Apr 082018
 

Yesterday I wrote about my TV watching in my log for Transparent. Rereading today I realize I may have given the impression I have something against TV shows and have lived without watching them until recently. This isn’t true.

It is true that I didn’t have a TV for for most of my 20s and once I did have one in my 30s I didn’t pay for cable beyond the basic broadcast channels. The TV was almost exclusively a screen for my VCR and DVD players.

I didn’t have anything against TV shows though. It’s just that I couldn’t be bothered to figure out when shows people were talking about were on, generally forgot to be home or to turn on the set when I did figure it out, and when I did remember, was never able to muster the patience necessary to endure (or tune out) the commercials. (And they drove me batty.)

Because I was guaranteed to miss episodes for any show I tried to watch, I couldn’t follow story arcs and hated episodes that ended with “To Be Continued.” So what I watched were either short episodic comedies such as Seinfeld or The Simpsons or series that were iconic enough to be a group activity. Star Trek: The Next Generation night was a quasi-standing appointment for my college friends.

Troi senses commercials coming but can’t find the remote to turn down the sound.

 

So my point yesterday wasn’t that I was living in a cave for most of my life. I was simply pointing out that that my current experience of TV is not a symptom of my movement from one mode of viewing (broadcast) to another (streaming). Instead, I’ve shifted from watching TV only rarely or incidentally to viewing enthusiastically and with genuine interest because of the arrival of streaming.

There are problems with streaming obviously. I especially dislike the way it encourages viewing as a race, which makes the experience about quantities (time, speed) and the fact of consumption rather than qualities related to the experience of story, character and form. But overall, streaming has made TV series a part of my imaginative life in a way they never have been. And I’m pretty excited by that.

One final note: inspired by streaming, The Beav and I recently subscribed to cable, thinking we’d maybe enjoy it now that we were more TV savvy. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Cable TV is like The Machine from The Princess Bride, sucking life directly from your body, leaving you dull and listless. After one month we’ve already decided to cancel it all.

Westley discovers that “cable” doesn’t mean “commercial free.”

 April 8, 2018  Reflections Tagged with: ,
Apr 072018
 

I hate the act of watching television: the weekly schedule, the commercials, the hassle of figuring out what’s on, the crappy episodes that fill space and the cliffhangers that try to bring you back once you’re done. It all annoys and frustrates me, and as a result, for long stretches of my adult life I’ve had no television. And when I have had one, I haven’t subscribed to anything beyond basic cable, because cable just makes everything worse by orders of magnitude.

(As an aside, once when I was young—maybe nine or ten—I did something (I don’t remember what) and my father sent me to my room as punishment. Whatever I did must have upset my mom pretty badly though because she intervened and said, “No. He’s going to sit here and watch television with the rest of us.” So for the next half-hour I sat crying on the couch in front of the TV. Lesson learned.)

DVD box sets and now the combination of Netflix, iTunes and Apple TV changed all of this because now I can watch television series without having to watch television. This has been a revelation. Yes, managing multiple subscriptions is a hassle—and I came to Transparent late because I wasn’t subscribed to Amazon Prime—but  it’s worth the trouble.

In general, the shows that appeal to me the most generally reach for a novelistic scale. (And in those cases where a series doesn’t seem to be reaching for it, if I like it, it’s usually because I see an unintentional reach emerging across the episodes.) Concretely this scale usually manifests as seasons of ten or twelve episodes, each of which is roughly fifty minutes long. These episodes develop a complex, multi-threaded narrative which, thanks largely to the recent successes of HBO, seems to have become something like the standard for “quality” television.

Jill Soloway moves this notion of “quality” in a very different direction. Like I Love Dick, the first season of Transparent is built of brief episodes of only thirty minutes each. Each operates something like an overtly incomplete collection of scenes. These scenes develop a story, but they also make visible gaps in the narrative that are filled in only by implication and supposition. Imagined in terms of painting, the series is a careful combination of positive and negative space.

I have two lingering thoughts about the first season.

First, I can’t help seeing Soloway as the true dauphin of 90s New Queer Cinema, a movement of real aesthetic power that I worry will slip away into the past and be lost. Soloway clearly works within its aesthetic. Her concrete treatment of media, her use of found images, her reliance on technique from underground film, and her self-consciousness and deep political commitment are all direct links to that earlier historical moment. Yet importantly, she fuses this heritage with comedic and melodramatic story forms that make her work attractive and accessible in a way so little of the New Queer Cinema was.

Second, there are no gay male characters in this season. Gay men appear—partying unseen but loudly next door early on for example—but they do not matter. Given the self-awareness and political commitments of this very queer series, I don’t think their absence is an oversight. Quite to the contrary, I read it as a kind of calling out: gay men’s lives have been improved immensely by the efforts of legions of queer people, but as the political needle has moved toward accepting the idea that white, affluent, stylish men might be allowed to love each other, the political fire seems to have died out in many of these white guy’s bellies. The fight for all queer people’s rights continues, but, as this series points out, these gay men aren’t around. I think this is a purposeful and powerful gesture.