More Reductiveness, Or Why Good TV Needs To Be Bad


 

This is a post that I’ve started without really thinking it out much, so I don’t know where it will go, but: I was evaluating my own TV-viewing interests (not an interesting exercise in and of itself), and came to the conclusion that my favourite shows often can be described as “good-bad shows.” The term “good-bad movie” used to be somewhat popular among critics to refer to a movie that was somehow disreputable or formula-ridden or silly, and yet managed to use that format to achieve a certain energy and power that a more prestigious film (literary adaptation, historical epic) could not. Good-bad TV is similar. It’s TV that does not exactly get beyond the limitations that make television artistically disreputable — the cliches, the chasing after trends, the storytelling and character formulas — and uses its own lack of class and prestige to its own advantage.

This is different from a “guilty pleasure.” A guilty pleasure is something that you know isn’t good (or at least think isn’t good) but you like anyway. (So I’m not talking about any of the guilty-pleasure or enjoyably bad shows I’ve discussed recently.) A “good-bad” show is one that is genuinely good, but is also recognizably similar to shows that aren’t good. In movies, a great 100-minute medium-budget, non-epic gangster film is going to be a lot like a non-epic gangster film that isn’t great; a great Western shoot-’em-up (again, leaving your Deadwoods and other epic or revisionist Westerns out of this) shares lots of story points and style points in common with a bad one. On TV, it’s the same way. A prestigious, “good-good” show prides itself on uniqueness in approach and style. A “good-bad” sitcom or teen show or action show is different only in terms of quality, of how it turns the formula and the cliches into something interesting.

At their best, good-bad shows have a vitality that more obviously high-quality shows lack, and a richness that comes from the way it plays with us as viewers. The good-bad show fulfils all the expectations we bring to the genre (because we know the formula by heart) while also surprising us with the variations on the basic, familiar themes. And the hint of cliche or cheesiness about the good-bad show can at least prevent it from becoming boring or self-satisfied.

This, for example, is why I have a major fondness for the first two seasons of Buffy, which mixed new approaches and character development with a considerable quantity of cheese (sometimes parts of episodes, sometimes whole plots). It was the struggle between the two halves of the show, the emotionally-involving drama and the cheesy teen adventure, that made it so interesting to watch; the more prestigious the show became, the less interesting I found it to watch (and the less fulfilling I found the big, un-cheesy moments to be).

This is not to say, however, that good-bad TV is superior to prestigious TV, any more than a great low-budget gangster movie is superior to The Godfather. But the value of a prestigious, self-evidently ambitious show is easy to see. The good-bad show reveals its secrets more slowly and makes us work to see its value. In a weird way, it’s sometimes more challenging viewing.


 
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More Reductiveness, Or Why Good TV Needs To Be Bad

  1. Does something like 30 Rock qualify? Or is it kind of the opposite? The first thing you notice is that it's a critical darling and all the hips kids love it. But the more you watch, the more you realize that it does cliched sitcom plots all the time (it doesn't mock them, it just uses them – Jack has an evil twin! Tracy and Jenna have a hilarious argument that leads to them trying to live in the other one's skin! etc.) Which, in this day and age, actually makes it seem more subversive. It's a single-camera, no-laugh-track-or-studio-audience show that does silly, hoary sitcom plots all the time. Because that's what sitcoms do.

    • I’d certainly categorize 30 Rock that way, and that’s exactly what I like best about it — like The Simpsons in seasons 3 and 4, it’s sophisticated and corny at the same time. But of course I’m not pretending I can draw clear lines (this show is good-bad, that show is prestigious critics’ favourite — there’s tons of overlap).