Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Quality TV and Battlestar Galactica

It is a cliche that with the exciting new changes to television - more paths, lower costs, more channels - there will be a leap to higher quality TV. Yet I am doubtful that Hollywood is poised to leap....

By the time I was leaving elementary school several changes had been made to the TV world. Each change had resulted in a journalist writing in the newspaper TV section that a new level of quality broadcasting was imminent. I recall cynically telling my teacher for grades six and seven, Mr. Macintyre, that the latest claim would be as bogus as the others had been. Not that we used the slang "bogus" back then. Nor did we have the words to say, "Entertainment reporters are just blowing smoke." Mr. Macintyre once told us, sheepishly, that studies showed that people who watched cultural shows did not buy as many of the products advertised on commercials. This was before PBS.

(Twilight zone)

It was years earlier, during the days of black and white television, that Rod Serling had addressed the quality issue. In our day Serling is best known for creating The Twilight Zone and then writing some of the early scripts. Of course he also did voice overs; he appeared on camera beginning with the second season. As you know, Serling used the cover of "merely science fiction" to tackle controversial issues such as equal rights for Blacks. In his own day Serling was known for his award-winning teleplays, such as Requiem for a Heavyweight. Back then, for a brief spell, it was possible to give prominence to a screenwriter's name, as we do today for playwrights. Serling said that teleplays could not approach the quality of stage plays as long as the shows depended on sponsors because the sponsors would never risk controversy.

It's been years since I heard, "Lassie is brought to you by Campbell's Soup." I suppose the sponsor obstacle has since fallen, as have other obstacles, until one might think today that only the "ratings" obstacle remains. One would be wrong. As Shakespeare would say, "The fault is not with our stars but within ourselves."

When we undertake to go out to the cinema we undertake to be vulnerable to "the agony and the ecstasy." But at home we play it safe. There, as the cathode tube glows, we may stir the soup on the stove, pet the dog, and glance at the newspaper headlines... all the while determined not be vulnerable. Instead we pretend the action is safely in our living room. If, perchance, a Shakespeare-style show played we would maintain our safety by having a relief valve of commercial breaks and by never, come to think of it, having any hushed thoughtful intermission between acts.

There was a brief time when society allowed television to be creative, a time when society felt permission for change: the 1960's. When recently the A&E channel was advertising, "TV too good for TV" many of the A&E shows, such as The Avengers, were from that time. A friend tells me the channel has since dropped all their A programming to stick with only the E.

(Post 9/11)

Society certainly felt a shock wave pass through on 9/11. After that day, networks broadcast comfort reruns; shows that could be thought frivolous, such as awards shows, were postponed for weeks. Remember? Sales of gentle Enya albums rose. A man said that America had lost her innocence.

Previously a wit had said that America was the only nation that could keep losing her innocence and then regaining it. I suppose now if Americans are to fully regain their innocence it will be only after they feel fully safe that conventional "civil war" terrorists, such as the British IRA, no longer share the planet with newfangled "global reach" ones, such as the Pakistani Muslims who cross international borders into India.

A show that reflects post 9/11 is Battlestar Galactica. It's so different... I am reminded of one time years ago, during a docudrama about Albert Speer, when I read aloud a full screen of text, reading it to the kitchen worker on the couch next to me. I had guessed the text would swiftly vanish. It did. She said, "Thank you, Sean." The incident has stayed with me not just because she had no ego problems with being read to (unlike the males I knew then) but because I have never since seen a TV show that so overestimated the reading speed of the average American. Not until now.


The first thing I noticed about Battlestar Galactica was that the orienting text on the screen, such as "City of Caprica" was small and did not linger. The next thing I noticed was that acronyms, such as "an FTL ship," were used in dialogue without being "spelled out" in full or explained. Would a senior citizen I knew, who happily watched Star Trek, "get" such acronyms? For folks like her, remember, the "teleportation chamber" was simplified into a "transporter room." Obviously the producer of Galactica, Ronald Moore, hasn't marketed to the lowest common denominator. Moore has risked letting the audience stretch intellectually... and emotionally.

The average viewer, while stirring his soup, probably couldn't bear a show where an Israeli prime minister, for the sake of peace, allows a child he has met to die by an imminent Hezbollah rocket attack. Yet on Galactica the schoolteacher/Madam President must consider doing such a thing. It's awfully tense... but great drama. Then the battlestar commander, Adama, must consider whether to blast a "possibly" hi-jacked passenger liner heading for headquarters. And Adama's sensitive son, Lee, is the one with his finger on the trigger.

I don't see a European-style "lack of innocence" in Battlestar Galactica. No, I see an ennobling determination to face reality. I don't think the rest of bogus TV land will ever aspire to such dramatic quality.

Sean Crawford

still hearing a lady pilot's outraged cry, "We are at war!"

2006-2008 Calgary
Footnote: At a college  level Jeopardy show, they failed this $800 question: (link)

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