Published Mar 05, 20071. Battlestar Galactica
2. The Colbert Report
3. Veronica Mars
4. The Office
5. The Wire
In 1992, Bruce Springsteen had a minor radio hit with a song called "57 Channels (and Nothing On). It was his cynical take on the dumbing down of mass culture ⎯ the zombification thats seen as the primary threat in the rise of television as a popular medium. We all sit stupified, this logic goes, mindlessly absorbing whatever the cathode rays fire in our direction, devolving into unthinking, unblinking robots of consumerism. But a strange phenomenon has taken root since the Boss underestimated our 500-channel universe: TV got good, consumers took control, and the expansion of revenue streams allowed for a greater diversity of programming overall.
Im not just talking about the HBO effect, although thats been significant. The pay cable network has proven profitability well beyond the commercial-based network model; in order to entice subscribers, quality had to be there, and as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under became must-see events, other cable networks followed suit, seeking similarly high-end, morning-after talking point programming. The next gen pay cable shows ⎯ Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck, Weeds, The L Word, The Shield ⎯ competed on a quality level and helped build brands for burgeoning cablers like Showtime, F/X and Sci-Fi. (HBOs carried on with Deadwood, The Wire, Rome, Big Love and more.) Not only was the writing and storytelling great, but TV suddenly appealed to talent who saw opportunities in the freedom, the long-form storytelling and the home-base aspects of working in the newly respected realm. Feature film actors are increasingly comfortable on the small screen: James Woods, Mary Louise Parker, Ray Liotta, Glenn Close, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Rachel Griffiths, Dennis Leary, Anthony LaPaglia, Gary Sinise... the list goes on. In comedy, the cable effect has been even more significant, not just for Dave Chappelles famed success (and subsequent crippling pressure), but in the buzzworthiness of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which have put political satire on the American landscape in ways previously only seen, well, in Canada.
Thats fine and good, you say, as long as youre paying top dollar for cable television. True enough (though Canadian networks have picked up every significant American cable show, from The Sopranos to So NoTORIus, eventually), but all this attention has made the big four networks jealous. Long known for chasing trends further down the rabbit hole than is wise (reality TV boom leads to The Littlest Groom and The Swan), the nets have recently cottoned on that quality sells, not just week-to-week, but crucially on DVD and to international markets. (Lost, Brothers & Sisters, Heroes, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Nine.)
If all this is true, how come Im still looking at Howie Mandells stupid bald head? True enough, dreck remains. But Id make a case that digital cable has left only the best dreck on major networks. Even if you decry the proliferation of procedurals, for example, you have to admit that for what they are, the Law and Order and CSI franchises are top-notch cop and investigation shows; same goes for doc rockers House, Greys Anatomy and the revitalised ER. Reality TV wars have left only the very best standing (Survivor, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, Next Top Model) and even prime time game shows are high production value enterprises (Deal Or No Deal). Only the lowly sitcom ⎯ the last bastion of fast food crap TV - is struggling to emerge from its late 90s high. (Even DVD cant save you, Arrested Development.)
What digital cable offers is a home for each of our own personal quirks and obsessions, and there, in the comfort of ones own digital channel, we find a smaller, more focused version of the television we love. Whether its food, golf, fights, reality TV whatever your obsession, theres a niche channel for you, and its crap (or gold, its all perspective) is no longer cluttering ABCs Tuesday night lineup trying to reach a broader audience.
All these arguments make our current vogue of quality TV seem inevitable ⎯ its not, and dont take it for granted. Its a beautiful moment of pop culture forces that leads to Battlestar Galactica, a show that represents the best of these factors. Its serialised storytelling is made possible by being on cable (Sci-Fi), by attracting a loyal, core audience (particularly on DVD), with a truly fabulous cast of famous (Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell) and rising stars (Katee Sackoff, Tricia Helfer, James Callis). Its smart, well written and inventive, overhauling many sci-fi tropes; at the same time, its political allegory has burned its relevance into public consciousness on a weekly basis. Looking at Battlestar Galacticas original inspiration, and the must see television its inspired, weve clearly come a long way from a robot dog named Muffit.