I thought a panel about how great American television is was a bit of a misnomer for the Wheeler Centre’s “America” week. I mean, has anyone seen Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or any of the Real Housewives series?
But once the panel, consisting of pop culture expert Jess McGuire, television reviewer Debi Enker and producer Amanda Higgs and emceed by the director of the Wheeler Centre, Michael Williams, got started on their favourite American feats of TV, I warmed to the notion.
I mean, don’t get me wrong: American TV is the type I consume the most. I usually only watch Aussie shows in case I can get some blog or freelance fodder, and British television? Fugedaboutit! But the shows the panel named as their top idiot box must-sees are some real high-brow shit, most of which I’ve never seen an episode of in my life. Think Mad Men, The Soprano’s, The Wire, Six Feet Under. I like my TV a bit fluffier.
Having said that, though, the panellists got me thinking about my favourite shows. While they struggled to whittle down their favourite to just five, I realised I can only count two faultless series: Grey’s Anatomy and Law & Order: SVU. Most of the other shows I watch (Glee, for example) infuriate me to no end with their racist, sexist, classist, ableist and homophobic undertones. Grey’s and SVU don’t always have happy endings, at least, and aren’t afraid to push the boundaries, get rid of popular characters if it strengthens the story (or they cause trouble on set, like Isaiah Washington, or can’t settle their pay disputes, as with Chris Meloni’s departure), and portray really real characters.
I love the way Grey’s has unlikeable characters who still get as much screen time and storylines as the title character, and their personality quirks are those that people in real life actually have. For example, April’s uptight, shrill virgin character bordered on stereotype, but at the same time everyone else’s obsession with her sexless existence is what you would expect from unenlightened real people. Alternatively, you have Cristina, who always looks out for number one and refuses to discuss the possibility of having children with her husband. Ordinarily that would make for a hateful character, but Sandra Oh portrays the nuances of Cristina perfectly. The medical storylines always have a synergy with the doctors’ personal ones, and while it sometimes gets a bit after-school special-y when Miranda has to give a “long speech” or a patient makes a doctor realise something, I don’t think it never not works. Except for that whole Gizzie/Izzie sees dead people thing…
In terms of Special Victims Unit, though, you’d think watching a weekly police procedural about sexual assault for fourteen seasons would be morbid but, for me, I find it one of the most enjoyable shows to sit through. I love how the beginning of an episode is set up so that the audience thinks it’s going to be about one crime but, oftentimes, there can be two or three criminal storylines by the time the forty minutes is up. While it’s almost always about the crime first, character storylines second, you never lose sight of Munch’s conspiracy theorist paranoia, Elliot’s (when he was still in it. Sob!) fiery temper and Olivia’s feminist heroics. And they have some top notch guest stars portraying the lowest of the low and the creepiest of the creepy. Some memorable performances include Cynthia Nixon as a fake sufferer of multiple personality disorder, John Ritter as a distraught husband who attacks his pregnant wife when he finds out the baby might not be his, and Chloe Sevigny as a bored housewife who cries rape.
Both shows deal with things like disability, sexual politics and mental illness in a sensitive and true way which they have to be commended for.
In terms of what television does wrong, though, the discussion turned to Aussie networks. We seem to have a penchant for “flogging” successful shows to death, as both McGuire and Higgs noted. The success of Underbelly meant copious amount of spin-offs with links so tenuous to the original premise that they might as well be standalone shows. And using the success of an overseas import, like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Two & a Half Men and, earlier, Friends, to flog the show to death in double-episode reruns is another hallmark of Aussie networks.
There was also talk of our modern viewing habits. While Vanity Fair may have declared movies usurped by television in a recent issue, which served as the jumping off point for the panel, not a lot of people sit down at the same time each week to watch their shows ritualistically. McGuire admitted to watching “box sets” illegal downloads and streams of her favourite shows, because Australia still has a ways to go when it comes to airing shows consistently and on par with American air dates. I liked it last year when Ten aired Glee the same week it premiered in the U.S., however with events like Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Superbowl interrupting the schedule north of the equator, this means that repeats and “returning in two weeks” promos take the place of consistency Down Under. And don’t even get me started on the treatment of SVU: new episode followed by repeat followed by months of nothing followed by new episode without promotion so most loyal viewers miss it. No wonder there’s an epidemic of illegal interwebs watching: the networks are just so unreliable.
So while it may be the “golden age” of television, it seems to be edging closer to a golden age of twenty-to-forty (or fifty for HBO productions) minute feats of film to be watched on the laptop or iPad, not so much the silver screen.
Related: Glee: The Right & Wrong of It.