Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What does "definitive" even mean, anyway?

Well, there are only seventeen months left in this decade (have we decided what to call it yet? Is it “the aughts”?), and I think it might be time to start discussing what the definitive TV shows of the decade are. We could still see great movies, or albums, or books – those things come out as single entities. Any lasting TV shows that premier from here on out are unlikely to really find their footing until “the aughts” become “the tens”.

So what TV shows – one comedy and one drama – best sum up trends we’ve seen in American TV during the last eight-and-a-half years? It sitcom is easy – it has to be Arrested Development. That series has the one-camera/no-laugh-track format shared by shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the cutaways and flashbacks found in Family Guy and Scrubs, and the same casual, assumed focus on dysfunctional family as Two and a Half Men and Malcolm in the Middle (which is different from 90s-style Roseanne “look how dysfunctional we are” shows where it was part of the shock. The newer series assume that all families are dysfunctional.)

It also uses sexual content not for shock value, but as background for jokes and character moments, much like shows from 30 Rock to Sex & the City (again, this is different from the 90s, where often the whole joke was “Hey, look. We’re talking about sex.”) Almost anything that marks a comedy as being “from the aughts” can be found in Arrested Development.

It’s harder to choose a drama. The past decade has seen no shortage of trends in TV drama. Shows like The Wire and Lost are dense with continuity and hard to begin watching in the middle of the series – each new episode depends on the viewer’s knowledge of what has come before. Lost and, to an even greater degree, Battlestar Galactica have shown that it’s possible to be a genre show and both be critically acclaimed and tell universally gripping stories. Shows as diverse as Six Feet Under, House and, again, Lost have shown a refusal to stick to a status quo, with situations and characters changing at a rate previously unheard of. Speaking of Lost one last time, it offers the most prominent use of time as a device – time on many shows is no longer linear, but bounces back and forth as suits the storytelling needs of the creators.

So far it looks like I’m going to say Lost is the quintessential aughts-era drama, but I’m not. While it would be a fine choice, there are a few other criteria that it doesn’t meet. First of all, we’ve seen a trend towards morally ambiguous (or downright evil) lead characters – Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, Vic Mackey on The Shield, Dexter on Dexter. Finally, the decade has been positively stuffed with procedural dramas – the CSIs, Law & Order spin-offs, Cold Case, Without a Trace, Bones and many others. If any show is going to sum up the decade’s dramas, it has to include elements of a procedural. Lost is a mystery show, but it doesn’t follow any procedure I’ve ever heard of.

If it isn’t Lost, what is it? What show combines all of these elements – heavy continuity, changing status quo, morally ambiguous hero, playing around with time, a combination of genre and procedural elements? Well, to find it, we’ll have to go back to the very beginning of the decade, when the WB was airing a series called Angel. That’s right, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s younger brother positively defines television drama in the past decade.

Look at the evidence –

- By the time the show had entered its third season, it was impossible to follow without having watched not only the first two seasons of Angel, but also the first three seasons of Buffy. If that’s not impenetrable continuity, I don’t know what is.

- The status quo on the series changed constantly. There wasn’t a huge amount of character turnover, but every single character was put through an avalanche of changes over the course of the series. This was best symbolized by the series’ two moves to a new home base for the main characters. It was a series that always moved forward, never stopping to put things back the way they used to be.

- Angel wasn’t the most devious lead character ever to appear on television, but he did kill when necessary, and in his previous incarnation as evil vampire Angelus, he was a brutal mass murderer. That persona resurfaces a couple of times during the course of the series, and he’s still our main character – even as he’s gleefully slaughtering innocents.

- That’s where the manipulation of time came in – the series spent a great deal of time flashing back to delve into the back story of Angel or other immortal characters.

- It has the genre elements, obviously. It’s a show about a vampire. As for universally gripping, it was never as popular as Buffy, but I think that’s mostly because it’s harder to get in to. Anyone can start watching Buffy, but only those who already know that they like the parent show will watch Angel, despite the fact that they’re very different stylistically. I'm going to say that it isn't about demons, because it is. But if Buffy was, at heart, a show about trying to make it through high school, Angel was a show about how you never stop trying to figure out how to be an adult. Everyone can relate to that.

- On the critical acclaim side, the show has had several books written about it in the years since it ended, and I know it is frequently used in college classes and the like.

- It’s not just a show about a vampire – it’s about a vampire who happens to be a private detective, which is where the procedural elements came from. Many episodes featured Angel Investigations working a specific case, which would be resolved by the end of the episode.

So as you can see, Angel is it, folks. Just a couple of final notes – like many series are now, Angel was shot in widescreen. It was one of the first such shows on network television. Also (SPOILER), it has an abrupt, cliffhanger-type ending with no resolution. Just like The Sopranos.

You might disagree with my choices. If you do, you should let me know what you think the definitive comedy and drama of the decade are.

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