The Taxonomy of Twenty-First Century Television


Television, like any phenotype of human culture, is constantly evolving.  It is subject to the same Darwinian forces that mold everything from politics and predators to the eyeballs trained upon them.  In the age of the truly world wide web it is the dominant genus in the world of entertainment.  Like all genera, it contains species.  These species arose in response to changes of an economic nature as well as those of viewers' tastes and interests.  Here are the new and old species of programs entertaining consumers not only here in America, but across the globe.

The history of television is the story of the individual and its triumph.  With a television at home, one no longer needed to go out in public to be entertained and informed with moving images.  The small screen quickly made the news reel--once a cinematic source of information for movie-goers everywhere--obsolete.  They simply couldn’t compete with television's ability to deliver news in a more timely fashion.  

The decades long war between television and print news is on-going.  Newspapers suffer from the same time lag as the newsreels did, just not to the same degree.  The arrival of the Internet brought a respite for the written word and now some news sources such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are abandoning print editions all together and moving solely to the digital realm.

But with the arrival of broadband’s power to deliver streaming video, now television news looks a lot like the old dailies of the Paper Age.  Television news is now increasingly irrelevant as consumers can turn to more and more outlets for coverage of events in the form of guerilla journalists, camera phones and dashboard cams to bring them scenes of chaos or charity half a world away.  But this article is about arts and literature, not history.

For most of the twentieth century, cinema ruled America.  Attendance at the movie house was an opportunity for escape for all but the poorest.  16mm films were played in countless darkened American classrooms.  Many people of a certain age learned everything they’ll ever know about the heart and the sun from Frank Capra (The Bell Laboratory Science Series was actually produced for television).  But apparently did not learn about menstruation from Walt Disney.  

Cinema’s competition with the small screen drove its own development.  Technologies like widescreen processes and stereophonic sound were a direct response to the loss of ticket purchasers kept home by cheap black-and-white televisions in the 1950’s.  

With the demise of the studio system, cinema was liberated to become the expressive performing art that would flow from Allen, Coppola and Bogdanovich, from France, Japan and Italy.  Broadcast television at the time occupied a niche of sitcoms, soap operas and sports.  It wouldn’t be until the arrival of Cable and Home Box Office that it would make inroads into the world of serious drama and become the literature of the electronic age.

Today, cinema is a shadow of its former self.  It is limited to thrill-ride movies (at least for those who don’t get motion sickness) and nostalgic repertoire.  More and more, film will be a niche, not center stage.

Television--including old broadcast programs that have found a new life and cast online--will continue to play the role that they have come to occupy, that of the central expression of visual arts in our world.

TRADITIONAL TELEVISION: Television programs that are made in the classic style of twentieth-century television, including sitcoms, dramas and police procedurals.  

There are several genres of TV that are still going strong.


The Survival of the Sitcom

There continues to be a market for programs written in the familiar vernacular of the 30-minute situational comedy.

Seed:  Canada had a once rich tradition of comedy being sent south of their border.  Adam Korson plays a sperm donor who discovers he’s the father of two kids with another on the way.  The ending to every episode is an exercise in contrivance, but it is funny and sweet in the spirit of classic sitcoms from days gone by. Airing on CW.

The IT Crowd:  Lovable misfits have been a staple of the sitcom since Lucy.  Moss, Roy and Jen are consigned in a basement office, unloved by the company employees they serve and overseen by a maniacal boss (played in seasons 2-4 by Matt Berry).  Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd and Catherine Tate have gone on to bigger things, but that didn’t stop them from coming back to shoot one last fare-thee-well which aired in 2012.  To capture how funny this program is would be impossible without viewing it.  The entire series is available streaming on Netflix.

Supernatural Soap Operas

It’s not really fair to call character-driven programs about relationships  “soap operas” because of the negative connotation therein.

Akta Manniskor:  Good Science Fiction tells a story about how we relate to the technologies with which we surround ourselves.  It is only appropriate that television tell these stories.  Akta Manniskor (“Real Humans” in English) is just plain brilliant science fiction and brilliant television as well.  Produced by Sveriges Television and Matador Films, it has just aired its second season and we can all hope it will have a third.  Kudos Film & Television have bought the rights to an English language version.  They’re the people who brought us Utopia, so there is some hope that there will be a remake that won’t suck.  

The Misfits:  Juvenile Delinquents are struck by lightning from a freak storm and receive super powers.  Love, action and several dead probation officers ensue.  The cast of this program has changed over the years and sadly, suffered for it.  It is, however, creative and not afraid to kill off its main characters.  Available on Hulu.

The Walking Dead:  Ultimately, this program is an opportunity to root for people you like against terrible odds and horrible monsters--both human and zombie alike.  It can be downright exhausting as you watch, week after week, the struggles that accompany survival in a landscape where “death on two legs” isn’t just a queen song, but a way of life.  

Power and Politics

Viewers love to imagine they can see into the lives of those they read about in the newspapers.

Mad Men:  It always seems to be a mere step away from baby-boomer navel gazing.  But it never is.  We’ll see what happens this season when (SPOILER AHEAD---) Don may or may not have to face up to his drinking problem (--SPOILER COMPLETE).  Its seventh season debuts on AMC April 13.

Borgen:  Like The West Wing, if The West Wing didn’t suck.  Okay, that’s harsh, and way too simple.  Borgen is the best television program about politics to date.  It is also a program about women’s struggles in the workplace.  Even in one of the most progressive nations on earth, women in power are still held to a different standard when it comes to their families and their private lives.

Police Procedurals

Broen/Bron: A murdered woman is found on Oresund Bridge, perfectly positioned on the line that divides Denmark and Sweden.  When they move her body they make a shocking discovery:  It is actually the upper body of a Swedish politician and the lower body of a Danish whore.  A gritty, no-nonsense Danish detective and an attractive Swede who appears to be on the autism spectrum are forced to work together to stop an escalating series of crimes by the perpetrator.  Their job is made more complicated by the adversarial nature of the relationship between their two countries and their own contrasting styles.

The Bridge: A murdered woman is found on the Bridge of the Americas, perfectly positioned on the line that divides El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  When they move her body, they make a shocking discovery:  It is actually the upper body of an American judge and the lower body of Mexican whore.  A gritty, no-nonsense Mexican detective and an attractive American who appears to be on the autism spectrum are forced to work together to stop an escalating series of crimes by the perpetrator.  Their job is made more complicated by the adversarial nature of the relationship between their two countries, rampant corruption and their own contrasting styles.

The Tunnel:  A murdered woman is found in the Channel Tunnel, perfectly positioned on the line that divides the UK and France.  When they move her body, they make a shocking discovery: It is actually the upper body of a French politician and the lower body of a British whore. A gritty, no-nonsense British Inspector and an attractive frenchwoman who appears to be on the autism spectrum are forced to work together to stop an escalating series of crimes by the perpetrator.  Their job is made more complicated by the adversarial nature of the relationship between their two countries, cross-channel political intrigue and their own contrasting styles.

For a Danish/Swedish program to be remade not just for American audiences, but also for those in France, the UK and Mexico says it all.  The original is still the best.

CINEMATIC TELEVISION: Television programs that emulate twentieth-century cinema in their use of visual language, their stories and other techniques.

Cinematic Television is essentially the tale of one network, the Ever-more-aptly-named Home Box Office.  HBO laid it all out in the Sopranos.  Each episode was like a 60 minute movie.  It did for the gangster movie what its counterparts Rome and Deadwood would do for the historic drama and the western, respectively.

When these shows went off the air (prematurely, perhaps) HBO managed to hold onto its dominance of this genre by introducing Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi and Mark Wahlberg’s Boardwalk Empire.  They also claimed what might become the biggest hit they’ve ever had with George R. R. Martin’s Fantasy tour d’force: Game of Thrones.  They have shown that the networks mastery extends not only to cinema style, but also to visual effects.

True Detective: If the first five episodes are any indication, they may have also done for the serial killer movie as well.  Or have they? Is it actually a supernatural story? True Detective opens with a woman found ritually murdered--the staple of the serial killer movie--and two detectives trying to find her killer.  The story is even told through a series of flashbacks.  It will be interesting to see how well they can extend this storytelling tool for an entire season or series.  

POST TELEVISION: Television programs that employ a mixture of cinematic techniques and the pacing and structure of traditional television to tell their stories.

Top of the Lake: Jane Campion got everything out of the 7 hours she produced for this outstanding program.  It was the only television series to ever been shown in its entirety at Sundance.  It is how modern television should be done.  Will there be a second season?

Utopia: Good news on this front, Utopia will have a second season.  Just as Campion made the titular lake a character in the series, so Dennis Kelly made color a character in this brilliant show.  Joining the second 6-episode season will be Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, Return of the Jedi’s Ian McDiarmid and The Musketeers’ Tom Burke.  Airing on Channel 4 later this year.

Six Feet Under:  Perhaps this is where Post Television started.  It is the Great American Novel in one-hour chapters.  The stories it tells about life in America are both revealing and intimate.  It features so many intense moments.  Producer Alan Ball has gone on to True Blood and Banshee, but he has yet to return to those lofty heights.

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