Why we, as artists, must fight for and continue to support TV as art.
A brief post on why I think saving shows like Hannibal, Twin Peaks, X-Files, Pushing Daises, etc., is an important task, and why it is essential we continue to support shows of quality and depth like Penny Dreadful, Fargo, In Treatment, American Horror Story, Top of the Lake, Peaky Blinders, West Wing, Happy Valley, Six feet Under, True Detective, Angels in America, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead (okay, that last one is a guilty pleasure.)
I have been fairly active in the Save Hannibal campaign of late. I have also been on the front lines of other campaigns like Twin Peaks and X-Files to name a few. A portion of my motivation is driven by simple fan-girl-ness. However, I have two other far more important reasons for saving shows of this caliber. Before I spell out my reasons I want to clear something up before the haters descend like a flock of blood thirsty Valkyries.
Firstly, I am NOT lumping all of these shows together. They are all unique and important in their own way. I would argue Hannibal is the most edgy, beautiful, important, and artful of the above shows-but that is my opinion. All constructive debate is welcome.
Second, this post is not about getting “free merchandise”, “getting “noticed”, or meeting any stars. All of those things are false currency. Similarly, any pity you might direct at me will be taken as an insult.
I don’t place much value in merchandise. I have a decent collection of mugs but that’s more to do with an escalating caffeine addiction (also, who doesn’t want to drink their coffee out of a TARDIS?)
I write, but I have a torturous relationship with being published/noticed. I like to write, I don’t like having my work read. I am nothing if not a paradox. That is why I have so many pseudonyms – I like to be able to run away from myself. So “Twitter Fame” scares me more than anything especially after witnessing the Fifty Shades of Grey lynch mob.
I also have zero interest in meeting any stars. I have had quite a few brushes with fame and more often than not it was less than exciting. In fact, some of the people I met downright ruined the illusion. Meanwhile, other famous people have been lovely (Nick Cave, you are a dandy little darling and you know it.) But in the end, famous people are just, people. They have good days and they have bad days. Fame is an ugly beast and I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Fame shoves you up on to a pedestal that a) functions as a prison and b) you can’t help but eventually fall from. As such, when I see famous people I walk the other way because that is what I would want. Famous people tend to serve as objects for people to project their desires and archetypes onto. I am happy to do that…from a distance. I generally look towards famous people when I am looking for inspiration for my characters. If I really wanted to spend time with anyone linked with this post it would be the writers of the above TV shows, simply because THAT experience would be a guaranteed blast. My imagination would be taken on a total trip and my stash of bad/good jokes would increase two fold. Heck, I may even learn something (insert sarcasm.)
Back to the point of my post: I have a vested interest in supporting artful television. One reason is personal, and one is cultural. The cultural one is easy. I get worried about our social discourse when it comes to our viewing culture. American adults consume upwards of thirty-three hours a week of television and yet it can be so terribly bland. So many TV shows use the same format, the same tropes, the same tones, the same twists, the same turns, and even the same actors. I don’t even want to mention the glut of reality TV clogging up our screens. This isn’t a new issue – popular culture has always veered towards the conservative. But that is why having shows, artworks, books and movies that challenge the norm is so important. The BBC and Channel 4 have been instrumental in holding down the fort of focused, deep and intelligent programming. We need networks and show-runners willing to cause ripples of jolting discomfort in viewers just to break through their reality-TV induced daze. So many viewers don’t question what is put in front of them, instead they just mindlessly consume until they are offended. If they are open-minded they will examine why they are offended and make a decision about whether they want to keep watching or not. If they are not opened minded they will campaign and demand a show be cancelled (e.g., Game of Thrones.) I think part of the reason this ‘outrage’ happens is because some people don’t see TV as art-yet, so they expect simply to be entertained. Shows that entertain (reality TV etc) perform an important function – to a point. Sometimes it is necessary to just switch off. However, artful TV, like Hannibal or Fargo don’t want to just entertain you, they want to engage and challenge you… and sometimes, offend you. Artful TV wants you to think, it wants to go beyond entertaining you it wants to provoke you and your imagination. That is why if you go into some TV shows expecting to be merely entertained you may find yourself offended. Artful TV is asking you to change the way you view TV and consume it.
Watching the outrage that Game of Thrones, Hannibal and The Walking Dead often cause lead me to think about Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It was booed off stage and nearly caused a riot. In its time, The Rite of Spring was seen as an offense to good taste and a sure financial bomb. It is now seen as a work of genius. The same can be said for so many artists and their works that were ahead of their time: Kafka, Van Gogh, El Greco, Dickinson, Thoreau, Poe, and Keats. While many people might not consider television art, I do. As Mark Lawson from the Guardian posits – television is going through a golden age. However, following in the tradition of cutting edge art, I am watching so many good shows struggle to survive or, die an early and unappreciated death. Or worse yet, get remade. The murderous remake of Les Revenants saddens me. The original was so subtle and moving it is simply criminal to see it butchered with such heavy-handedness-more on that in another blog post.
But why do I care so much? I care because I love art. I am an artist. I feed off art. But recently, I became ill and now I am disabled and housebound. Long story short, I was recovering from a brain tumor (Acoustic Neuroma) when I was in a hit and run accident. A truck wiped out my car and left me for dead on the freeway. Not a good thing when you already have a hole in your skull. I still attend hospital a few times a week and often write from my hospital bed.
The many, many months I spent in hospital watching mainstream television made me want to die – quite literally. I couldn’t see the sky, I couldn’t be with my animals, and I couldn’t experience art. Eventually I got my hands on some audiobooks (I couldn’t read for a while) and some semblance of balance/joy was restored. However, this time stuck in front of the screen left me feeling appalled at what people are being exposed day in and day out. I wasn’t appalled because what I was watching was shocking but because it was so despairingly BANAL. Television has by and large become a sedative for the modern mind.
However, there was one standout moment of viewing joy that drove home the importance of intelligent film and TV. I remember one Sunday night The Dead Poets Society came on. A few of us sat around. Some of us could see, some of us could hear, and some of us were lucky to have both our sight and hearing working. After the film finished many of us were crying, naturally. However, what really brought home how important good viewing is was the discussion we had afterwards. It was deep, emotional, intelligent and fun. We bonded and explored different points of view and concepts that many of us hadn’t entertained before. Although it was late on a Sunday night and we were all medicated off our heads – we were all enlivened. Also, from that point on, the people on the ward who watched Dead Poets together were closer and spent a lot more time talking about what they were going through.
I am home now but my disabilities more often than not prevent me from indulging in the luxuries of going to the cinema, art galleries, the theater or even writer’s conventions. My days are spent at home, alone with four walls and four animals. The only art I get to experience is through books, movies or, television. Yes, I can look at photographs and artworks on line but it is not the same. I am not experiencing the medium in the original format. As such, unless an artwork is designed to be experienced from behind a screen, much of the intended impact is lost.
When it was announced that shows like Twin Peaks, Hannibal, X Files and even True Detective might be cancelled I decided to take action. It is no longer enough to just watch a show to keep it on air – you need to be vocal about watching it – let the world know that the show is a) culturally important and b) worth advertising dollars. Television is and always will be a popularity contest except now the popular kids have been given megaphones via social media. Sadly, what I have found is that people who are fans of cult TV shows tend to be more introverted – less likely to speak out about what they love online because a) there is less support when they are inevitably attacked b) tend to stick to their own fandom rather than engage in a wider debate, and, c) like me, I just like to sit back and enjoy the show and analyze it their heads. (This is all very different when you start talking about Cons but I am talking about online culture.)
However, now that I am largely housebound, unable to haunt the galleries and alleyways of Melbourne, or get drunk and inappropriate at writer conventions (chronic pain, deafness, and serious balance issues are somewhat isolating at social events), TV, books and movies are more important than ever. Hannibal is like having art beamed into my house. A poetic riot of sound, colour and puns. Through Hannibal, I get to experience high art in its intended format. Art that nourishes and challenges me; art that frees my mind when my body is trapped.
I know that networks and services need to make money. Period. That is what reality TV, NCIS-Pluto, and cooking shows are for. But those TV shows should, in my view, be there not just to make money but also to support artful TV-TV that isn’t afraid to find the edge and go over it-taking us with it.
Critics love Hannibal and for good reason. Some people have said this season is style over substance. I disagree. The style IS the substance. The show is trying to seduce you into Hannibal’s world. Hannibal is our villain – a cannibalistic serial killer that manipulates people out of curiosity and a morbid sense of affection. Yet, somehow we find ourselves rooting for him. How do they writers achieve that? Well for one, Hannibal has a code. So there is some basic level of understanding between him and the viewer – much like Dexter. Hannibal is also about sophisticated and luscious tastes. The show is doing to you exactly what Hannibal does to his victims-seducing you away from seeing the evil behind his actions. Did you think they cast Danish heart throb Mads Mikkelsen on a whim? Don’t think for a moment Bryan Fuller is simply entertaining himself with this show. Through reading his interviews it is clear he would never be fully satisfied unless the viewer was left feeling completely mind-fucked and blown away by his work. He sweats blood for his show and in turn, asks his viewers to do the same. (Metaphor? You be the judge.) This is also why I think he will do an amazing job on American Gods.
In short, shows like Hannibal are needed to provide a counter point to the dross that is reality television. Art helps incite intelligent debate and discourse. Also, there is a small group of disadvantaged people like myself who are unable to get out of the house to see art in its ‘natural habitat’. We rely on it being beamed in or, reading it off a page.
Finally, as my stay in hospital demonstrated, TV shows and films are a wonderful way to establish a community of likeminded people. Online book clubs are less easy to come by compared to the lively and refreshing debate in the world of FanFiction. (Yes, I am pro-FanFic. When you find our some of your favorite authors write FanFic under pseudonyms you are quickly converted.) When you take Hannibal away from someone like me – a disabled artist, you take away inspiration and community. You put a dint in the genre of artistic TV. In the end, we, the cult TV fanatics, will have the last laugh (much like Twin Peaks and X-Files are having now) because the quality of television viewing improves every year and when you cancel shows like Hannibal or, pass on picking them up, it simply illustrates shortsightedness and a lack of courage. That is why David Nevins at ShowTime will always be a hero of mine. Thanks David – you know the score, you know that the owls are not always what they seem.