Jul 27, 2007

Aaron Sorkin and the rise and rise of Cinematic Television

Last night I watched the pilot episode of coke-addled genius Aaron Sorkin's most recent televisual extravaganza, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It was glossy and quick and diverting, camera shots and one-liners competing for the speed and poise with which they could come and go. It must be said that it was by no means his best effort but undoubtedly I was entertained and spent a good while afterwards roaming the wrong side of the internet tracks looking for the next episode (any tips most welcome). What it really made me think however, was quite how good some television really is.

[Now let me pause for a second and clarify here, we are talking about some television. On the major terrestrial channels this evening at prime time 8.30pm we have this rogues gallery:

BBC2: Gardener's World
ITV1: A repeat of Midsommer Murders
Channel 4: Big Brother
Channel 5: The Black Mamba, The Austin Stevens Adventure

I am not talking about this television. I am talking about Heroes, Dexter, Dead Wood, Life on Mars, Lost and House to name just the first seven current or very recent shows that leapt into my mind]

And, without becoming one of these blurry eyed nostalgists banging on about the good old days, I think its fair to say that this quality is thrown into even starker relief by the bottom-feeding sequel-obsessed awfulness of mainstream cinema. Although this is like shooting dead fish at the bottom of an empty barrel, just take for example the latest releases to hit our big screens; A movie based on a toy, third sequel of a twenty year old franchise and a movie based on, you guessed it, a television show.

This last example is a useful segue into my main point. That the differentiation between television and cinema in recent years been redefined; someone has shifted the goal posts. As movie rentals and film channels increase exponentially, while art house cinemas get smaller and home cinemas get bigger, any distinction between film and television based on a big screen/small screen opposition becomes ever more problematic.

A better distinction is the one that Phillip Auslander makes between the televisual and the cinematic. This is a distinction based on the actual process of making moving pictures. For Auslander the televisual is an extension of live theatre, filmed predominently from one angle and existing in a coherent and defined space and time. This was how cheap and cheerful television was made, quickly and plenty of it. A panel show, for example, or any traditional sit-com from I Love Lucy to Will and Grace.

The cinematic however is founded on the principal of the cut. The cut is the basic building block through which a universe, and a film, are created. We know two actors are talking without seeing them in shot together because we understand the principal of the cut. The Cut allows cinema freedom to control time and space. Universes are invented, patched together from various shots and locations, time is reorganised entirely. A scene is invented from various strands that never need meet until the editing room. For anyone after Georges Melies, this was how cinema was made.

Using this distinction then most of the shows I am referring to when I talk about the quality of television are essentially not television at all but cinema. They are cinema for people that don't go to the cinema any more.

The cinema as a building, as an evening out, has been quite comprehensively handed over to the under 25 bracket. People who will just choose to go to the cinema regardless of what is on. Consequently what you will find at the cinema has been by and large tailored to them. Hence the endless stream of sequels, safe in the knowledge that those who liked it once will likely go for some more of the same if they happen to be there anyway. Hence the plotless exploitation slasher flicks that are now your standard multiplex fare. Hence the multiplex, in fact - a big flashy unpleasant, sub-shopping centre roof-over-your-head; the perfect loitering hole for people too young to drink on a friday or saturday night. Mainstream cinema is now pretty conclusively theirs.

In its stead, television has become cinema for grown-ups. And this is therefore where all the best, grown-up, intelligent, glossy, fun, cinematic stuff can be found. And this is why I believe it is a pretty safe bet to say that the best mainstream cinema of the last few years has been on the television. Take for example, the first four series of the West Wing. Some of the most fantastic cinematic fare of the last ten years. Band of Brothers blew any other recent war film out of the water. And Lost, in its early days at least, was the most intelligent action film you could want to see.

The only problem with this is that often this means you fail to have that Shawshank effect that cinema offered - a really quality piece of work that grows in acclaim as it gets older. Television, so dominated by ratings, snuffs out anything unsuccessful very quickly, with the producers having to hope and pray on healthy DVD sales, the televisual equivalent of a defibrillator, to bring them back to life. Take a look at say the wonderful firefly, with a lifespan about as long as the bug of the same name. Or indeed, Studio 6o on the sunset strip, which is back where we started. No sooner have I been tantalised by the first episode than I discover the whole thing has been cancelled after one series. Still, unlike the movies that still leaves a good 14 hours to sit through, which should be quite enough for me.


Statler said...

Interesting piece. Sounds like theatre bloggers may have similar tastes in television, although I'm not sure how much of that I would put down to their 'cinematic' qualities. For me the common thread of the shows you mention is the strength of the dialogue. There are of course other factors that makes these shows special such as characterisation and strong acting but where would West Wing be without the dialogue - those magic moments between Josh & Donna, President Bartlett & Charlie, CJ & Toby etc. Even Lost's main point of interest for me is the dialogue between Kate/Jack/Locke/Sawyer, and while House is brilliant it is nothing without the dialogue written for House - it doesn't exactly resonate with novel plotting or character development.

I think it's this focus on dialogue that makes tehse shows attractive to theatrelovers rather than anything visual. And for truly genius dialogue with plotting and character development to match - look out Steven Moffat's "Press Gang" from the 90s. I'm now off to see if he's written for the stage at all.

As for Studio 60, it loses it's way halfway through the series and although it finds it again those 4 or 5 bad episodes were enoungh to ensure it had no future (combined with teh fact that the jokes for the 'show within the show' were pretty poor. It's worth sticking with for any West Wing fan though.

Interval Drinks said...

This discussion is not complete without the trinity of superb American cop shows that is Homicide: Life on the Street, The Shield and The Wire. All brilliantly written.

And thanks for the reminder of Press Gang, wasn't that wonderful? I think Stephen Moffat does Doctor Who stuff now, not sure if he's ever written for the stage.

Sean said...

I still like NYPD Blue, was shown late night on More4 before The Daily Show recently. Reminds me how much I love NYC despite the gory deaths/prostitutes/drugs etc!

Think I agree with Andrew re the cinematic quality of these shows. But also West Wing was a show for those who enjoyed the crisp dialouge and not just the shiny photography. Actually, I loved it becuase I'm a political junkie as well as a theatre one!