What is it about television?

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.


Glenn said...

Along the intimacy line .. Sometimes TV is just good company....

I get the same feeling when I have my regular catch up with a friend for Monday Night Football as I do when I am curled up on the couch watching Seinfeld explain that he could get Uromysitisis poisoning and die. When that first joke is cracked, I remember why I keep coming back.

Similarly, on Saturday morning for some reason my wife and I watch re-runs of The Simpsons... have done for years.. like we would prefer to listen to Homer on repeat then have any type of conversation prior to breakfast. An intimacy that starts off the weekend .. though unfortunately, taking an angle from your capitalism critique.... not the intimacy that I am always looking out for!

V said...

Perhaps another reason you're having a hard time getting it into view is because TV invites nearly infinite modes of engagement: trusting a show's logic and judgment, indulging a guilty pleasure, train-wreck fascination or a desire for narcosis, honing a sense of superiority, seeking practical instruction, satisfying a curiosity, self-defining as a "well informed person," as a prop in the rituals of relationships, etc., etc.

These modes are found both across the viewership -- I get exhausted trying to mine a Seinfeld episode for a genuine guffaw while those around me howl effortlessly -- and within individual viewers: I may snarkily growl that fat people seem to think that "diet" and "journey" are synonyms while being genuinely impressed with a feat of strength or stamina.

I may also switch between several shows in a kind of tapas approach to viewing, which adds yet another layer of complexity: viewing options often assume a value relative to the other viewing options on at any given moment (indeed, that is the sole explanation I can find for the success of the "CSI" franchise).

So maybe trying to get a view on TV is so difficult because TV is necessarily about multiplying views.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes yes. That's really good. What's funny is I was trying to do a formalist critique — what are the limits and possibilities of the medium — and you pointed out the complexity of the rhetorical milieu (oh, I do love saying "rhetorical milieu"). Which, in its way, is a critique of the limits of any formalist critique — a thing is what it is which includes its modes of consumption.

V said...

I knew I had you once I used "multiple" as various parts of speech.

But I think you are right, and perhaps TV most of all points out the inseparability of a thing and its modes of consumption. An infinitely determined cosmos of experience underlies the seemingly bland phrase "Oh, I watched some TV last night."

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