I was fishing through Youtube, looking for episodes of The Flash, after reading a positive review of the show (and the Flash was my favorite DC Comics superhero in the ’60s), and instead came up with the complete season of Flash Forward. Reading the initial premise, I was intrigued enough to watch the second episode all the way through. No point starting with Episode One, since that would simply be set-up, with ‘disaster movie’ footage of people passing out, and waking up wonder ‘wha’ happened?’ – and I already had serious questions about the logic of the premise, so I just wanted to see if they could make sense of it in actual practice. They didn’t; and it was clear that they weren’t going to try. Rather, they had set up the established premise merely to slap several well-worn television genres together – police procedural, hospital drama, soap-opera involving a dissolving relationship, angst-drama about: ‘what is this all about if I’m going to be dead tomorrow?’ That sort of thing. But I still wondered if they could make any real, tangible sense of it all, so I skipped to the last episode, with its pseudo-touching romances, and its spectacular action sequence end-pieces, and decided that, no, they hadn’t made sense of any of it. So, having decided to write my critique of it, I began fast-forwarding through the series as a whole.
There’s a particular art to fast-forwarding through a television series, but anyone who has watched a lot of television can do it with ease – and in fact, most people do, with one show or another. That’s because the pacing and temporal structure of a television show is determined by its length and its commercial interruptions, and remains the same show-to-show within larger genre categories – for instance, hour-long dramas (all types) vs. half-hour comedies. It’s actually very easy to determine when in a dramatic episode the conflict will need to be initiated, when dramatic confrontation occurs, when reveals will at last appear.
My favorite instance of this, because it was a series I actually liked (being a fan of Peter Falk), is the series of television movies about police detective Columbo. Over some 30 years, the Columbo series developed two temporal structures, one broadcast as an hour-and-a-half (actually 73 minutes minus commercials), the other as two hours (95 minutes without commercials). The formula for each structure was rock solid and almost never varied. The episode would open with a soap-opera premise (cheating spouse, greedy spouse, professional about to be revealed as fraud or criminal, etc.) that would lead one character to murder another in the manner of a ‘perfect crime’ brilliantly covered up. Then enter Columbo, who would notice a tiny bit of evidence at the crime scene that would lead him to begin his investigation. This would largely involve pestering the witnesses (including the suspect) with questions about the logic of the apparent crime, and by about the three-quarter mark, Columbo would be openly pursing the suspect, who would try to bring some pressure to bear to stop the investigation, to which Columbo would respond by setting a trap leading to the final reveal of the murderer’s identity.
I admit that, while I quite like Falk as Columbo, I never had any interest in the soap-operatic drama leading to the murder. So I soon figured out that, in the 73 minute episodes, I could skip to about the 15 minute mark, and in the 95 minute episodes, I could skip to around 20-25 minutes, and there would be Lt. Columbo walking through the door into the crime scene. I couldn’t quite set my clock to it, but the temporal range of Columbo’s appearance in any story was entirely predictable.
Time is the key to the nature of television, from sit-com to news programming, from decisions by broadcasting production staff to decisions by viewers. Operating 24/7 since the mid-seventies, and with now something like 200 broadcast and cable channels so operating, more than 33000 hours of television are available for viewing every week. This massive temporal domain has to be divided into discreet segments – the stories, the news reports, the sales pitches and sermonettes, the games, the song-and-dance variety acts, the old movies and old TV show re-runs – which must be further divided by commercial advertisements. The structures generated by these divisions are actually quite limited in their range of possible mutation, and practically every mutation has already been developed. Television is the reduction of time to the utterly predictable and repeatable. Even the occasional shocks we receive from news reports of disasters or special events are somehow replays of past experiences. (How many wars in the Mid-East have we had to follow on the news since 1950? And how many ways can such wars be reported? War is a real tragedy, and one we should respond to with interest; but the TV news reportage of wars has grown quite tiresome, leaving many viewers understandably numb.)
But the real problem here is owned by the viewers themselves. It can be summed up with a single question (and the many responses we can give to it): ‘If we weren’t watching this television program, what would we be doing?’ In other words, the problem we viewers have is in finding ways of organizing our time around meaningful activities – because, frankly, however entertaining or informing a television show might be, the meaningfulness of the medium itself is in serious doubt, which doubt can never be resolved by reference to individual experiences of individual shows. I enjoyed watching Columbo; but why did I choose to do that rather than, say, write a novel, or attend a concert, volunteer for a community charity project, or simply sit in meditation? We can certainly learn new things watching a television documentary on recent discoveries in biology; but let’s face it, that’s entertainment. If you really want to learn biology, you read books or attend classes; keep abreast of journals, or at least magazines that popularize recent research. The hour-long documentary (43 minutes minus commercials) is the equivalent to the blurb on the back-cover of a book; except, it only takes a minute to read the blurb, whereas the documentary takes up an hour of your life (including the commercials).
‘If we weren’t watching this television program, what would we be doing?’ The fact is, most television viewers never ask themselves this question. People end up watching really stupid television like the Beverly Hillbillies or Flash Forward, not because it is meaningful, but because they can’t think of anything better to do at the moment. To find meaning in the activity, they develop interest in various characters, get caught up with their problems, feel tensions concerning possible resolutions to those problems, express a sigh of relief when the resolutions appear. So it seems meaningful, it ‘feels’ meaningful, it must be meaningful.
But this makes such viewers sound a little doltish – neither true nor fair. Which is why I mentioned my own watching of Columbo. I always thought the writing of Columbo was a bit clever in a low-brow pop-culture way; but I suspect another writer could present a strong argument that it was also just really stupid television, with a twist to appeal to mystery fans like me. The question can not be escaped by anyone who watches television – and television being omnipresent, watching it becomes almost inevitable to all but the most intently insular.
‘If we weren’t watching this television program, what would we be doing?’ My guess is that if this question could truly be confronted, we would not be watching television; but I also suspect that the television culture we have developed – which just is the very culture in which we live – would not allow us this.
Television demands we watch it. Because: ‘If we weren’t watching this television program, what would we be doing?’ – possibly nothing much….
The existential angst of that alternative is too terrible to consider. Fortunately, a new season of Murdoch Mysteries begins tonight on CBC, so there’s 18 weeks of Monday television viewing I can rely on, to distract me from the question, and transmute existential angst into mere anxiety over the problems I know Detective Murdoch will resolve.
Television always settles question concerning television, by letting us watch television.