The TiVolution Will Not be Televised

Merlin Mann is one of my favorite bloggers. He has lots of sites. I like him because he has finely honed bullshit meter and zero tolerance for over-hyped garbage like the internet. Or “productivity.” Anyway. Merlin recently wrote an article … Continued

Merlin Mann is one of my favorite bloggers. He has lots of sites. I like him because he has finely honed bullshit meter and zero tolerance for over-hyped garbage like the internet. Or “productivity.”

Anyway. Merlin recently wrote an article recently about The Wire, which (he agrees) is probably the greatest work of televised vision which the mind of man has yet produced. He is using the show as a visual aid in a series of connected points about doing creative work, none of which are really relevant here.

But along the way he notes a kind of fractal organization in the show’s plot, where micro and macro story arcs combine to produce a level of complexity that rivals a 19th century Russian novel. (One way to understand the show’s unmatched accomplishment is to think of it as novelistic — let’s say Dickensian — as opposed to a show like The Sopranos, which, with its focus around a complex and compelling character at the center of all the action, is Shakespearean.)

I’d like to consider The Wire as paradigmatic of the current crop of leading television shows (yes, in fact I don’t just watch crap), and offer a thought or two about the circumstances that have allowed for their ascendancy.

It seems odd to identify such intricate plotting in a show renowned for its verisimilitude, for its dead-on sense of how people actually talk and interact (and not just one kind of people either: police detetectives, drug dealers, politicians, newspaperpersons, dockworkers…all of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and levels of education). But he’s is exactly right.

At the level of dialogue, the show shows us how people actually talk, how they actually behave and interact. but at the level of plot, it is carefully patterned, with tightly integrated themes, parallel plot and action, unexpected but illuminating foils, and the sense of surprise giving way to inevitability that Aristotle identified as the hallmark of great tragedy.

It is also almost entirely opaque to a viewer who doesn’t give over to it totally (and rent all five seasons of DVDs to watch from the beginning). This is a quality that Merlin much praises:

The Wire pays back the attention you invest in it like few pieces of art created in my lifetime… [B]ecause the story rarely stops to explain what’s happening…it demands that you bring the same care and thought to watching the show that its creators brought to making it.

I will pass over how gratified I feel that he is reinforcing my own prejudices — I mean, I got some friends together and started a blog to go on for pages and pages — 3500 words is our record — explaining our pet obsessions and theories about pop culture. Very little digg bait. Very few list posts. One, in fact. And it was so painstakingly researched that it hardly counts.

Instead, I will move onto the central question I sat down to answer: TV is a great deal more complex than it used to be. How has this happened?

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has pointed out that most American television — he was talking about cop shows, but the point is generalizable — exists to comfort the comfortable and mock the afflicted. Another way of putting it is that the show is there to make you feel good about sitting on the couch between one commercial break and another. There’s a moral argument to be made about the social problems with this, but for the momment suffice it to say: TV is an anasthetic. Or was.

People used to come to television — I men commercial, broadcast, television — after a long, wearying day in the salt mines or on the docks or whatever. And it had to be written to give people pleasure no matter where they enetered, and as they flitted in and out of the room making dinner and evading creditors and what not.

Merlin knocks Law and Order elsewhere in his article (full discloure: I love that show; I love the iron-clad formula and I think its refusal to indulge in the sort of sappy fourth-act origin stories that are TV’s stock in trade — “You know, when I was younger I saw an innocent man go to prison. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.” — shows admirable taste and restraint, under the circumstances) but try an experiment sometime. Come in 15 or 25 or 45 minutes into a law and order. Within five shots of coming back from commercial, you’ll know exactly what’s going on. It will have been explained again.

So in order for the kind of television to have changed — from a cop show like Law and Order to a cop show like The Wire — something about the circumstances surrounding television must have changed.

Indeed it did. TiVo. DVDs. iTunes. Torrents. If you are the sort of person who reads blogs, your interaction with TV may well go something like this: You watch only the shows you want to watch; you watch them on your schedule; you watch them without commercials; and you pause them when you get up to use the facilities.

This both a technological and a social change — a change in the means of distribution and exhibition, and also a change in our relation to the products so distributed and exhibited.

The social change is what keeps entertainment executives up nights. They know we are calling the shots now, and we will never sit through another shitty commercial again.

The technological change is what makes shows like The Wire possible. TV can demand sustained attention because it now comes technologically packaged with tools that make sustaining your attention easy. Or at least possible.

“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” That was HBO’s tagline before they ever dreamed of producing original shows. But it was prescient to a degree its framers could not have envisioned. Television has morphed into… something else. The form it will take is not exactly clear, because it’s not done morphing. But if it sets the stage for new geniuses of the medium like David Simon and Ed Burns, it’s hard to see a downside.

P.S. Belinkie won’t watch the Wire. You can email him at belinkie AT overthinkingit DOT com to tell him why he should.

13 Comments on “The TiVolution Will Not be Televised”

  1. Gab #

    But what about the hindering aspect of the change? Not everyone has TiVo or the $$$ to blow on the DVD box sets. And since some of these series are so plot-oriented, catching an episode in the middle, let alone a season, is too confusing for someone to come to it if they didn’t get it from the beginning. I don’t watch “Heroes,” even though everyone else I know does, and that’s because I had a class during its first season. I really wish I could have seen it, but I couldn’t, and I have no (convenient) means to see what I have missed as of now. And I didn’t watch the first season of “Lost” for the same reason- the only reason I watched the second and all after was because 1) I knew someone else with the first season, and 2) I finally didn’t have a night seminar that got in the way. Maybe I’m over-overthinking this, but I propose it actually creates an underlying class issue because it takes more resources to be able to enjoy the shows at one’s leisure.

    I must rebut that a bit, though, to say that I find the intellectual exercise I do when watching complex plots and stories fun. I like having to think- it’s why I loved being a student so much and want to go back to it soon. I find it a different kind of escape than what I get out of watching stuff like “Top Chef.” It’s an escape into thought processes and analysis of people and places. And, bonus: since what I’m watching is fictitious, there is no risk of me hurting anyone’s feelings by interpreting or predicting their actions incorrectly- and nothing they do can really hurt anyone, since no one is real.


  2. Matthew Wrather #

    Yeah, you’re right — it’s true that any technology sets up, at first, a divide between haves and have-nots. Probably moreso now that debt isn’t as cheap as it used to be.

    But the stuff will eventually settle down: stop getting better so quickly, and start getting cheaper very quickly. Consumer electronics just do that.


  3. mlawski OTI Staff #

    I don’t know, Gab. It costs $9 a month to get 1-at-a-time unlimited Netflix. Sure, you need to have a DVD player, too, of course. But it seems to me that people who have very little money tend to spend that little money on things like DVD players. Anyway, you only need to buy it once (hopefully).

    Even if you didn’t have Tivo or Netflix or whatever, the popularity of shows like Lost, the Sopranos, etc. shows that people are more than willing to tune in for extended story arcs every week.


  4. Gab #

    “We all need bread and roses.”

    Mlwaski: I don’t doubt the popularity of those shows at all. I’m sure others watch those shows for the same reason I do, the extended story arcs. But not every poor family blows their money on DVDs. I’m keeping my cool, but that alludes to the mindset I have encountered my entire life, that it is really just because of poor decisions on the part of poor families that they are in their situation (and it reeks of ignorance and, frankly, rather pisses me off when I encounter it). Well, that is not the case as often as the right likes to proclaim. Everyone makes mistakes and splurges every so often, but they don’t always do it, and a family having a big screen isn’t the real reason they’re struggling. Upfront costs are a big deal, though, and prevent a lot of things from being purchased, whether for necessities or luxuries. Ex: My dad had been saving to buy a Wii this summer, when 1) an air conditioning unit died; 2) a fridge died; and 3) my great-grandmother died. The money went to the new air conditioning unit because we live in Vegas, and nobody went to the funeral. And we didn’t have a DVD player until 2006- up until then, we had been using the PS2 (then it started getting wonky…). So maybe there were some mistakes down the road, but I think what Wrather says is more accurate than just blowing a class divide off completely: the technology makes it hard for poorer families at first, but it will eventually wear and even out. After all, that DVD player we got was only sixty bucks. And, sooner or later, those atrociously overpriced DVD box sets will go on sale.

    And as for Netflix itself, I have noticed a trend among other families with low incomes like mine: we’re just, for some reason, rather against the idea. My theory is it stems from that guilt upper classes try to put on the poor for being poor. If we get DVDs mailed to us, that’s hard evidence that we had the audacity to buy a DVD player and spend whatever the money is a month on the subscription. It’s bad enough that the rich hippies give us a hard time for having to shop at Wal-Mart, but oh my GOD would they have a field day if they saw we were having a good time!

    I don’t mean to get too bitchy. Class issues are important to me for obvious reasons, and I spent my undergraduate years advocating for if not assistance or aid from my fellow students, at least some understanding and open-mindedness.


  5. lauren r #

    Regarding the financial encumbrances of catching up with a complex show (particularly for those who opt not to flout the law, bit torrent style), big city public library systems are a good resource.

    I’m a poor grad student with basic cable, a canceled Netflix account, and a 10 year old second hand DVD player and I was recently able to indulge my need for a guilty pleasure rewatching of Seasons 4-6 of Dawson’s Creek by checking them out from the good old Boston Public Library. In fact I’ll probably be watching the entirety of The Wire that way next summer.

    And as a bonus, the discs from the library were all in better shape than the ones I used to get from Netflix.

    Also, I recommend Veronica Mars (seasons 1 & 2) to anyone who has not watched it.


  6. Gab #

    Veronica Mars is one I’ve heard was sort of a “sleeper hit.” A friend that went to another college said it was “the sh*t” and grew quite sad when the show was canceled. Another one of those Ishouldwatchthatsomeday shows for me, I guess.


  7. sarielthrawn #

    While it’s true that poorer families may not be able to afford all the technological marvels at their disposal, it is not true that this necessarily limits their access to this technology in any significant way. The library is a good example of this. Torrents and free streaming sites are good for this too. And let’s not forget good old fashion lending. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve borrowed or lent DVDs to friends and associates. As for the players, even new ones are reasonably cheap these days. They don’t represent the major cash outlay they used to.

    I think we’re starting to move to a point (if we’re not there already) where the price of any piece of electronic entertainment is irrelevant. At the end of the day, all it is is data and data can be easily copied and transmitted for virtually no cost. Even the poor (in the West at least) have access to this type of technology.

    Why spend money on the box-set when you can just download it all for free?


  8. Matthew Wrather #

    Well, hold on, hold on… I don’t condone the wholesale piracy of other people’s intellectual property just because it’s POSSIBLE.

    If I *were* to make an argument for the wholesale piracy of other people’s intellectual property (and I’m not saying I am), it would proceed more from the fact that the owners of said IP stubbornly refuse to join is in the twenty-first century and make reasonably priced, high-quality versions of their content available for me to download in any format I want to play on any device I choose.

    My argument would, thus, be more that they had their chance to get with the TiVolution and they not only missed it, but they had their industry groups start suing 13 year olds instead. They made their bed, and now they can lie in it as the TiVolution steamrolls over them.

    To mix a metaphor.

    I think TiVolution may actually be trademarked. Hrm.


  9. Austin #

    To Gab:
    I think art has been a perk of the leisure class ever since that first aristocrat wrote a whole poem punning about harts and hearts. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a hindering aspect – I just don’t think it’s a change.

    And on the article, this idea that “you watch them without commercials” might be foiled by The Wire itself, whose tasteful (maybe even integral?) placement of the Verizon brand in the first season could have been seamless if I hadn’t read an article about it while/soon after it aired. They’re still selling you things, just in different ways.


  10. Gab #

    sarielthrawn: OH, that made me cringe. Are you seriously promoting internet piracy to that extent? “Why spend money on the box-set when you can just download it all for free?” Because torrents and downloading are ILLEGAL. Intellectual property? Yes? Yes. Call me crazy, but I’d rather go without a luxury than break the law trying to steal it, and so would every other person with the same economic background that I know personally. Libraries are great and so is borrowing from friends and such, but again, this implies that the family even has the player to use the media being purchased. I already admitted that the prices of DVD players are going down now, though, so we agree there. But I still know that there are people in my neighborhood that don’t have DVD players yet. And if they have internet connections with which they WOULD practice piracy, they’re probably 56K and thus barely functional, or they refuse to “download it all for free.” Like Wrather (basically) said, just because one CAN do something doesn’t mean one SHOULD.


  11. sarielthrawn #

    Yes, it is illegal. But laws change and people’s attitudes to laws are varied. You and I may think of video/tv piracy as a crime, but not everybody shares that view.

    You could argue, “How can it be stealing if it was broadcast, free-to-air last week?”

    Or even, “If I go to my friends house to watch a Heroes DVD, why does no-one consider it stealing? I didn’t pay anything. But I still got to watch the entire series. Why is it okay for my friend to allow me to watch his DVD but he can’t go on the internet and show other people the same DVD?”

    There will always be a range of people who will be willing to either flaunt the law or who consider the law meaningless or unjust.

    I guess my point was that the cost is no longer the hindrance it was five years ago and that it will become more widely present as costs go down. And that it will happen through a variety of means. Both legal and illegal. And laws do change. It’s not inconceivable that it may one day be perfectly legal to download things like this.

    Most innovation has had the same path in terms of consumer availability. Cars, computers, mobile phones. Eventually they become cheap enough for virtually anyone to purchase and the status attached to not owning one leads to people making sacrifices to own one.

    The same thing happened with VHS. I don’t know anyone, rich or poor, who does not or never did own a VHS player.


  12. Gab #

    What you say is very, very true, and another example would be CD players: we got our first CD player in 1995 or so, and I didn’t have a portable CD player until 2003. But I would like to point out that as the technology advances, lower classes are usually a bit behind. We finally have CD players in the house, yes, but no one has an MP3 player- and the only reason there is one iPod is because it was a gift/bonus from a boss. And the DVD player we have is poor quality and not Blu-Ray. Our TVs are old and not LCDs, the computer is a desktop, the microwave doesn’t have a “popcorn” button on it… Etc. I don’t think I’m articulating it precisely as I wish I could, but I can’t think of how else to put it. I apologize, but I hope anyone reading this can kind of grasp what I’m getting at- and understand that it’s a little hurtful for lower-classes, as well as embarrassing, since society is so consumer- and material-wealth-based. We may have “stuff” but it’s not necessarily the RIGHT “stuff” so no matter what, upper classes look down their noses on the poor: damned if they do (“You’re poor, you don’t have the money to buy non-essentials!”), damned if they don’t (“Oh, that’s the old version, how quaint, you’re trying to be like us.”). It’s easy to say it’s easy and point fingers and say, “What about this?” when you have the money to get cool things without too much thought, hardship, etc., but it’s not so easy when you don’t and you really do have to decide if a $5 DVD that you know you’d watch a million times is really worth it or not.

    As for pirating, the fact remains that currently, whether one agrees with said fact or not, it IS illegal to torrent and such; but yes, I whole-heartedly concede (and hope) this may change. But, as it stands, even though I may think the companies sort of deserve to have their stuff spread around for free, it’s not legal to do it, so I won’t, period. I’d advocate for the law to change, but I wouldn’t break it myself to try to prove a point or something. One could argue whatever the hell they wanted right now, but that wouldn’t make what they did or were doing any more legal.


  13. dom #

    Oh dude, you are so on the money here. Being in the UK means we don’t get TiVo, we have whatever programs Virgin TV decides are worth allowing people to watch again, BBC not included. But when you mentioned time shifting and show pausing, that entirely described me and my tv and wire watching habits.


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