unusual and unpredictable and dark and complex that we don’t want them to change. We just want them to keep fascinating us and expanding our notion of what’s possible in the human psyche and causing our mouths to stay open even while we’re eating individual Snickers.
Mostly though, I think we like long-form series because of their eerie ability to slowly draw us into themselves and at the same time insidiously (nice insidiously) infuse our lives with their presence. Five minutes into episode one of Mad Men we’re dizzily agreeing that the past truly is another country and they do absolutely do things differently there. Five episodes into season three and we’ve refurnished our place with spindly blond furniture and taken up smoking again.
Is all this enough to explain the lure of the on demand long-form series? All the deep multi-season friendships and hard-won wisdoms and lost weekends and workplace blackouts? I don’t think so. Let’s be honest, if all we wanted was to spend hundreds of hours on a roller coaster of emotion and challenging circumstance with a fascinating but dauntingly complex individual who may or may not make it through to the end, most of us in relationships wouldn’t need to watch TV at all.
So there must be something else that draws us to the LED shrine. Some ancient atavistic need that can only be satisfied by the cycle of the seasons.
I have a sense of what it is, and I think it’s both universal and very personal. All good drama has subtext, and the deep subtext of fifty or sixty hours of good drama is a powerful thing. It can connect with some of our deepest, most powerful fears and apprehensions and wonderings and confusions.
Different connections for different people, though. So for example when I watch House Of Cards, even as I’m grimly and unnecessarily reminded that in a liberal democracy our worst possible self can be president, I’m also coming to understand more about the relationship between fear and fundamentalist thinking and obsessive-compulsive disorders and free markets. Oh, and that in some political circles facial subtlety and good posture are as important as branch stacking.
As I watch The Sopranos I develop the suspicion that the human heart is often a mafioso too, its capacity for love in no way diminishing its preparedness to whack anyone and anything, including itself, that threatens those it cares about, including itself.
And dear Fawlty Towers, so sublimely funny on the surface, but below stairs might it be an early expression of Brexit fury?
Is Basil’s the rage of the ordinary man whose country and gender once enjoyed five stars in all the guidebooks but now neither the plumbing nor the wife will do what they’re told. Or could it be merely the apoplexy we all feel as we realise it’s not Michelin who takes our stars away, it’s time.
You probably don’t agree. Which is exactly how it should be. Watching TV is a personal journey.
That’s why, I think, we devote so much of our lives to these huge unwieldy cultural experiences – could the Brahmins ever have guessed how paltry forty one days would come to seem – and download so many episodes with such determined stamina.
Personal journeys are often long ones. Mine is far from completed. Yours may not be either. If the thoughts herein have struck a chord, put them to the test. Take a few months off, truck in the personal Snickers, assemble your fifteen or twenty favourite shows and watch them all again.
You know you want to.
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Morris Gleitzman is a bestselling Australian children’s author. His books explore serious and sometimes confronting subjects in humorous and unexpected ways. His titles include Two Weeks With The Queen, Grace, Doubting Thomas, Bumface, Give Peas A Chance, Extra Time, Loyal Creatures, Toad Delight and the series Once, Then, Now, After and Soon. Morris lives in Brisbane and Sydney, and his books are published in more than twenty countries.