Television 2015: Are We Done Hating Television?

August 24, 2015

This is one in a series of essays running last week and this week about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters. The entire series is available here.

It seems a little weird, for lack of a better term, that Bradley Cooper is in one of CBS’s fall pilots.

It’s called Limitless, and it’s an extension of the 2011 thriller of the same name in which he starred, based on the Alan Glynn novel. In the film, Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a guy who gains access to a drug that effectively gives him super-smarts, who then has to navigate the understandably competitive marketplace for a drug that gives people super-smarts.

The television series introduces a new guy named Brian Sinclair, played by Jake McDorman, who also gains access to the drug that provides super-smarts. But he does it in a post-movie world that already includes a post-movie Eddie Morra, who is played in the pilot, just briefly, by certified actual movie star Bradley Cooper. Cooper is also a producer on the series, and when Limitless had its press tour panel, there was a lot of talk about him. Was he around much? Was he available much? Was he vetting scripts?

There’s still a level of curiosity that kicks in when actors we know from the movies show up on television, one that almost assumes that television being visited by a Movie Person is a rare and interesting treat. But it’s not as pronounced as it was, I don’t think, particularly with people who work a lot in film making so many trips back and forth across that line. Matthew McConaughey was about as big as movie stars get when he did True Detective. David Fincher has directed on House Of Cards. Viola Davis went to broadcast, in How To Get Away With Murder, a couple of years after her second Oscar nomination. Oscar Isaac, an actor so hot in Hollywood he has announced roles in both the Star Wars and X-Men universes, is currently leading the HBO miniseries Show Me A Hero.

Would Bradley Cooper currently lead a regular CBS drama series right now? Almost surely not. Would he lead a continuing Showtime series? Probably not. Would he lead an HBO miniseries? If he did, it wouldn’t seem all that unusual. And that’s partly because scheduling gets more flexible when you move outside years-long, all-year contracts. But it’s also because the cultural position of television has changed. Not necessarily radically, but significantly.

At the first press tour I went to, in January 2010, Patrick Stewart was there to talk about a PBS presentation of Macbeth, and he addressed the tension that Americans seem to create between so-called high culture and low culture, between art and entertainment. He said he was surprised by the rigid hierarchies in American acting: “One of the things that took me by surprise when I came to live and work in Hollywood was the rebuttal of what I’d always believed was that I was coming to a completely democratic society, which did not have a hierarchy. And what I found when I arrived in Hollywood was that it had a more carefully and elaborately structured hierarchy than I had ever known in my life. And shooting a syndicated science fiction drama series put me way down the rung of that ladder.” He said that in the UK, they don’t really do it that way: “There is no taste distinction, really, drawn, whether you are doing a radio play or a guest role in a television series or you are working for the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre or you are appearing in the commercial west end or you are in a regional theater. You are working. And there is no pejorative aspect of any of that work. That’s what I didn’t find when I came to Hollywood.”

It’s much too soon to proclaim an end to the hierarchies Stewart observed less than six years after he made that comment – being on a syndicated science fiction drama probably still wouldn’t be treated like the A-list, if there were still very many syndicated drama series kicking around. But in at least some parts of television, the lines do seem to be softening. We’re well past the point where great actors who were past their high point as movie stars could go to television to find great roles, the way, say, Glenn Close did with Damages. Now, even people who are at the height of their powers, as Isaac and Cooper both are, can move comfortably between film and television if they have the right project, and it doesn’t raise all that many questions. If anything, actors shrug off these questions with a certain impatience — why wouldn’t they make a project for Netflix?

It’s hard to imagine anyone right now who is too cool or too big for the right premium cable project, or in some cases other kinds of TV. The rise of the anthology series has made it possible for people like McConaughey, or Martin Freeman in Fargo, to come to TV for a limited time, with a limited commitment. And with Bradley Cooper showing up on broadcast, maybe the entire class distinction between television and film is vulnerable.

Disdain for television is so old and so powerful that HBO used to try to repurpose it into something useful, like fuel made from old French-fry grease. That’s what “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” was. It was a marketing-driven effort to flatter people, to use their contempt for television (even if they regularly watched it) to beat them into watching television. It seemed specifically aimed at snobs – sorry, at superiorists — in a way that’s amusingly brazen in retrospect. Imagine a marketing campaign: “It’s not a book. It’s Franzen.” That would be treated as impossibly self-important and laughed out of the store, because you can’t market a book by saying it’s not a book. To do that, you need to be able to put your foot against an underlying suspicion of an entire mode of work and use it as something to pull against.

Television, of course, hosts plenty of diverting junk, some of which is good diverting junk and some of which is terrible diverting junk. You could say the same of film, or games, or print magazines, or – for crying out loud – the internet. You could say the same even of books. An art form that’s been commodified to any degree and has remained more baby than bathwater when measured by sheer volume is the most unlikely of unicorns, particularly if you focus on what has the highest marketing-boosted profile.

And as with music and books and film, much of television lives in the sturdy B-plus, where art and craft are in almost perfect 50-50 balance. Because of its sheer ubiquity, the sturdy B-plus is the backdrop onto which families and friends and couples and solitary observers graft most of their meaningful memories and cultural affections. If you ask serious people to commit themselves to determining the best films, you will get a lot of art. If you ask serious people to tell you their favorite films – and you can get them to do it honestly – you will get a lot of sturdy B-plus, because a good movie can hold a memory of watching it with your best friend or with your mother or on the day you got dumped just as well as a great one. “Favorite” is personal as much as aesthetic. Besides, the best art often requires discomfort, and not everyone’s favorite sensation is being uncomfortable. For a long time, television was better at generating lots of candidates for “favorite” than lots of candidates for “best.”

Now, of course, we have the explosion of outlets, the maturation of the medium, and especially the advent of new business models that give people different incentives to go for “best.” And thus: golden age, difficult men, televised revolution, Tony Soprano begat Don Draper and so on. It didn’t happen all at once, and it didn’t all happen on cable: it took China Beach and My So-Called Life and Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, too. A lot that’s interesting was happening in the 1990s, before there even was a Tony Soprano.

Some of the reasons why it might have made sense to distrust television under the traditional broadcast model – its commercial interruptions, the requirement that it appeal to the largest possible audience, the fact that its puppylike desire to be invited into every home could indeed make it toothless and ingratiating – are dubious things to hold against the parts of TV that no longer follow that model. (This is all separate from the issue of whether television is good for babies or good as a substitution for ever leaving the house. Just as whether a steak is delicious is a different question from whether you should eat steak every day or whether your baby should gum a Porterhouse, whether television is of good quality is different from whether daily multi-hour television zone-outs are good for you.)

There was a brief reprieve for the most suspicious TV doubters at the highest point of the reality-show boom – that was the golden age of hating television – but while reality shows will never fully go away, they’ve receded and, at the very least, now live alongside the huge scripted-TV boom we talked about a week ago.

Nevertheless, much more than movies or books, television still has a sort of anti-constituency at a level of the medium itself – to find all the evidence you need, peruse the comment sections of any of the earlier essays in this series. There are plenty of people who will not read even the very best books; few of them use it as an element of their identity or a boundary of their taste the way people who will not watch even the very best television do. Few people would introduce themselves by telling you they don’t go to the movies on principle the way they’ll tell you surprisingly early on that they don’t own a television. (Or, in a current variation bringing hair-splitting to new levels, the emphatic/dismissive “I don’t watch television. I just have Netflix.”) No golden age has changed that; no formal experimentation within TV has budged it, really.

In fact, perhaps ironically, if you doubt for a moment that there is still a cultural class distinction between television and film or television and novels, look to the eagerness of people who are enthusiastic about television to compare it to film or novels. It’s the new cinema! It’s the new novel! Is TV better than movies? Are movies better than television? Is this show so lovingly made that it can be called … cinematic?

If you ask these questions, let me ask you these questions: Is an avocado better than a hammer? Is a fish better than a skateboard? Who cares? Things are different from each other. Ranking a television comedy against a television drama is bogus enough without dragging movies and books into it. And yet: here we are. Not because these distinctions are particularly well supported by evidence, but because they are expedient, and because they help people organize their cultural worlds – which is a very understandable impulse growing out of the sad, beautiful fact that we’re all going to miss almost everything.

It really doesn’t matter that much that we’ll never be done with hating television. Its increased sophistication and variety means we also now have plenty of people who introduce themselves at parties by asking whether you watch The Americans and being aghast if you don’t. Television now has superiorists of consumption along with superiorists of avoidance, so perhaps the world is in a state of perfect cultural equipoise.

But here’s the real bummer for people who still use the expression “idiot box” (and yes, they are still out there; hello as well to “boob tube” and “kill your television”): Just as we’re approaching a world in which you can watch TV in an awful lot of different ways, we’re probably approaching one where theatrical windows will get shorter, bringing movies to home video faster, to the point where it may become standard for everything to be released simultaneously in theaters and on video. More and more things may never come to theaters at all, or may have the kind of fig-leaf theatrical releases that have been used to qualify made-for-TV documentaries for the Oscars for quite some time. Everything and nothing will be television; everything and nothing will be film. You’ll have to decide if you can still tell everyone you don’t watch television if you watch a six-hour movie in six one-hour “chapters” at home on a monitor.

It’s going to be a bigger and bigger mess for the Oscars, and for the Emmys, but also for anyone with a cultural hierarchy that depends on the mode of delivery.

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