My thinking about television is very un-TV-like — I think about it rarely, explosively, but not clearly. My thinking about TV is a Hollywood blockbuster movie: lots of fireworks without much payoff.
It's as if, due to its proximity, I can't get TV in view. It skirts my field of vision but remains, nagging, in my periphery.
So this is what I've been thinking of late. There are three main characteristics of the medium, each with sub-sets or modes of inflection: Duration, Repetition, Intimacy.
Duration: A television program, perhaps due to its intimacy, has the ability to endure. Because it's in our house where we have sustenance and because the cost is near nil, a TV program can stay on continuously. Movies, needless to say, do not have this option.
Visual art, of course, endures continuously. But TV and a painting repeat in very different ways, in very different rhythms, shifting the terms of their respective endurance.
To sound less, well, philosophical about it: a TV show can be on the air for a long freaking time. And this endurance affords it a series of opportunities and begins to blur the line separating duration from repetition and intimacy.
Escalation: A TV show can escalate — escalate chaos, intensity, time, characters — and it can do so infinitely. A movie has 2, 4, 12 hours at best. A TV show can never end. It can just keep ramping up — or down, for that matter — approaching its own dissolution but never getting there. There is a more, a quantitative quality, that's part of TV that's not in other media. Weeds approaches this technique, this possibility of the medium: How deep can the Botwin family get? How far out? Is it infinite? What sets its limit? Our attention? Its ability to hold our attention?
Complexification: Perhaps a sub-set of escalation, complexification is a TV show's ability to multiply relations. This can be a more but it can be an internal more, a splitting of the one into multiple parts, one relation into many. Think of Tony and Carmilla's relationship or Tony and Dr. Melfi's — it gets more and more complex over time.
Intimacy: Enmeshed in our lives, holding court amidst the kitchen and toilet, the couch and din of life, TV sprawls alongside us, moving with us. TV is deeply wound up with the economy of our mental health — it's how we relax, how we get excited, how we share time. TV is not a special event. It is domesticated, through and through. And this builds profound relationships between viewer and viewed: People gathered for the final episode of MASH, and wept.
Repetition: Everything repeats — everything vital, that is. A painting repeats: it keeps offering itself to us in an infinite series of uncannily fresh experiences. But TV has the ability to repeat differently, to put its entire self into the fray, to do and undo itself over and over again — like a lava lamp, only with more factors and colors in the mix.
One aspect of TV's ability to repeat is its opportunity for banality. Take Seinfeld. The show never escalates, no relations become more complex. It relishes its repetition of the everyday. (Needless to say, "banality" here is not a pejorative but a descriptor.)
Now consider The Twilight Zone. There is no continuity. Each episode is discrete. And yet, obviously, it's not. It is territorial, after all — it is a zone, a place. Only it's an odd kind of place, a place of perpetual transition, an in-between, a twilight. It's a temporal zone. Which is a way of describing repetition.
Intimacy: TV has an unbelievable power to forge intimate bonds between viewer and viewed. It can be drug-like: must see TV, as if it were crack or heroin. TV is not only in our lives. It is usually the focal point, quite literally, of our space.
And yet I still can't get the damn thing in view.