Eastern Christians have a devotional practice known as an icon corner. The corner of a room is turned into a home altar so that the family might always have somewhere to pray, and somewhere to remind them of God.
In many Aussie homes today, that space is set aside for a rather different supreme power — the television set, now with high-speed Internet.
From the first, it’s probably best to remember that the television is merely a tool, and so it is what we make it to be. But that is often easier said than done. I know of people who have resolved this issue with the aid of a long drop or a sledgehammer; but such drastic solutions oughtn’t be necessary.
The small screen has always been a mixed bag of the crassly commercial with the ambitious and artistic. Like any other way of spinning yarns it has produced masterpieces and master disasters. Also, while there are all sorts of philosophical and political contexts and influences, these tend not to be the reasons for particular shows to be made or not made. It usually comes down to: will it sell?
Since its beginnings, the TV has been limited by technology, and the demands the technology makes. Unlike the cinema or theatre, it doesn’t have much downtime. It must constantly show “something” — or at least that’s what its masters have come to think. Unlike the radio, it’s not cheap, as it combines sights and sounds, and both have to be well-crafted by experts.
It’s easy to denounce it as the “idiot box”, feeding its viewers with uninspiring gloop; but over the decades it has produced some great works. Consider Kenneth Clark’s monumental Civilisation or David Attenborough’s programs on natural history or the many worthy adaptations of good books, such as Brideshead Revisited, Jeeves and Wooster, I Claudius, and so on.
We often heard at film school that we are in a golden age of “complex narrative television”, that recent developments in technology and the rise of cable channels meant that stories now had “room to breathe”, that rich characters and sophisticated narratives could be developed — in short, that the most superficial medium was now amongst the most deep. Their evidence: Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, True Blood, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and so on.
The craft behind these shows is certainly exceptional. The writing, the acting, the cinematography, the sound — all show a mastery of the medium.
But the shows also show almost everything. This “golden age” is one of the most graphic when it comes to sex and violence and depravity. It’s as if the creative class feels that a story’s not a story if it lacks sordid spectacle.
The cultural battle lines have been drawn over Game of Thrones, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. A common remark is that it’s the anti-Lord of the Rings, much as Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is the anti-Narnia.
To be fair to Martin, this isn’t his point of view. He was inspired by Tolkien, holds him in esteem, but doesn’t like some of his more simplistic acolytes. Crucially, his worldview is inspired as much by William Faulkner, Southern Gothic and social realism, as it is by epic fantasy, mythology and the building of worlds.
What this means is that he sees sordidness as the human condition, that heroism is almost impossible, and that the colour scheme of the moral landscape is grey and grimy. It is this greyness that wins him, and the TV series, so much acclaim. The world he has created is “realistic” not because of the immense effort and detail he has put into creating a coherent “other” realm, but apparently because everyone’s corrupt, self-serving scum.
Why then is such depressing fare so ravenously consumed? Because these yarns, knowingly or not, are still about good versus evil and the desire for life and love. We are excited by the intricacy and intelligence of the drama and await its resolution. More than that, they hark back to the grand, but horrific, tragedies of the Greeks, such as Aeschylus’ Oedipus the King, or even Shakespeare’s King Lear.
But what of the family seeking something suitable to watch? Where’s the good news for folk who don’t wish to be emotionally scarred by a night in front of the telly?
There is an answer. DVD and high-speed Internet mean that, with a little sleuthing, content may be found that is intelligent, inspiring and morally sound, and without being boring, brain-dead or simplistic.
I’ve named some above. I suspect the readers will have seen many worthwhile others.
And, in a future column, I shall be turning my critical eye to some old favourites.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).