Art Imitates Life…Sort of

Anthropologist Grant McCracken picks up on a changing trend in the programming of prime–time television:

Prime time TV is, as we say, episodic. Each show was supposed to be free standing and one-off. No prior knowledge was presumed. If we had seen the show before, great. If not, never mind. Narrative constructions like Rockford Files or Two and a Half Men are so structurally simple and referentially redundant, that prior introductions were quite unnecessary. (In any case, a car chase is, forgive me, not so hard to follow.)

Prime time TV was not about continuities. It was about episodes. The world that just kept starting over. Time didn’t happen. Events didn’t accumulate. There were no critical paths, no path dependencies, no differences that ever made a difference over the long term. Typically, people didn’t age. They didn’t change. They didn’t grow. Outside the narrow narrative particulars, prime time dramas were timeless and placeless. It was as if all the characters had a really terrible case of amnesia.

Clearly, this is changing. Shows like 24 are really unthinkable without a knowledge of the larger, overarching narrative. Lost the same. I am noticing that while House can be watched without a knowledge of narrative continuity, it makes a vast difference when this is in place. Even with the cheat sheets from Entertainment Weekly (to say nothing of the love notes), Lost remains daunting.

McCracken suggests that contemporary culture might be becoming more complicated, thereby forcing contemporary entertainment to follow suit. He asks the question, “Beyond the new media literacy, what drives the trend to offer TV narrative that replaces the old strategy (broad access to shallow narrative) with a much more demanding one (narrower access to deeper narrative)?”

The other night I had a conversation with my friend Tom Hicks in which we discussed the idea that in order for art to be good art, it must be true. It doesn’t necessarily have to be factual, but it must represent what is being depicted truthfully. Absractions, or even ugliness can occur within a work of art, but even these must serve to highlight some truth or another.

Such thinking might be helpful in explaining the shift in the nature of prime–time television. People have seen that the old, formulaic, episodic shows didn’t give a true enough depiction of the world. People’s lives really weren’t resolved in hour, so they stopped watching these episodic shows in favor of “reality TV.” More often than not, however, reality shows were less truthful than episodic television.

Enter the serials. While shows like 24, Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Alias are often just as fanastic as the earlier stand-alone shows, they exhibit one truth in that like lives of their viewers, these shows understand that there is a larger overarching story to a human life that doesn’t end with the closing of a day. This doesn’t necccesarily qualify them as art, but it could place some of these shows much further along the spectrum than a standard 1980’s cop show.

This doesn’t completely explain the reason for the success of such shows (the marketers would undoubtedly see other influences), but it’s certainly a plausible theory — these are, after all, the most popular shows on television. It also is very telling about contemporary culture that people are interested in larger, more complex stories rather than simple, self-contained ones.