As I continue to research my thesis on ‘quality’ television drama, I’ve become aware, as I’m reading, that particular programs are mentioned repeatedly in academic literature to the extent that they form a television canon. This is a somewhat different process of canonisation to that presented by Entertainment Weekly (USA) and discussed by David Knox over at TV Tonight. It’s closer to the canon making exercise undertaken by Glen Creeber in 50 Key Television Programs, which I discussed over at Sarsaparilla some time ago.
Perhaps what really defines the canon that I’m noticing emerging through my academic reading is that the programs are repeatedly discussed in the context of the trinity of interests in cultural studies informed research on television: text, audience, industry.
Here, programs might be nominated because they are exemplary of a given genre or they herald an important development in that same genre. In the police genre, for example, Hill Street Blues was a commercial failure in the US, but it marked a significant development in North American television, not only for its social realism, which was more reminiscent of British police drama, but, as well, it was a pioneering example of the ensemble cast, populated by a range of characters from various backgrounds, including representations of non-white and female police officers.
In academe, The Sopranos emerges as a canonical text because it was conceived and produced in an industrial environment where a niche audience was valued above a mass audience; where writers and producers were not constrained by a least objectionable programming (LOP) strategy dictated by the concerns of advertisers; but could push the boundaries of the televisual form and address an adult audience with advanced cinema and tele-literacies, to say nothing of advanced incomes. The textual features for which The Sopranos is so lauded are inseparable from the business of HBO. The serial narratives for which HBO is known arise more from the necessity to maintain their subscription audiences across several seasons than any particular affinity with the serialised novel form of Charles Dickens, for example.
Alternatively a programme might be repeatedly discussed in a number of academic sources because it sustains an active fan community. A fairly substantial body of literature exists, for example, around Science Fiction programs and their fan communities, including Star Trek and Doctor Who fandom.
Just reading back over what I've written above, I'm aware that I've seemed to imply there's a fundamental difference in the kinds of values that academic and popular sources apply when judging television texts. The argument against drawing that conclusion too readily is to note the similarities between Creeber's list and the popular press nominations of Entertainment Weekly; both lists include, for example, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Simpsons, which suggests there is some agreement about the cultural impact of these shows, whether in terms of their subject matter or their reworking of familiar forms. Perhaps the key difference in approaches is simply one of transparency, or the amount of explanation and justification for the choices that each decides upon.
Another difference between the two approaches is the extent of their influence upon me. In the context of writing a dissertation on television drama, it is the academic nominated canon with which I feel compelled to be familiar. When a significant portion of my thesis will be considering The Sopranos, I take seriously Glen Creeber's Introduction to his study on The Singing Detective where he writes that '[e]verything from The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-), Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-), Oz (HBO, 1997-2003) and Stephen King's own Kingdom Hospital (ABC, 2004) owe a debt to it'.
It is this concern, for me to be familiar with the genealogy, if you will, of television programmes, that is informing my DVD viewing at the moment. I watched The Singing Detective (BBC/ABC 1986) and saw what features pioneered by Dennis Potter (Writer), John Amiel (Director), and Kenith Trodd (Producer) have made their way into contemporary 'high-end' television. In particular it is the ontological shifts undertaken by the lead character of The Singing Detective, Philip Marlow, that are most apparent in the HBO productions cited by Creeber; those moments where we believe that Nate is being hit by a bus or screaming at Lisa, only to discover that he is simply standing by the side of the road or calmly eating dinner were, in part, prempted by Marlow's 'witnessing' of his wife's affair and his experience of hospitalisation.
We have, as well I think, The Singing Detective, to thank for all those musical episodes of television programmes, including Buffy's 'Once more with feeling' and the 'My Musical' episode of Scrubs.
To say nothing of all those Ally McBeal moments:
I don't want to overstate the influence of any particular programme on any other. These histories are alway easily written in retrospect and, of course, the influences upon any one text are multiple. In the North American tradition especially, it would be foolish to ignore the place of the film musical in that culture, although perhaps we might still want to credit the British with bringing it to television.
A book that has been quite influential for me recently, in terms of informing my DVD watching, is Robin Nelson's State of Play: Contemporary High End TV Drama. Nelson also cites The Singing Detective, but his book has been instrumental in helping me seek out various other programmes to watch for my personally assigned television history project.
One programme that Nelson discusses as exemplary of high-end television, which has emerged in the TV 3 era*, is Shooting the Past. I watched it overlapping with the first season of the BBC/HBO co-production, Rome. Apart from the coincidence that Lindsay Duncan was in both programmes, I was able to consider Nelson's discussion of Stephen Poliakoff's desire to create 'slow' television, to challenge the myth that we all have increasingly short attention spans and will switch channels the moment we encounter a lull in the action.
I think the excerpt from The Sopranos, above, illustrates the narrative richness of slow television.
I've just started watching Boys from the Blackstuff having first watched the tele-play from which it was developed, The Blackstuff. It's pretty bleak social realism looking at the plight of unemployed working class men in Liverpool during the Thatcher years.
More on this another time.
* Post-1995, arises 'from a conflation of influences (cultural, technological, industrial, social, aesthetic) with particular implications for TV drama forms and their production, distribution and reception under new circumstances' (Nelson 2007, 8).