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.