The Complexity of Quality, the Quality of Complexity…

Television has certainly had an upheaval in the last two decades or so. Once a secondary form of media entertainment- once the overshadowed younger sibling to film- television has come a long way and garnered a reputation of its own, a prestige that is somewhat different to film. Wether it is to feel a sense of self-satisfaction at watching an unknown, esoteric program, wether it is to enjoy a more intellectually satisfying program or whether it is to have a show that you can follow with passion, interest and itching impatience for the next episode- longer and more narratively complex television shows are the new black. With this rise of complex narratives on television has come this new concept of “quality television”. Although this concept can have so many different meanings the general discourse seems to be somewhere in the world of shows that are aethetically and intellectually superior values- with higher production values, actors/producers/writers with strong reputations and of course more complex and challenging stories that differ from “everyday” television.

HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”

Take the recent television show Boardwalk Empire– a show that is responding to the world’s obsession with “quality television”. It contains many of the key requirements of what television needs to gain that “quality” reputation:

~ It is produced by a television company that deals exclusively with “high end” television (HBO)

~ It has the involvement of prestigous and successful individuals (Produced by Martin Scorsese, staring Steve Buscemi)

~ The subject matter is complex and sophisticated (Gangsters and politics)

It also has the budget, hype and positive critical response to ensure Boardwalk Empire with be a much-loved television show for the “quality” television hunters. Interestingly, in my opinion, for something to be truly considered “quality” television it has to be just mainstream enough to attract the viewers, but also give the audience a sense that they are watching something that is slightly fringe and alternative- thus only a select few can TRULY appreciate it and thus it is quality. Consider Martin Scorsese- the producer. His films are those that often require the attention of those with finer tastes, such a The Age of Innocence or Taxi Driver. He has only won a single academy award despite his reputation; making him an underdog. Then consider the star of the show, Steve Buscemi. He is a loved actor but not in the Brad Pitt sense. Most known in the mainstream for playing “creepy characters” (many would know him as the voice of Randall from the film Monster’s INC) Buscemi has starred in many a Coen Brother film such as Fargo. His film choices and his characters make him wacky, his is famous but not “too famous” and thus he is considered fringe and alternative. Throw these two individuals into a show and you have a program that spells intellect and exclusivity. If Boardwalk Empire was produced by James Cameron and starred Matt Damon it would still garner a huge amount of attention (probably more) but it would reek of the mainstream. “Quality” television goers might abandon the prospect or treat it with scorn. HBO probably wouldn’t ever choose people like this for that very reason- HBO wants to exist in the world of higher art, supposedly. They want to belong in the realm of shows such as…

Sex and the City (Shock value, groundbreaking for its time, very witty)

The Wire (Gritty, confusing narrative that takes time to understand, unusual subject matter)

Mad Men (Slow-paced drama that requires patience, visually stunning, classy subject matter)

Dexter (Controversial, disturbing to watch, quality and complicated narrative structure)

Jason Mittell makes the point that “the rise of narrative complexity on contemporary television is the changing perception of the medium’s legitimacy and its appeal to creators.” This point was instantly prominent to me as it connects directly to what I have been saying. Marin Scorsese took on Boardwalk Empire because the medium of television is now a legitimate form of art not only among the audiences but among the creators. Scorsese is not the first big film name to take on television. Mittell lists the ever-enigmatic David Lynch (Twin Peaks), the witty writer of the 21st century Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The News Room) and the much-loved Allan Ball (Six Feet Under) to name a few.

More quality television… “Six Feet Under”

These names attached to television shows implies that brilliant and successful minds want to take advantage of the advantageous world of television where the writers and creators have choice, freedom and authority (unlike film where it is all about the director). Whatever is making “quality television” so popular is working, but in my opinion there is no doubt that these individuals and these names play a huge role. Interesting, the names Mittell mentions are very fringe indeed (David Lynch, Aaron Sorkin) and they fit my bill that to be famous, but not “too famous” and to be successful but not “too successful” in the mainstream only further adds to the appeal of “quality” television.


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