Saturday, January 21, 2012

Thinking About the Ideologies of Criticism: Roger Ebert Meets Downton Abbey



Recently noted film critic Roger Ebert wrote a blog about how he has been curling up in bed not with a book, not with a film, but with a TV show, Downton Abbey (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2012/01/for_an_hour_before_bedtime.html). Ebert praises the show and singles out the British class structure and class consciousness as at the heart of the narrative of Downton Abbey. Ebert is right to see class as central to Downton but there is more to the show than that. But that is the subject for another paper or blog.

As I was reading Ebert's take on Downton Abbey and reading about his anglophilia which he outs in the essay I found several of Ebert's comments fascinating. Ebert admits that he doesn't spend much time watching PBS, which pioneered the notion that there was such a thing as quality television when they began broadcasting British shows on American airwaves in the 1960s and 70s, or its grandchild HBO. He expresses limited knowledge of British television practises expressing surprise that series one of Donwton ran for only seven episodes. As a matter of fact British shows rarely run for more than thirteen or fourteen episodes. Upstairs Downstairs which he mentions in his article, ran for thirteen episodes during each of its first four series and fourteen for its last, series five. Most British series, be they on public or commercial television, generally last for much less than thirteen series. Fawlty Towers, arguably the greatest English language comedy ever made, and The Office ran for only six episodes per series while Life on Mars ran for only eight.

Personally I prefer the shorter nature of British TV. Why? Because there tends to be more quality television shows on British TV than on American TV. American television series, for largely commercial reasons, run to around 22 episodes per season these days and have the potential to run to four, five, six, seven seasons, or more during their run. The problem with this quantity is quality commodity aestheticism approach that dominates US television is that it tends to result, over time, in a creative drain where the commercial mandates for keeping a popular series alive for financial reasons often results in a situation where television shows are kept alive long after their artistic prime. American television is often the equivalent of flogging a dead horse. And we shouldn't forget that it sometimes seems there isn't much artistic creativity in American television in the first place. Isn't ABC's Work It, after all, little more than an awful remake of that awful show Bosom Buddies?

To be honest I found Ebert's ignorance about British television a bit surprising until I realised that Ebert, like so many film critics, appears to find reviewing television beneath him (cue Buffy reference). Presumably this is because he and they think of television as the commercialised bastard step child of film.

On a cultural level this ideology about television as a commercialised bastard is, to say the least, curious for a number of reasons. Historically, of course, film has a longer history than television. Film goes back to the 19th century while television really begins in the 1930s and only becomes important and significant after World War II. This notion that television is a commercial practise, however, is both right and wrong. Right in the United States where television, with more than a little help from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), came to be dominated by the big commercial radio networks that dominated the radio airwaves in the 1940s and 1950s, NBC and CBS. Wrong for Great Britain where public non-commercial television dominated the airwaves just as public radio dominated the radio waves before it. And while private commercial TV was introduced in the UK in 1955 with the advent of ITV the non-commercial BBC remains a if not the major player in British television even today. Additionally, given the impact of the BBC on the British television landscape even ITV has played the "quality" BBC game on occasion. I give you ITV's Upstairs Downstairs, ITV's Naked Civil Servant, ITV's Brideshead Revisited, and ITV's Downton Abbey. The moral of this little tale? The it is too commercial argument doesn't really work when it comes to British TV.

What I find interesting and fascinating about the disdain some film critics have for television and television programmes is that it parallels attitudes some defenders of "high art" held toward film in the 1940s and 1950s, namely, that it was a business not an art, that it was not art but mass entertainment geared toward making a profit. It took years for film critics, with a little help from the rise of the art cinema in Europe, and academics interested in film to break through this prison house of disdain for the cinema. For this reason alone film critics should think thrice before they bury television for its commercialism. Don't worry dear unreaders, I am not holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

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