Thanks for the comments on my last post. Michael, I was glad for a little more historical insight than I had. I think both you and Jesse hit the central issue that people have when dealing with television: we have a avery visible reminder of who its sponsors are. That isn't to say that films aren't sponsored--they most certainly are, typically by whatever products you see artfully panned over in the course of the film--but where television is concerned, we can't really ignore it. I have friends who are severe movie fans, and who attend and perform in various and sundry stage performances, and yet fervently proclaim they "hate t.v." This has, more and more, come to seem to me as a false dichotomy. So here are my thoughts on the matter.
For centuries, entertainment and literary endeavours centered solely around the written word and the live performance of the written word. During those centuries, there were typically two types of literature: really long (epic poems, full-length plays, novels) and short (narrative and lyric poems, one-act plays, short stories). With the advent of the twentieth century a new form of entertainment was introduced: the radio. Radio then ushered in the age of motion picture technology and finally the television set. Somewhere along the line, film became an accepted form of artistic endeavour while television has largely, in America at least, remained marginalized. (Michael's comment on last post gives a great summary of one reason why) Typically the reasons given are that television is commercialized, that television writers are hacks, that television shows are shallow and don't tackle philosophical matter, that television characters are not well developed, that television is an artistic sell-out. My problem with every one of those arguments is that they can just as easily apply to any other artistic realm as well as they can apply to television.
Television is a commercial endeavour--it has to be. Without commercial sponsors, there isn't any money. The same is true for any other art form. Plays have corporate sponsors and advertising sponsors listed in the program. Broadway plays have pages of ads in their programs, yet they don't receive criticism for being commercialized. I would guess the reason is two-fold: it is already accepted as art, and we still have to buy a ticket. Movies, which are gaining acceptance as art--some film great enough to be labelled "classic" already--are also sponsored commercially. Previews are ads. That's not counting the actual ads that often play before the previews. Often, products are highlighted in movies--ever notice how many of the computers are Macs? How many people drink Coca-cola? Even visual art must appeal to buyers or the artist cannot support himself. All art contains a certain measure of commercialism if it is to be successful.
For the sake of space--and because the rest of the criticism are similar--I'll combine the rest as a single issue: Television produces a lower quality product that doesn't challenge the audience to tackle weighty matters. Here comes my one allowance of sarcasm: because all other art forms at all other times have always produced high quality pieces that constantly challenge the audience with weighty ideas. Sure. I've read Restoration plays--they make todays raunchiest sit-coms look prudish and high quality. Seriously. The fact is that all artistic and entertainment expression has many levels of product. Yes, some shows are ridiculous and come nowhere near the bar of "art." But the same is true for many novels, plays, even visual art works. That, to me, is no reason to throw out an entire genre as worthless. I understand that it is easier to pin the label "art" or "classic" on a movie because it's a single package--a piece of artistic communication that can be watched in a single sitting and evaluated. It is seamless, allowing a particular idea or event to be examined and weighed deeply at a single time. Television does not have that advantage. For that reason, a well-crafted television show, to me, deserves even more respect. Television writers have a shorter time-frame in which to present ideas and events while holding the audience's attention through commercial breaks. That is not an easy task. They don't have a huge screen on which to unfold their events which limits the awe and emotional attachment response that they can produce. And even with the advantages of working with film, how many films have you been to see with expectation that completely let you down? And how many films are just about creating some cheap laughs. The product is solely the result of who is producing it, not where it appears.
I am completely convinced that as we move more and more into an age of digital media, television, not just film, needs to be given credence as a legitimate art form. Not that all television will rise to the form of "art" or "classic" any more than all plays or novels will. If we accept the film as the digital equivalent to the novel, the epic, the full-length play, then I think we ought to consider the medium of television as the digital equivalent of the short-story, the narrative, the one-act play. If we can look at short stories as legitimate pieces of literature that have something to say, then why can we not accept television in that way? Frankly, much of what we consider "classic" today was written for entertainment; and in the cases of some novels, was even serialized with sponsors (Dickens...). I would not find it surprising if 100 years from now, television series were looked on in the same manner--as a 20th/21st century literary form. Don't get me wrong, not all television is good literature (Yes, Dear--ick), but some of it downright brilliant (The Office, yay). I just think t.v ought to be given the fair shake that most of us are more than willing to give to film.
Sorry, this is rather longer than I intended. Oh well. I'm not reading it. :) At any rate, I would certainly welcome some more thoughts on the matter. And perhaps what shows you think ought to be considered as future classics and why?