TV and History: A Brief Musing

In re (whereas and to wit) my previous post, I wanted to add one thing to Tom Fontana’s comment that “people talk as if The Wire sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus.” I think that comment points up something I’ve noticed about the difference between artistically-ambitious television and artistically-ambitious film.

In film, most moviemakers who want their work to be taken seriously (and even those who don’t) will openly talk about the earlier films and filmmakers that influenced them. At the extreme, you get a Quentin Tarantino who fills every frame with movie references and will tell you what every single one of those references are; but most important film directors are conscious of the past and draw on it for inspiration, the way P.T. Anderson watched Treasure of Sierra Madre while writing There Will Be Blood.

But ambitious TV of the last decade — the HBO decade — is different. Much of it tries to present itself as being divorced from TV history. The Sopranos, produced by a TV veteran, might have seemed to have its roots in a lot of earlier shows, but not only didn’t David Chase hype those connections, he went out of his way to deny them: when The New York Times said that the show was influenced by Wiseguy, Chase wrote a letter to the editor claiming he had never seen Wiseguy. I don’t believe him, but the point is that he did not want it to be thought that he was influenced by an earlier show; you couldn’t imagine Martin Scorsese trying to deny Goodfellas was influenced by earlier mob movies.

Many of the most respected shows of the last two decades were made by people who claimed, rightly or wrongly, not to be very much influenced by the shows that came before them. So you get Larry David and his staff of people who claimed not to much care for sitcoms, or David Simon, who will tell you for hours why his shows are totally different from every other cop show. You did not find David Milch talking about Deadwood and its roots in earlier TV Westerns, and why is everybody named “David” anyway?

Not that these creators will never talk about the influences on their shows. But the influences they point to are usually non-TV influences: novels and, especially, movies. (David Milch liked to go one further and talk about Deadwood as being totally different from every Western ever made in TV or movies.) HBO is the network that aspires to make television more like movies — in part because its production strategy revolves around attracting movie people, particularly directors — and its producers are frequently discussing their shows in those terms: we’re not like these earlier cop shows or comedies, even in the sense that we’re building on them to do something different; we’re like the upper-class product known as the feature film.

We know where this comes from: TV is a younger medium, a medium with an inferiority complex (even now) and HBO has based its whole marketing strategy on putting down all television that isn’t their own. Still, it’s an odd thing. This will change as more shows come along that see themselves as rooted in the last decade of “advanced” TV — but even then, I think the creators will be more comfortable talking about their antecedents in other forms.

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