I’m Not Actually Anti-Ambition


Just a quick meta-post: I’ve noticed a common thread in some of my recent posts and comments, and wanted to be the first one to point this out. I seem to be a little suspicious, much too suspicious, frankly, of shows with a lot of ambition.

In my previous post I praised Reaper for being unambitious fun, and then put down Kings, which as noted in comments is one of the most ambitious shows of the year. Then in comments, I put down the CBC for not having enough safe middlebrow entertainment. In another post this very week I said something mildly snide about David Milch, and last week I said that the networks should consider doing more light action shows about heroes helping the underdog. Other posts have put down Dollhouse for, among other things, taking itself too seriously; I’m not the only one who has made this point, since Joss Whedon has felt the need to address it (“it’s not the lighthearted romp that the other shows were”), but if you put everything together into a pattern one could reach some very unflattering conclusions about my tastes. It’s like I’m on a crusade to make television less ambitious and safer, until there is nothing left except middle-of-the-road sitcoms and stand-alone episodic dramas. That’s not what I believe, but I should be a little more willing to praise shows that take actual chances.

Now, a lot of it has less to do with my personal taste in shows (there aren’t many middlebrow CBS dramas that I watch regularly) than with my sense of what TV lacks today — there’s some great ambitious TV, and always plenty of bad stuff, but not quite as much in the middle. And since a lot of great, ambitious television is built on a middlebrow foundation, the lack of really great television has something to do with the lack of middlebrow television. That is, many great shows riff on the formulas and fantasies built up by the middle-of-the-road shows. And also, middle-of-the-road shows are, or were, where creators learned their craft. Shawn Ryan has talked about how much he learned from writing and producing Nash Bridges, and how creating The Shield was an application of the things he’d learned and also an attempt to tell stories that couldn’t be told on a middlebrow show like Nash Bridges (because middlebrow shows have heroes who can’t really do anything bad). So I do have this idea in the back of my mind that the middle is the place where TV is weakest nowadays, and the lack of a decent middle affects the quality of the high-aiming stuff as well.

I also have a tendency to be a little hard on overtly ambitious shows because my own inclination is to be suspicious of popular art that wears its ambitions on its sleeve; I have a feeling that the film and television that endures is often “termite art”, described by Manny Farber as art that “feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” Meaning that the future classics of movies and television are often the ones that don’t seem, at first glance, to be particularly ambitious. Which is fine as far as it goes, but when carried too far, it can seem like I’m chiding one show for trying something different while praising another show for trying nothing different. And that’s not taste, that’s philistinism. I’m not actually at that point yet (not in terms of my personal tastes, anyway), but I should try to watch out and avoid getting to that point.

This concludes my all-about-me post.


I’m Not Actually Anti-Ambition

  1. Jaime Weinman, Anti-Anti-Ambition

    • Personally, I prefer the term Pro-Lazy.

      • Personally, I prefer the term Pro-Lazy.

        We prefer to be called the Aspiration-Impaired.

        • Motivationally challenged?

  2. I’m sure I’ve done it myself, but I get a bit impatient with people who slam CBS for their endless, interchangeable procedurals (oops, yes, there I go). Or who slam reality shows in general, which is getting close to slamming drama in general since there’s a huge variety in that genre (again, I’m totally guilty of that too). It’s easy to forget the fact that those things are what people watch in droves and maybe the TV industry and TV critics wouldn’t be quite as endangered if they were more respectful of what people actually watch. But I suspect that a lot of us who follow TV are attracted to what’s different partly because it’s different, and a lot of criticism (TV and otherwise, professional and otherwise) is based on the foundation that to be popular is to be sneered at. So I think it’s good that from reading your posts, I can’t quite tell what shows you’re a big fan of personally but I also get a sense of respect for shows that you might not love but that you think are doing what they do well.

    My favourite quote about Kings, because I totally agree: “Is it better for a TV show to be consistent or surprising? Is it worse for it to be ridiculous or boring? NBC’s unorthodox new drama Kings (Sundays, 8 p.m. E.T.) comes down solidly on the latter side of those questions. Some viewers will say it’s fascinating. Others will say it’s pretentious hoo-ha. Allow me to split the difference: Kings is fascinating pretentious hoo-ha.”

  3. my sense of what TV lacks today — there’s some great ambitious TV, and always plenty of bad stuff, but not quite as much in the middle.

    I would agree that there’s definitely a dearth of middlebrow sitcoms. There’s The Big Bang Theory and Old Christine. Two and Half Men, maybe?

    But in regard to dramas, is this really the case? As you note, CBS is full up with competent middlebrow procedurals. USA has scads of light entertainment. NBC has all the Law and Orders, ER, Medium and Life (the abject failure of which has me a little baffled; if it were on CBS, I think it would be a solid NCIS-style success). FOX has Lie to Me, Bones and House. ABC, well, ABC has a different sort of dynamic, but a show like Brothers and Sisters is just a standard sort of soap opera.

    I’m inclined to think of reality shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars and Survivor as middlebrow shows, too. Those aren’t dramas, of course, but they’re part of the television landscape, and they could inspire ambitious dramas, like Survivor influenced Lost. I will admit, however, that I don’t really know what a Dancing with the Stars-inspired ambitious drama would look like.

    I’m also interested in the way in which we classify these shows. Is a sitcom without a laughtrack automatically ambitious? Is drama with a little bit of serialization? Does being a procedural or having a laughtrack automatically relegate a show to Roland Barthes’ bourgeois hell? If all ambition entails is the meeting of certain markers, then it’s not really ambition at all. (I’m not sure how well-formed this last thought really is, but this is the Internet, so I’ll let it stand.)

    • Can i just add my own props to “Life”?

      I love that show.

    • As to the dramas, it’s a good list, but I’d also point out that while it’s an extensive list of shows there’s actually almost no variety there whatsoever. The CSIs, the Law and Orders, ER, Medium, Life, NCIS, Lie to Me, Bones, House… I count eleven crime procedurals, and two medical procedurals. So, thirteen middlebrow shows, but only TWO types of show.

      I think one could argue that, in a sense, that whole lists really only constitutes 2 or 3 different shows, it’s just that those two or three different shows are divided among a few different networks, in a few different time slots, with a few different casts and title sequences depending upon when you tune in.

      Is it overly harsh of me to suggest that L&O, L&O SVU, L&O CI, CSI, CSI M, CSI NY, Bones, NCIS, Medium, Lie to Me and even my own beloved Life really only constitute one “show”? I’m not knocking any of them (though they range from shows I like a LOT, to shows that I can’t be bothered with) but it’s true, nonetheless, that they’re really just one thing, isn’t it?

      • Yeah. I agree. It’s a hidden gem if a bit of an acquired taste. It’s kinda replaced ‘Boston Legal’ for me to kill an hour a week. I was late to notice it but I’m a big fan of “quirky,’ “eccentric” or anything that’s a bit off the beaten path.

        I was surprised to learn, today in fact, that Damian Lewis is British. I lived a few years in Blighty and I would never have guessed that someone, even an accomplished actor, could entirely shed or conceal the toffee-nosed – St. John pronounced as sinjin – Sloane Ranger inflection and intonation that his bio says he should have ingrained in him as surely and completely as a stiff upper lip. Mayhap his Yankee relatives corrupted him, or his accent at the least.


        Plus, the Zen thing works for me too.

  4. As to the dramas, it’s a good list, but I’d also point out that while it’s an extensive list of shows there’s actually almost no variety there whatsoever.

    Actually, I think there’s quite a lot of variety there. Some of those shows are dark, some are goofy, some are action-oriented. Granted, that variety comes within specifically defined genres, but that’s what being a middlebrow show is all about, after all.

    Most middlebrow shows just happily live within the bounds of an already defined genre. A really great middlebrow show (like House) will take a genre and expand the genre’s definition a little bit. A great ambitious show (Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire) will start with a genre (the western, the mafia, the cop show) and elevate it and deconstruct it and redefine it.

  5. Fair point. Still, what I wouldn’t give for a show that’s not either “Cops, and what they do” or “Doctors, and what they do” (they’re out there, I know, but you know what I mean…). As I said, I don’t mean to knock those shows, and I enjoy many of them (as I said, I love Life, and I’m a big fan of House too… heck, I even like the quirky NCIS).

    It’s just, man, I know that there’s chocolate ice cream, and vanilla ice cream, and strawberry ice cream. There’s even frozen yogurt, and popsicles and fudgescicles. Sometimes I just wish there’s was pie though, ya know?

  6. “Sometimes I just wish there’s was pie though, ya know?”


    • Oh, yeah, I love Lost, and I’d count it as pie.

      What I should have said is that I wish there was MORE pie. I didn’t mean to imply that pie doesn’t exist, just that there’s not enough of it!

      And cake.

      I want cake too.

  7. I think I must be the only one who really enjoyed the first episode of “Kings”.

    Sure the pacing sucked, and some of the plot elements were just goofy, but I was left with a rather positive impression. (The biggest head scratcher was the “evil corporation” who apparently can underwrite the entire economy but wants to keep the war going against an enemy with superior firepower and could possibly conquer them. It isn’t like you need an ongoing war to keep your puppet dictator from spending money on armaments.)

    I also take issue with the idea that an alternate earth based around the biblical story of Saul and David is unfilmable. I don’t see how it is any different than Battlestar Galactica for example, where you have a sci-fi “alternate earth” setting with soap operatic elements.

    • I really liked it too!

  8. Terry, I loved Kings. Believe it or not, I meant that quote as a compliment, and I think James Poniewozik sort of did too. Points out its flaws while still saying it was fascinating viewing.

  9. Ambitious? Ian McShane delivers most of his lines in iambic pentameter. And I love it.

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