I don’t know how I feel about the term “quality TV”. It automatically assumes the program must be good and worth watching, however in my experience of viewing such shows this isn’t always the case. One example that comes to mind is AMC’s The Killing, which I recently watched on the recommendation of my auntie. Well at least I thought she was recommending it; she actually meant the Danish version of the show. Over two series, the show follows the murder of schoolgirl Rosie Larsen, trying to solve the mystery surrounding her death. The show has all the hallmarks of ‘quality TV’. The narrative is complex spanning across episodes; the characters develop throughout the series, and the intricate plot can be quite challenging. It definitely wasn’t a show you could miss episodes of, in fact even watching every episode did not make the plot less confusing. And this was my biggest quam with the show. Over two series (26 episodes) almost every character brought into the show is accused of Rosie’s murder, some dismissed and some still left as possible culprits. It isn’t until the final episode that the murderer is revealed, and even then I didn’t entirely understand how this had come to be. The feeling of dissatisfaction after watching two series of a show where the plot became almost as convoluted as that of Lost left me wondering about the idea of demanding narratives in this kind of show.
It seems I wasn’t alone in my opinion of the show, with an article in Pop Matters, expressing a similar view – ‘When “Good” TV Goes Bad: Five (Out of Many Flaws of ‘The Killing’’. Lee argues: “the hardest thing about watching AMC’s The Killing is that, despite of the show’s grand potential, it seems hell bent on destroying itself. Week after week you’re left with a constant string of “WTF” moments where you wonder if the writers are putting us on, haven’t watched prior episodes, or are trying to bring down the show on purpose.” (Lee, 2012) It was the same issue I had with Lost, there were just two many of these ‘WTF’ moments to keep up with, that only ever left me feeling frustrated. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they came out with the line ‘and it was all a dream’. I guess the trick is in balancing such moments, which Jason Mittell discusses in his article from this week. He argues that a key goal of complex television is “the desire to be both actively engaged in the story and successful surprised through storytelling manipulations…we want to enjoy the machine’s results while also marveling at how it works” (Mittell, 2006). After all viewers deserve some reward for their continual dedication to a TV show. Perhaps another reason this show disappointed me was because I automatically assumed it must be a good show being an AMC production– an opinion shared by Lee “I wonder if it’s really just a bad show and we just think it has potential because it airs on basic cable’s prestige network (AMC) and its “supposed to be good”, i.e. more artistic, stylistic, and dramatically risky than a network show” (Lee, 2012). This leads me to my next point about branding.
During this weeks lecture we discussed the idea of branding within television, with particular reference to HBO, known for its ‘quality’ programs, such as the Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. Mittell asserts, “the prestige of these programmes furthers the channel’s brand image of being more sophisticated than traditional television” (Mittel, 2006). Would I have found The Killing as frustrating had it been just another cop show like CSI? Probably not. There is no doubt that we expect more from long form narrative series, especially when they come from networks with stellar reputations. I can think of plenty of examples where I have been satisfied with this style of television, Mad Men is one example. The complex characters make for enjoyable viewing. Whether or not you love or hate Don Draper you have to agree that he is a well-crafted character, with a complex back-story. The complex ‘narrative world’ of Mad Men is carefully constructed, and draws you in. We looked at this idea of “word building” in the lecture, where there is a shift in emphasis away from the plot and more to the world of the show and the characters involved. There are certain episodes in Mad Men where this is cleverly done through flashbacks, or framing the action of an entire episode in the past tense. Through the five series of Mad Men we are treated to a few such episodes where we slowly piece together Don Draper and his often-cold, rude and misogynist ways.
So if ‘quality’ television isn’t good television what is it then? Quality is synonymous with a particular set of conventions and stylistic features. The complex long form narrative mentioned above is one such convention. It can be argued that “Quality TV has a memory…these shows tend to refer back to previous episodes and characters develop and change as the series goes on” (Thompson, 1997 pp.24). According to Academics Janet McCabe and Kim Akass “American quality television programmes tend to exhibit high production values, naturalistic performance styles, recognized and esteemed actors, a sense of visual style created through careful, even innovative camera work and editing, and a sense of aural style created through the judicious use of appropriate, even original music” (McCabe & Akass, 2007 pp.26). They argue that ‘quality’ programs are more likely to cover serious themes, rather than the superficial events of life. They also believe that part of what makes a program quality, is the way the audience receives it. The audience will likely “be rewarded for seeking out greater emotional or symbolic resonance within the details of the program” (McCabe & Akass, 2007 pp.26). Perhaps the term quality is just misleading then, for if we consider these arguments they are by no means suggesting the program appeals to everyone’s particular tastes, just that these shows are generally well made.
Lastly, it can be argued that ‘quality’ TV is a genre in itself, just like art house films within film. Genre sets up specific codes and patterns of familiarity that make a program distinguishable within its genre. Just because we have a specific preference to a genre doesn’t mean we necessarily like every show within it. Taste is very much dependent on the person, and therefore “almost any discussion involving quality cannot escape issues of value judgment and personal taste” (McCabe & Akass, 2007 pp.2). Consider my tastes – comedy: I like Modern Family but not the Big Bang Theory. Drama: I like House but not Grey’s Anatomy. Reality TV: I like Master Chef but not Big Brother. You get the point. So lets not fall into the trap of thinking quality TV must be good. This point is well summed up in Mittell’s article where he argues “value judgments should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre” (Mittell, 2006).
- Lee, M 2012, ‘When “Good” TV Goes Bad: Five (Out of Many) Flaws of ‘The Killing”, PopMatters, 13 June, viewed 11 September 2012, <http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/159228-the-killing/>
- McCabe, J & Akass, K 2007, Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London
- Mittel, J 2006, ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’, ProjectMuse Scholarly Journals,< https://docs.google.com/a/student.rmit.edu.au/viewer?url=http://justtv.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/mittell-narrative-complexity.pdf&pli=1>
- Thompson, R 1997, Television’s Second Golden Age, Continuum Publishing Company, New York, pp.1-30