I’ve been watching a lot of TV shows lately, catching up after years of not watching any at all. It seems that TV has definitely improved in some ways, although it’s difficult to see how, with the nature of TV production being what it is, there will ever be anything but the most basic cinematic language on television. But even a little sophistication brings it up to the level of most Hollywood films, so it’s not a total bust. I just don’t expect visuals to be driving the story anytime soon.
Watching shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and True Blood reminds me of the addictive nature of TV, especially the way that story seems to be doled out in small doses, just enough to make a person crave more. There’s no time limit in these shows where the story goes into the next episode and beyond. They can go on and on. So while we know Peggy gives birth at the end of the first season of Mad Men and are left with the cliffhanger: what will she do? This subject is hardly brought up in the first episode and, by the time we find out what happened, we’re on to other things. In TV, it’s always about the first act and the second act. They never really resolve anything. It’s all set up. You’re always wanting more.
It’s nice that characters are expected to remain the same from season to season, which is more akin to real life than a Hollywood film, where a character is generally expected to follow an “arc” and change somehow at the end. Occasionally, we get the back story of a character, but this is always a tease.
I get the impression watching most of these shows, especially back-to-back, is that nobody had a real idea where these shows were going. So there not a lot of direction forward. Sure, we knew Peggy was probably pregnant in Season One, but there’s not a lot of that – and that makes something like that special. TV seems to live in the present tense in a way that films don’t. Films try to squeeze in past, present and future into their short run and create a memorable experience. TV exists as you watch it, in the scene, and as soon as you see it, you don’t really want to see it again – you just want more.