The so-called "wasteland" of US television has generated drama that puts Britain to shame. But the networks' golden era may now be at an endby Andrew Billen / August 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
On 9th may 1961, Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, rose to address the most powerful men in American television. Since 1934, the FCC had been charged with protecting the American public interest from the excesses of a broadcasting free-for-all, the likes of which Britain, partly for reasons of Reithian paternalism, had never known. “When television is good, nothing-not the theatre, not the magazines or newspapers-nothing is better,” Newt (as he was known) told his Washington audience. “But when television is bad,” he went on, “nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, or newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you, and keep your eyes glued to that set, until the station signs off. You will observe a vast wasteland.” The phrase “vast wasteland” stuck. US television’s self-image never recovered; nor did its reputation among intellectually aspirant Americans, many of whom confidently (and often truthfully) assert they never watch it. In Britain, by contrast, we have our complaints but we acknowledge television’s place in the culture. In the contest between Lord Thomson’s infamous off-the-cuff about an ITV franchise being a licence to print money and the much repeated platitude that Britain has the best television in the world, smugness won. Until recently, at least. These days I find myself explaining to bemused Americans that the programmes my peers most enjoy are almost all theirs. There are, it is true, bright Britons who do not “get” American sitcoms, but few have resisted forming an attachment to at least one of the following dramas: in the 1980s, Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, Moonlighting and LA Law; in the 1990s, thirtysomething, NYPD Blue, ER and The X-Files; and, currently, The West Wing, Ally McBeal, The Sopranos, CSI and Six Feet Under. Our enjoyment is not ironic-the so-bad-its-good glee we afforded Dynasty and Dallas. Emotionally and intellectually, these programmes provide all we need from television drama. If US television is a wasteland, why does it feature so many towering achievements? It is important, first, to contest the premise of this question. Spend an evening in an American hotel room with only basic cable available, and “wasteland” is still, quite likely, the word that will come to mind. We get a distorted view of the standards of American television. Only the very best makes it to these shores. The schedules of our own Sky One barely hint at the banality and unpleasantness of the majority of US dramas. Even the best work tends to inspire not originality but imitation. So ER lives alongside City of Angels, Gideon’s Crossing and Chicago Hope. The lawyers in Ally McBeal have rivals in Family Law and The Practice all the way up to the Supreme Court, in First Monday and The Court. In law enforcement, the most crowded market, there is NYPD Blue and CSI, but also two brands of Law & Order, The Guardian, The Agency and so on. Moreover, the US commissioning process has apparently been designed to crush innovation. The network buys 100 scripts for new shows each year, makes 20 pilots and then sends them for testing before sample audiences who sit in darkened rooms twisting dials to register enjoyment or boredom. Five may make it to air. “It’s a hoary rule of research that shows test the best when they remind people of other shows,” Austin Bunn wrote recently in the New York Times. If, once aired, a series does not look as if it will succeed, it will be yanked. For the studios which make them, this is an everyday disaster, since what the networks pay does not cover the production costs of what they buy. It is not until 88 episodes (four series) have been transmitted that the studios can redeem their investment by selling them on to local and foreign stations, which can then strip them daily across whole weeks. The process by which producers get very rich only years after their programmes have first aired is called “deficit financing” and you can see why, creatively, it produces deficient thinking. If you are worrying that your show will look dated four years on, you are unlikely to encourage drama that treats with the issues of the moment. So you stick to the eternal verities: cops, docs and lawyers. With the crash of KirchMedia in Germany and the collapse of the foreign sales market, things will get worse. Studios will push to make blander fodder likely to play as well in Iceland as Idaho. Expect more car chases, less dialogue and prepare to mourn-more perhaps than you would have predicted-the passing of Ally McBeal and The X-Files. One of the golden ages of American network television may be receding. An analysis of the sameness of American television drama was once provided by the critic Charles Williams. He argued that all popular narratives elaborate, in infinite variations, one plot: the family is threatened; the family is reunited. This theory applies not only to the Ewings of Dallas or the Waltons of Virginia but to the cops of NYPD Blue, the baby-boomers of The West Wing and the doctors of ER. It even holds good for thrillers. For is not Jack Bauer, the hero of 24, actually the head of two families, his own at home and the family of spooks at his intelligence agency? The mighty ensemble dramas of recent years, from Hill Street Blues to The West Wing, play particularly well to this sublimated theme of the American family moving perpetually between discord and reconciliation. They demonstrate too that even within homogeneity, creativity can be born. The sheer density of talent located in Hollywood, of course, makes it likely that quality will occasionally emerge, but what has been produced in the last 20 years point to better odds than that. Perhaps while so many of the prevailing conditions in America are inimical to excellence, others are sympathetic to it. I believe I can identify three. The first has prevailed since the first golden age of television in the 1950s, the second was created in the 1980s, largely by one man, and the third has only recently emerged. What is it, exactly, that we admire in American drama? Part of it is the big budgets that crowd hospital wards with extras, the slickness of the filming and editing, the soundtracks that manipulate our reactions, the standards of acting. Yet production values are not everything. Although drama on Channel 4 and BBC2 is frequently starved of investment, BBC1 and ITV1 spray so much money on to their favoured projects that they can end up almost matching American standards of gloss. Spooks, which enjoyed surprising success recently on BBC1, had production values coming out of its ears (which may explain why so little was going on between them). Nor can we say that a profession that produces a John Thaw, a David Jason or a Julie Walters is incapable of delivering character actors. The area where we crucially fail to match the Americans is in scriptwriting. Before he departed for America, Michael Jackson gave an interview looking back upon his term as Channel 4’s chief executive, in which he seemed to agree. “In drama we’ve tried to achieve a more contemporary, less authoritative approach,” he said. “Psychos, Queer as Folk, Teachers-were an attempt to bring some of the best features of American television drama to Britain. The disappointment is we found few writers other than Tony Marchant [Kid in the Corner, Never Never] able to write the big picture.” What is good television writing? Narrative, the art of telling, is one aspect. If nothing else, the hour-by-hour plotting of 24 would exemplify it. Yet, despite that show’s stopwatch pace, its writers also find time to adumbrate character. There is hardly a player with a speaking part who does not come with a back story-even down to the short-order waitress with a speeding conviction and a broken marriage. In the case of Maddy and David in Moonlighting, and Scully and Mulder in The X-Files, the relationship between the principals can even overwhelm the genre to which the show belongs. Or look at ER, whose writing is so sophisticated that when a character does not develop, it is an achievement in itself. It is almost a law of physics that hard bastards introduced to viewers in series one will, by the end of series two, have mellowed into curmudgeons with a heart of gold. But Peter Benton left ER this summer the same arrogant, emotional retard he was in 1994. His was an example of authorial tenacity. In an industry whose oldest joke is about the bimbo actress so stupid that she slept with the writer, the true punchline is the way American television dramatists have triumphed. Back in the late 1940s, for example, Reginald Rose began contributing scripts to CBS’s series of one-off plays, Studio One. Rose’s most famous show became a film, Twelve Angry Men, but long before it he would hear people on the subway saying, “Hey, I heard there’s a Reginald Rose play on tonight.” Writers were paid well-$10,000 a script. Their names were announced over the titles. The latter practice has disappeared, but the association between a writer and his show persists. A moderately alert American viewer might be expected to know that David Chase invented The Sopranos, Alan Ball Six Feet Under, David Kelley Ally McBeal and Chris Carter The X-Files. The West Wing’s creator Aaron Sorkin may be best known for having been arrested in possession of magic mushrooms at LA airport, but his legacy will be as the writer of speeches worthy of Hecht and MacArthur. The writers’ room, wherein whole teams are entrusted with filling in the plots of a series, allocating one another characters to write and subplots to elaborate, sounds like anathema to the writer as lone genius. But in practice the process of competitive collaboration can spur each member of the team to reach beyond hackery. If you have any doubt of the superiority of American television dialogue to that of American movies, rent Sorkin’s 1995 movie The American President and, straight afterwards, watch the latest West Wing. It is very rare for British television these days to hand its actors in a year lines as good as Bartlet, Toby and Josh get weekly in The West Wing. It was not always so. Classically trained actors such as Peter Barkworth, Denholm Elliott and Patricia Hayes once delivered verbal arias on primetime television. But they did so in an age when British television was using theatre rather than film as its reference point. As filmed drama become the norm, directors assumed control and the great age of television writers such as Dennis Potter, Alan Sillitoe, Alan Pater, Mike Leigh and Don Taylor slipped away. In 1984, after 14 years, the BBC, to its shame, cancelled Play for Today. Ten years later, the playwright Colin Welland complained to me about the consequences. Writers were getting used to directors paring back their longer scenes and speeches. “That’s what happens in movies,” Welland said. “Everything is ‘Where are we going in this scene?’ ‘Get it moving!’ ‘How is it progressing the story?’ So it’s all narrative and no development of character, nothing contemplative.” In America, professor of cinema Tom Stempel made similar comparisons. He asked his students to name any 11 two-hour feature films that were as well written as the 22 one-hour episodes of Hill Street Blues or St Elsewhere. Since they could not, he was moved to write a book on the history of television writing. Storytellers to the Nation contains an example from the first episode of Hill Street’s 1984-85 season, when the writers introduced a hard-assed new precinct sergeant. It opened with him delivering the daily roll-call: “And what is Stan Jablonski, 22 years at Polk Avenue, doing at Hill Street, day one? Three or four of you may have heard rumours. Let me tell you one thing: Stan Jablonski never coldcocked no woman. OK. That’s it.” There is a lot of information in those 40 words, but the best writers are never nervous of leaving their audiences briefly behind. The closing episode of the second series of The West Wing had Martin Sheen let fly at God in Latin: “Gratias tibi ago, domine. Haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfecti. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem.” There weren’t even subtitles to tell us that the President was blaspheming. The second reason for American television’s comparative health is Steven Bochco. After studying play-writing in Pittsburgh, Bochco won an internship at Universal Studios and by 1970 was story editor on Columbo. The awards piled up and in 1978, determined to extend his control over his material, he became a producer and was asked to develop a police series for NBC. The show that resulted in 1981, Hill Street Blues, broke all the rules-a too large cast, too many plots per episode, a tone that varied from farce to tragedy, and a grubby cinema-verit?. In a wonderful instance of form reflecting content, the murky ambience of Hill Street merged with an authorial ambivalence towards its deeply-flawed cops. “We were putting more information on, frame by frame, than any other show in prime time,” Bochco said later. “We redefined for the audience the terms of the agreement under which they turned on the set.” In his rocky relationship with the networks, Bochco was forced to adjust those terms, but the impact on a coming generation of writers could not be undone. Bochco also came to realise how television had to compete with the wilder force of video. The Bible belt and the sponsor’s wife were easily shocked. Their sons and daughters were not, and rather than watch tame family telly they were hiring videos. In NYPD Blue, Bochco introduced near-nudity and cursing that at least sounded filthy (in fact, many were words made up to frustrate the network censors) which signalled that the values of television were back on speaking terms with those that prevailed in the cinema. On one network, in recent years, the language of film and television manners has become indistinguishable. The only difference between The Sopranos and Goodfellas or between Six Feet Under and American Beauty is that The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the more sophisticated offerings. This network-my third reason for the health of American television drama-is HBO (Home Box Office). It is primarily a premium movie channel but increasingly the deliverer of original television of exceptionally high quality. HBO’s secret is that it earns its income by subscription. It does not have to appeal to advertisers, fearful of associating their products with the wrong things (such as the mafia or undertakers). Nor does it have to appeal to audiences, at least not directly. Although cumulatively over its various airings, audiences for The Sopranos do add up to more than 10m, it would not matter terribly if they were less. Subscribing to HBO is a mark of economic and intellectual distinction, whether you get round to watching what you pay for or not. As HBO spawns imitators and networks take note of what is happening to their audience share, the beneficial consequences for the coming generation of screenwriters could be immense. It is not just that HBO allowed David Chase to film The Sopranos three years after Fox, CBS and NBC all passed on the pilot. The network is now giving him permission to end it. At his wish, the fourth season of The Sopranos will be the last, and the story will arc to a conclusion with, presumably, Tony Soprano’s death: denouement, not cancellation. As the critic Mark Lawson has observed, the first generation of American television producers, who came from Hollywood and vaudeville, have been replaced by college graduates and film school alumni who were raised with television as their birthright. The old audiences are being supplanted too. If there is one form of literacy on the increase in America, it is television literacy. Viewing figures for network television have been in decline for years, but exceptionally intelligent shows such as ER attract 10m more viewers than their nearest rivals. The only explanation is that on Thursday nights people who “don’t watch television” (even if they subscribe to HBO) put down their books and switch on the set. The next great American novel may be a television series. Classic serials aside, there has been no corresponding renaissance in British drama and so no leap in audience expectations. The most sophisticated shows, such as Tony Garnett’s The Cops, meet with critical adoration but audience apathy. I have kicked British television too casually. Thanks are due to whoever fought for that series to be recommissioned. Even I would not swap the eight seasons of NYPD Blue for the dozen or so Cops that were made. When we try, our verit? is better than their verit?. Besides, when dramatists find a way of telling us what is happening in our inner cities we are bound to find ourselves involved. From this distance, watching New York’s street scum being roughed up by Andy Sipowicz is mere voyeurism. But if out of the wasteland something as generally accomplished as NYPD Blue can flourish, there must surely be lessons for British broadcasters. The unlikely story of American television is that when the masses are offered something of real quality, every now and again they have the good sense to embrace it. They agree with Newt. When television is good, nothing is better.