An essay at the BFI introducing a screening series about “experimental TV” that breaks the fourth wall has me thinking about the idea of television that tries to do new things. Author Anna Coatman makes a point about a quality that defines many — maybe all — of the examples of what we consider great TV these days:
For Mad Men, dedicated teams of costume designers spent innumerable hours trawling through fashion magazine archives to ensure that the lips of every actress – and even extra – were exactly the right shade of coral, while prop and set designers stalked auction rooms and antiques shops to source exactly the right kind of leather lounger for Don Draper to loll on.
Huge efforts have been made to convincingly recreate a bygone world – right down to the last Lucky Strike-stained detail. Period “authenticity” has been one of the keystones of this programme’s success – the way it has made people feel as though they know what it was to be there, then, even though they never were.
Similarly, though the medieval fantasy realm setting of the similarly popular Game of Thrones may be a million miles away from the offices of Sterling Cooper, not a dollar has been spared in making it as easy as possible for the audience to become immersed in a different ‘world’. The same is equally true of The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Treme, and any other HBO series you care to mention. These dramas aim to draw us into their worlds, rather than draw attention to their construction.
Not that this is a bad thing, of course. But as for experimental television:
Instead of providing an escape from ‘reality’, [these shows] try and make us face it, by not allowing us to sink passively into the story.
Alas, I’m not familiar with the British shows Coatman is writing about, but they sound grim. (Facing reality is something we’re not terribly good at.) Yet fourth-wall-breaking shows don’t have to be grim: Mystery Science Theater 3000 broke the fourth wall by drawing us into its sphere of participatory snarking. I also recall with great love and astonishment at his brilliance another project from MST3K creator Joel Hodgson, a mid 1990s oddity called The TV Wheel; Devin Faraci at Badass Digest explains what that was all about, and why it failed, and you can watch it now on YouTube, starting here:
As Faraci notes and as you can see, The TV Wheel was waaay ahead of its time. It might still be ahead. But it needn’t be.
How could TV be more experimental? Should TV be more experimental? Or is stuff like this simply too arty for mainstream TV audiences? Why isn’t there room, on a hundred-plus channels, for something more arty?
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