artistic unknowns by Chris Matarazzotelevision

Slicker isn’t necessarily smarter: TV writing, then and now

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If, say, Descartes were to come back from the grave and host a talk show, I would watch it, daily. I would also occasionally watch an episode of Jerry Springer, but I would never watch Oprah, may her show rest in peace.

I have nothing against Oprah as a person. I have plenty against Jerry Springer as a person and, aside from the annoyingly mathematical miseries he caused for me in my younger days, I have no opinion whatever about Descartes as a dude.  But here’s my problem: If I watch TV, I want either brilliance or absolute melt-into-the-couch drivel — Cops, or World’s Dumbest, for instance. I can’t be bothered with middle-of-the-road quality in a TV show. Oprah is arguably a genius, in a lot of ways, but her show is pretty run-of-the-mill, on the intellectual scale. Not delightfully bad, not intellectually stimulating . . . just . . . there.

Many shows that people see as top-quality, I would argue fall into the Oprah range. And why not? Demographics, right? Most people fall into the “average” intelligence range; hence, the label. But what bothers me is that some of these average shows prance around pretending to be really smart. The rub, here, is that slicker isn’t necessarily smarter. I would argue that some of the old, corny shows are just as well-written or, sometimes, even better written than the new, slick ones; they just come up short on bling and hipness.

I’m not going to get into many examples of shows I think are guilty of posing as “smart,” in the interest of keeping readers — except for one show: Grey’s Anatomy. I’m not saying it’s not a decent show. It’s fine. But it has those little monologues over montages that purport to delve into the trials and tribulations of young doctorhood; these monologues are the perfect examples of what I’m talking about. To me, they are are empty and prosaic — consequently, they become filler and not elaboration or even real commentary on the plot or on the characters. The show is the perfect example of style as a smokescreen for a lack of substance.

If you look back at the old shows — the ones that are so corny now — I think you might find that there is just as much merit behind the bubblegum exteriors. Is The Brady Bunch really any less well-written than Grey’s Anatomy? The difference is that there is no pretense of coolness or brilliance in The Brady Bunch — because it simply contains neither element. It is a show written by industry pros who were interested in keeping viewers for thirty minutes, through the commercials, not in shining a light upon the dark caves in the human soul. (Well, except maybe for the football in the nose episode. That was deep.)

Shows like this — or better ones, like The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie or Cheers — are not inferior, from a craft standpoint, to Grey’s Anatomy, which walks around in its professor’s robes, elongating its vow-ehls and trying to pass off scenes of juvenile sexuality as intense human collisions in the demolition derby world of medicine.

What’s the difference? I think it is the writers’ mindset. The TV writers of the past strike me more as people who considered themselves craftsmen: weave a good story; make ‘em laugh; make ‘em cry. With many current shows, there is a pathetic kind of plea in much of the writing. This plea amounts to the writers metaphorically begging that we all notice that they have degrees in English; that they understand subtext so well that they are going to provide Sparknotes in voice-overs and musical montages and turn theme into in-your-face text. It’s like they are writing a blue book exam with their English 322 professor looking over their shoulder and breathing Captiain Black breath down their necks.

With all of this said, I’ll be darned if during episodes of classic television, I wasn’t, from time to time, hit with a life-changing idea, right before the first commercial break.

Well, all I know is that, one of the best-written comedies of all time, The Dick Van Dyke Show, never had a minute of pretense in it. And, for all its TaoTe Ching-ness, Kung Fu, as a show, remained as humble and as brilliant and as balanced as its peacefully pugilistic protagonist, Kwai Chang Caine.

And not one monologue/voice-over to be found.*

At the end of a really good show, there is something left for the smart reader to dig out, but if he never digs anything out of it, he can, at least, walk away entertained.

(*The Waltons was, of course, famous for its voice-over opening and closing narrations by John Boy, but they always seemed more for exposition and conclusion than for forced revelation, to me.)

Chris Matarazzo’s ARTISTIC UNKNOWNS appears every Tuesday.

Chris Matarazzo is a writer, composer, musician and teacher of literature and writing on the college and high school levels. His music can be heard on his recent release, Hats and Rabbits, which is currently available. Chris is also the composer of the score to the off-beat independent film Surrender Dorothy and he performs in the Philadelphia area with the King Richard Band. He's also a relatively prolific novelist, even if no one seems to care yet. His blog, also called Hats and Rabbits, is nice, too, if you get a chance...
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