Friday, December 18, 2009

The Feature Factor

I was thinking today of some shows I like such as “Alias,” “Fringe,” “House,” and “Burn Notice,” to name a few, and why when I was growing up, television seemed to be so much more watered down.  I think that the answer is that TV has really gotten the what I call the "feature factor."

The feature factor that I speak of is the way in which drama shows on television seem to have much more of a feature film feel to them.  Their stories are more exhilerating, their cinematography is edgier, and in their editing is more sophisticated.

A few years ago, I really wasn’t interested in television much and opted for either renting feature movies on VHS and DVD, or just reading a book.  I found most situation comedies rather formulaic, and most dramas having too much gibber-jabber without enough real action.  I would turn to feature films, such as, “True Romance,” “Usual Suspects,” and “Jackie Brown” to satiate my need for cinematic fun.

But I’ve noticed in my returning to television for what was to be a self-imposed trial basis, that the shows are much more exciting these days.  The drama shows are very topical, often having to do with terrorism and international crime syndicates.  Remember if you will, just a few years ago, that there were a lot of character-driven cops shows like “Hill Street Blues,” which my dad LOVED,  “West Wing,” and “Cagney & Lacey.” They had some action sequences, but most of the show was talking and boring b-plots.  Blah! Give me some intense minute-by-minute mind-blowing action!

And back when I was a teen, there were also a lot of the grand Aaron Spelling shows throughout the years with “Dynansty,” and “Dallas” being two of the biggies from a ways back. They were shows about status and back-stabbing, but soooo slooow!!!  God, speed it up!!!   I just wasn’t into those, as popular as they were.

When it comes to dramas, I’ve always been interested in material where something can really, really go wrong; where the day can end with everything being totally destroyed.  I think the “ticking time-bomb” mechanism works well with me in that respect.  And it seems that in the past five to ten years, the television people have really cranked it up.

As technology has improved for both cinematography and editing, so has the television drama.  These quasi-technicians and artists have been given a lot more room to broaden their craft and ability in doing their work.  The improvement we’ve seen in television stories in the past few years has come as a result of there being much more competition among the broadcasters.  The three main networks were joined by a fourth a few years back, and simultaneously, the cable channels flourished and needed a lot more content.  This allowed for independent producers (the television counterparts of Quentin Tarantino) to come in and offer their goods with cheaper production costs, and more exciting and inventive scripts.  This has been a very healthy process for the industry because it's force the big cats, the networks, to take more day to day risks.

All of this has increased the quality of the story in addition to the improvements in the arts of shooting and editing the shows.  A show which is as cheaply shot as “Burn Notice” on the USA Network, but which keeps it’s audience riveted in it’s cheesey storey line, can smoke the competition that would have otherwise put on a “safer” family show.  “Alias” and “Fringe” are examples of shows that would not have been on a major network in their current form just ten years prior.  They would have either been much more extravagant, more watered down in their content, or likely both.

I am really happy about these changes.  I love watching television these days and not wanting to take a bathroom break for fear of missing something crucial.  And there is no greater glory than hunkering down on a rainy day with a warm blanket, some snacks and ripping through a whole season of “24” without any commercials.  It doesn’t get much better than that!  My self-imposed television trial is over, and I will be sticking with it for a while as soon as I can pay my cable bill again.

Footnote:  I have to mention here that almost all of the shows I currently like, I was first turned onto by the lady who cuts my hair.  She has a 100% success rate in show suggestions for me.  She charges a lot for my haircuts, so I’m not giving her any bonuses for her television advice; just a satisfied smile.