Monday, 25 August 2014

Talking Points: Emily Nussbaum on how TV got great

By Julie Marlow

Emily Nussbaum is the fast talking, smart and seriously influential TV critic for The New Yorker.  She's often asked how she landed that dream job and the answer is: Buffy.  The Vampire Slayer was the show that got her talking, discussing and analysing American television as an art form at a time of momentous change in that medium.

Emily took us on a whistle-stop tour through the various incarnations of American television - the first early Golden Age, when it was more of an elite art form that championed plays, opera, and more original "highbrow" programming through to its commercialisation in the 50s, as networks harnessed the power of the medium to advertise. This then gave rise to popular formulaic shows like the half-hour sitcom, cowboy shows and police procedurals, but above all, the daytime soaps (which as the name suggests, were vehicles to sell soap powder to bored housewives), through the wacky 60s, the edgy 70s, the warm and fuzzy 80s, to the groundbreaking, game changing 90s.

Twin Peaks was the first TV show to break the mould. Helmed by the idiosyncratic filmmaker David Lynch with cinematic style, it subverted multiple genres and created a surreal, unsettling world centred around a standard whodunnit becoming completely addictive television. It paved the way for other edgy shows like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, My So-Called Life, leading to what Emily regards as the benchmark year, 1999, which saw new shows like The Sopranos, The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sex and the City become global must-see viewing.

Emily described some of these redefined genres:
  • Masculinity Masterpieces - those shows that depict complex male characters leading double lives - Tony Soprano, Don Draper in Mad Men, Al Swearengen in Deadwood
  • Daddy's Cry Hour - the middle aged marrieds, full of angst, harking back to thirtysomething in the 80s - Six Feet Under, etc
  • Camp Melodramas - Glee, Scandal, Ugly Betty.

All these shows and more gave rise to the Prickly Auteur: the celebrity show runner. Why are they always called David, or occasionally Matt?  And all these shows took existing genres, the mob show, the western, the cop show, and turned them into opera without the soap. We now have the Indie Memoir Auteur Sitcom - Girls, Louie¸ confessional, intimate, with real people.

Emily's manifesto is that television has now come of age. In the past it was treated as something of a second class medium. But it is no longer valid to compare television to movies, or novels, or any other popular art form. TV now demands to be understood on its own terms, which are rich, multi-layered, complex.  Television is also responsive to its now more sophisticated, screen-literate audiences, who make their views known immediately through social media.

Although Emily does not comment on the business of television, it's clear to me that this expansion of creativity in television has much to do with the commissioning choices of US cable operators. With less hidebound, less restrictive parameters, cable channels have been quick to take programming risks that have paid off in spades, attracting new and loyal audiences with long-form drama series, starting with HBO's The Sopranos through to long running series like Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones; and now Netflix has entered the fray with House of Cards and Orange is The New Black. These shows are now considered to be mainstream television, with big budgets, concepts and stars. 

Time shifting, viewing on demand and yes, illegal downloading, have expanded the definition of television as we once knew it (can you imagine the notion of only four channels these days - TV as cult religion where millions watch the same show at the same time?) and have paved the way for more experimental material on the web that resists definition such as High Maintenance. 

It would seem today that the best television no longer settles into well-established formats, it pushes boundaries and explores the edge of the possible - and that's what makes it great.
From Left: Melinda Houston, Ronnie Scott and Emily Nussbaum.

Pic: Julie Marlow

This was a stimulating and wide-ranging session enhanced by Melinda Houston from The Age, on hand to contextualise recent trends in Australian television, and Ronnie Scott, who moderated some interesting questions from the audience, in particular one about what, these days, defines television, a whole other topic which deserves another session elsewhere all to itself. 

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