John Walker's Electronic House

Watching Carefully

by on Aug.25, 2005, under The Rest

Of late, I have found myself consuming television programmes at an astonishing rate. I don’t watch television ‘live’ any more. I’ve still not got around to tuning the four channels we’re capable of receiving into the new television. This has two excellent results:

1) I don’t watch anything I don’t absolutely want to.
2) I don’t see television commercials.

This means I miss out on the social phenomenon of, “Have you seen that new…?” to which my answer is inevitably “no”. It also means that no, I haven’t seen Lost, but of the twenty or so minutes I’ve seen of two separate episodes (standing in the doorway of Landlord Hicks’ room, witnessing it on his TV) it appears to be the hideous mutant child of The O.C. and Celebrity Love Island. I’m told by all who breathe that I’m wrong…

Not seeing adverts has a peculiar effect. I’ve not watched TV as God intended for well over a year now, and in that time I’ve been freed from the expectation of being advertised at, which has led me to become acutely aware of when it continues to happen to me against my will. If I’m so repulsively stupid as to sit in front of ITV1, then I should fully expect and indeed deserve to be subjected to screeching suggestions that I blame my scraped finger on the inventor of walls, or which is the latest and only socially acceptable way to remove the especially stubborn stains. That would have been my decision, my invitation, and indeed my indoctrination – it ensures I’m perfectly used to commercialism, and dulled to it. But when that imbecilical cord is severed, each commercial invasion becomes a violent slap around the face. Every bus that drives past ordering me to wash my hair, or billboard suggesting I change my car insurance today, or cretinous commercial radio station advert imposed upon me in a shop, or instruction about where to develop my photographs from a hot-air balloon passing overhead – slap, slap, slap, slap. It’s inescapable, but at least I’ve started noticing it.

And yet, I’ve recently found myself enthralled by wondrous television of all genres. Purchased on disc, or via the wonder of bittorrent, the joy of sharing television programmes, mostly unavailable on DVD, and freely given to viewers by broadcasters via their digi-ariel-o-center. I have recently finished devouring the exceptional Carnivàle – an exquisite series, each of the twenty-four episodes paced as it wants to be, not interested in your short attention span or short-term memory. Each is a visual extravaganza, coloured to perfection, alive in dust, vicious in horror. Intelligent, violently powerful but never powerfully violent, and mature with its HBO-based freedom. Comparisons with Twin Peaks are inevitable, mostly because it owes its existence to Lynch’s masterwork, and partly because it also stars the exceptional Michael J. Anderson, but it has so much more of its own to offer. Where Twin Peaks invested impossible horror into the understandable world of a soap opera community, Carnivàle embraces everything you already knew must be wrong about the travelling fairground, and asks it to play a part in the ongoing battle between Good and Evil. The eulogy “too good for television” is getting thrown around too easily now, in the US culture of hasty commissions and premature cancellings, and places the focus in the wrong place. Television, as a commercial enterprise, is stupid because it is forced to reflect its audience. Carnivàle’s survival into a second season was testament to Television’s occasional battle against that mass stupidity in those watching. It was, in fact, “too good for viewers”.

Battlestar Galactica has surprised me. When all who had watched it spoke with enthusiasm, I had assumed they meant that it merely wasn’t as awful as the original series, nor as pathetic as Star Trek. Finally watching the first half of the first series, I’ve realised that it’s something completely other. It’s a really fine science fiction series, heftily dark, cleverly honest, and deft with its aversion to cliche. And I hear season two is even better – a surprisingly strong claim.

But my real enthusiasm lies in something apparently so much simpler. In the last two months, I have fallen entirely and wholly in love with Scrubs. A whole other post is required, and inevitable, to explain the depths of why I feel so passionately about something ultimately so trivial and temporal. I have always loved sitcom as a format, capable of so much that any other medium falls short of in one way or another, and in Scrubs, Bill Lawrence has absolutely captured those strengths in an utterly perfect way. Four seasons, 91 episodes, and not a hint of waning, but instead is only stronger. It is the only comedy in history to have usefully survived more than one season after the introduction of a baby. It marries two central characters without a hint of the usual collapse that follows such a writing shift. It proves there is no need for a laughing audience, and four seasons in it further underlines this in its extraordinary ‘sitcom’ episode, proving the level of pantomime the addition of a “live studio audience” cannot help but impose. As early as episode four of the first series, it had me in tears, already powerfully empathically involved with its cast, and years of episodes later it still has the capacity to not only surprise, but move me to painful sobbing with its honesty. If it weren’t for the works of Garry Shandling, it would not only be the best sitcom of all time, but the bravest. Of course, It’s Garry Shandling’s show and The Larry Sanders Show still tower menacingly above all else in glorious majesty. But Scrubs can claim a very proud and honourable third place.

In summary then: television is great, as long as you don’t actually ever watch one.

7 Comments for this entry

  • DAT500

    John, I love you. Not for Scrubs which is rubbish, but because you like The Larry Sanders Show, which is the best sitcom of all time. It sickens me that only Season 1 is available on DVD – yet I can watch Friends and Seinfeld’s slap-bass shitathon until my balls grow old and grey.

  • Wilko

    It should have come as no surprise that Galactica is good; showrunner Ron Moore was one of the driving forces behind Carnivale. As for Lost, your usual reluctance to get involved with something which appeals to the idiot masses shouldn’t prevent you from at least trying this. The character interactions and human drama are much more network-conventional than what you see on HBO, but the quality of some of the writing (especially from David Fury) shines through in the end.

    And if, like me, you’re starting to run out of things to watch, you could do worse than to try Veronica Mars. Squarely aimed at the Buffy audience, it substitutes that show’s early vamp-of-the-week stories for mystery-of-the-week tales, as Veronica investigates cases brought to her by her rich-kid school friends (and foes). That might not sound too promising, but after a couple of wobbly early episodes, it quickly finds its feet as the veneer of ‘shallow teen drama’ is slowly stripped away, throwing murder, drugs, rape and incest into the mix. While the cases she takes on each week sometimes vary in quality, the dialogue is always snappy enough to carry it through, and the season-long story arc (the investigation into her best friend’s murder) is exceptional.

    It’s difficult to pigeon-hole, but let’s go for “Buffy meets Twin Peaks meets Dawson’s Creek meets Murder One” for now. And if nothing else, Kyle Secor and Alyson Hannigan turn up in recurring roles later on. Which can only be a good thing. Joss Whedon cites it as the best new show he’s seen this year.

    Oh, and you should really get around to watching season five of Angel you know. It’s some of the best work they’ve ever done; Angel turned into a muppet (Spike: “you’re a bloody puppet!”), Adam Baldwin, What They Did to Fred, and a heartbreaking, touching final episode all add to its greatness.

  • Kowalski

    Scrubs is one of the few programs that makes me genuinely cry tears of laughter.

  • Tom Camfield

    The few episodes I’ve seen of Lost have been woeful.

  • bob_arctor

    Mmm. Yes. I like….no. Well. I have nothing of import to say on these matters. I thought…what was that one…

    Well when Arrested Development wasn’t on too late on BBC2 I liked that.
    I liked Sean Locke on 8/10 cats.
    The documentaries on post WW2 are good.

    Lost is like the OC. Yes. I agree.

  • Dave Mcleod

    Hmmm…whatever happened to the BBC’s plans to sell TV shows through an iTunes like service…I’d like that

    Scrubs is fantastic. Criminal how it’s taken this long to be released on DVD

  • Miles

    1. I love all your writing and everything and Brian’s Guide is great and yes Scrubs is one of the Best Things In The World Ever
    2. BUT – Lost is great. You need to watch the whole thing from the begining. Seriously. Watching any small snippet is not enough.