Great! Great! Rewrite!

Influential Hollywood Reporter critic Tim Goodman is going to get a lot of attention for this post, where he argues (well, states) that there are no “great” dramas on broadcast television, as opposed to “very good” dramas. (The one broadcast show he puts in the “great” category, Friday Night Lights, hasn’t really been a broadcast show since its poorly-regarded second season.) This is a response to broadcast executives and producers who want to argue that their work is just as good as the cable dramas that beat them every year at the Emmys. But, Goodman says, it’s mostly not, because larger episode orders, censorship and commercial pressures put broadcast dramas in a lesser class:

But you can’t have it both ways. CBS produces a number of very good dramas. So does Fox. Almost every network has a drama to be proud of, artistically. But as a commercial venture, broadcast television isn’t really worried about its shows winning acclaim. It’s more important to win the time slot. To win the demo battle. Everybody in the business understands this. So they shouldn’t be so upset that the drama Renaissance they helped usher into the broadcast world somehow falls short of the artistic triumphs on cable. You do good work. Let it go.

I’m of two minds on this point. I agree with Goodman that the term “great” is thrown around too freely. Sometimes it seems like “great” means “really good” or just having some really strong elements. And depending on how you define greatness, it might be too soon to call anything great, particularly if greatness has to do with standing the test of time. (The Wire, the most canonized drama of our era, probably benefits from the fact that its reputation started to take off toward the end of its run and really took off after it was finished. Its claim to greatness isn’t a relic of its own time.) It’s no insult to a good work to withhold judgment on whether or not it’s achieved greatness.

On the other hand, the free use of “great” applies much more to cable than to broadcast, in my opinion – particularly with drama. A broadcast drama has a lot of hurdles to clear before it gets a high reputation. But ever since 1999, when the New York Times declared The Sopranos “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century” in its first season (granted that this turned out to be a fairly prescient statement to make), cable shows have had often had a low bar to clear. Cable dramas get tagged as achieving greatness extremely early, and even on the lower rungs, cable dramas sometimes seem to be graded on a curve – I don’t think it happens as much lately, but USA light dramas used to get more indulgent reviews than broadcast-TV procedurals.

I’m not questioning people’s responses; we all have our own views. My own view at the moment is that HBO doesn’t currently have a drama as good as The Good Wife is – Treme, maybe, but I don’t think Boardwalk Empire or True Blood are as good. That’s a separate issue from whether The Good Wife is “great,” of course, but I don’t know that the current state of broadcast drama is overall inferior to cable. However, as Goodman says, the two types of dramas are playing by different rules and targeting different audiences, so direct comparisons are difficult. Anyway, it’s perfectly legitimate to argue that no broadcast TV drama currently achieves greatness and that some cable dramas do.

But I do think – on broadcast too, but especially on cable – there is a bit of a rush sometimes to declare things great. Maybe it’s the culture of episodic reviews and online discussions, which can follow a narrative: we love to see a show go from good to great. (Episodic reviews also make it seem like shows fall apart faster than they used to; when we follow every episode and talk about them immediately after, a bad episode seems like a cataclysmic event.)

Maybe it’s also that since The Sopranos, TV drama has attained a prestige that rivals that of movies and books, and instant declarations of greatness go hand-in-hand with that kind of prestige. When TV drama was looked down on, it took a long time for a show to establish its cultural bona fides – Hill Street Blues was liked by TV critics from the beginning, but it took a few years for people to start proclaiming it a work of greatness that competed with movies. Now a comparable drama would get that kind of analysis right away. And in some cases, as with The Sopranos, it would turn out to deserve it in the long run. But not since the golden era of live TV in the ’50s have U.S. television dramas been so instantly canonized, instead of slowly struggling their way toward canonization as filmed TV dramas have traditionally done.

The title of this post is a bit obscure; it’s a reference to the Scottish director John Cleese played in Monty Python’s “Scott of the Sahara” sketch. He was pro-humanity and anti-bad-things.

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