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June 19, 2011 / tietze

The Trajectory of Television Drama (Pt. 3)

3: Fixating on Cinema

So, as far as the majority of televised drama is concerned, immediacy is now viewed as less important than slick, cinema-like production values. One of television’s unique points has been abandoned in favour of bringing a slice of cinema to the small screen. Has this adoption of the independent model been a positive move in unshackling television drama from its primitive roots, or has the genre lost something of its uniqueness in so blatantly forgetting its past?

It’s just as important to consider why this paradigm shift has come about. Though BBC programme making has become more business-like since radical internal shifts occurred in the 1980s in response to accusations of irrelevance from Thatcher’s government of the time, this does not explain the continued design on the part of the BBC to retain this commercially oriented mode of drama production. Nor does it explain why similar shifts are evident in other territories, for example Australia. Technique is frequently dependent on technology, and it is likely that particular modes of drama production become favoured over others in the wake of ease of production. Portable video equipment and lack of electronic studio space lean more strongly towards single-camera drama production than the older multi-camera variety. The external cultural impact on television too has its part to play, with advances in cinematic storytelling lending that medium a greater artistic respectability since the early days of television.

More recently, however, a new culprit has arisen. One must ask oneself why programme makers feel this need to aspire to cinematic style and technique unless it is to shift away from some other mode with its own unwanted connotations. It could have to do with the rise of docu-soap twaddle, producers wishing for their “real” dramas to be texturally and aesthetically different from soap operas and reality television. Indeed, the very texture of the medium has shifted in drama production, videotape remaining a viable acquisition format but being treated in various ways to more closely resemble a film look. Interestingly, this has not been the case for programming such as soap operas, many of which have elected to retain their video aesthetic. (Yet there are exceptions: Home & Away has for some years been recorded on progressive scan HD. This, coupled with a more naturalistic approach to lighting and mise en scene that make decades-old sets look at last like bona fide locations lends it connotations of “legitimate drama”.)

Could it be that, with “films for television” on the ascendant, pre-HD video simply looks too cheap? Is the expectation that audiences no longer care for the immediacy of a more traditional electronic texture when it comes to their drama? Australian drama programmes All Saints and Blue Heelers began as productions on untreated interlaced videotape in a period just before such “filmising” became commonplace, but they maintained that aesthetic as newer technologies allowed the programmes to appear more “film-like” than they did. Yet the shift from unprocessed video to a more celluloid aesthetic only arose when both programmes were retooled in search of more youthful audiences, the impression being that the “older” aesthetic was better suited to their more elderly demographics.

Significantly, there is much to be argued in favour of a desire to move away from the aesthetic of reality programming, which has very much taken over from traditional dramatic storytelling as the new “direct drama” genre. It is less predictable, typically involves non-actors at its core, and is consequently seen as more “truthful” than the sincerest drama programme.

The trouble is, programme makers have lost the knack of producing programmes that convince as “films for television”, various artefacts from their comprised modes of production interfering with the end result. Perhaps the clearest example of this is visible in the editing style adopted by an increasing number of drama programmes. Pronounced examples from the US are the various NCIS and CSI strands. I analysed one brief dialogue scene between two people in a CSI episode. Despite the narrative simplicity of the moment, the short scene (no longer than a minute) involved no less than seventeen camera angles and enough edits to include them all! Similarly, a scene in an episode of NCIS, which again consisted of a brief conversation between a small number of characters, used something like a dozen angles when perhaps two would have sufficed as recently as the 1990s. The pace of director Graeme Harper’s distinctive visual style – lingering deep focus shots – as employed in the 2006 Doctor Who episode “The Age of Steel” was occasionally butchered in the edit suite.

Is this post-production environment becoming too excessive for the requirements of television drama? Given running time requirements that are especially prevalent in the cut-throat world of commercial television while all but non-existent in cinema, is it proving to be too much of a safe get-out clause for producers? After all, with seventeen camera angles being used for a brief dialogue scene, the potential exists for individual words to be shaved away to reduce an episode’s duration. Moreover, this sort of excessive editing allows unimaginative programme makers to generate an artificial sense of pace in otherwise poorly stages scenes simply by including lots of cuts. Of course, one has to wonder how much production time is being sacrificed to achieve all this extra “safety” coverage, and what opportunities are being abandoned to allow for it – time that might be better spent in rehearsal, honing scenes to the point where their pace can be very accurately determined. This, I fear, is an art once unique to television that is being rapidly lost.

Particularly evident in American drama production is a tendency to be “big” in an epic cinematic sense. Not so much in the traditional sense of “big stories told on a big scale”, but “vapid non-stories told with lots of pyrotechnics”. The bloated budgets of the now-extinguished Star Trek: Enterprise are a case in point, with some episodes consisting of so much action that they began to feel like the Hollywood equivalent of the legendary episode three of a Doctor Who story: loads of running up and down corridors. This time, however, the corridors looked the same every week as it was always a run around on board the Enterprise, and the explosions were bigger (though no more exciting). What made matters worse was that much of the action was filmed in a pedestrian style, presumably because of time restraints: episode turnarounds of seven to eight days are still very much the norm in American drama production. But there was nary any plot to be seen – and when each episode had to run to a paltry forty-two minutes because of advertiser pressure, there wasn’t a lot of time for developing a narrative as it was. Even when the programme’s producers had three episodes to play with for single stories, as became a brief trend in its final year, it seems the temptation to allow plot to slide remained too great.

The opposite cause is evident in a programme like Doctor Who, yet the effect is often little better. There, nine months are devoted to producing only fourteen episodes, and not anywhere up to twenty-six. Yet, instead of having the opposite effect on the programme, this excess of time leads the programme’s producers to conclude that each episode had better be a show-stopper in terms of production value, so much effort goes into making the series unnecessarily cinematic. Its humble roots are forgotten, even when past directors are invited to return to the fold, and Seventeen Angle Syndrome1 rears its ugly head even here.

Happily, these worst excesses of cinematic emulation are not endemic among even the most popular drama programming. Long-running hospital drama Casualty, for example, for decades wore the badge “interlaced video” proudly on its sleeve. Despite the use of a single-camera production model, it doesn’t seek to be slick or flashy like its best known (and outlived) US counterpart ER. That, coupled with a lack of incidental score and lighting that hardly strives to be strikingly naturalistic, means that it doesn’t mind claiming a down-to-earth style, or acknowledging its rough and ready roots. That it has been described by some critics as a semi-soap opera is understandable given this adherence to an older school of aesthetic values, but its story-lines bear this description no justice whatsoever.

 

Endnote:

  1. Trademark pending.
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