Courtesy of The New York Times

April 18, 2016

GROSKAUFMANIS | The Profundity of Television

Print More

Television is an underrated and consequently underutilized medium. Society has kind of endowed different kinds of art with assumptions of sophistication: plays, documentaries, literature, film, and so on, which are all consistently well-respected. Off to the side, however, is television — a medium that does not hold this same prestige. It is instead associated with laziness and its viewers are often assumed to be unimaginative.

But I think that this judgment overlooks what television — particularly in the past decade — has been able to achieve, and what it has the potential to do in the future. As its presence grows in pop culture, television is adapting to keep up with its audience. Our generation, in particular, is located interestingly with respect to TV, because while we grew up with it, we have also been able to watch its evolution — from prime-time cable to DVR to Netflix.

A few fundamental details about television, like the way it is segmented into seasons and episodes, allow it to work as a medium that is not only entertaining, but also a potential catalyst for important conversations and social change. And I know that may sound like a stretch — TV encouraging any real kind of action — but I think that part of the reason the influence of TV is frequently overlooked stems from the fact that it is so present, to the point where its influence goes unnoticed.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about TV in comparison to film, and the fundamental differences between the two that allow for them each to do different things. While having a self contained story in film can be powerful, TV offers an ongoing storyline between seasons and episodes that presents an alternative way to tell a story.

Having seasons — whether just one or multiple over years — allows writers to really develop characters over time. This becomes especially important when casting minorities and women — who have historically been and still are underrepresented in Hollywood — because it raises the likelihood of complex roles, which is imperative for representation. While empirical data already shows us that minorities and women are underrepresented in the amount of lines spoken, and in the casting of leading roles, the problem extends beyond the numbers; when these groups are cast, they often are given one-dimensional roles that play to stereotypes and paint a superficial portrait. Because of this, casting only makes up half the struggle. Once they are given roles, a whole different issue arises: making sure that those roles are substantive. Does television solve this issue entirely? No, of course not; there is still a long way to go. However, its break down of seasons and episodes is more conducive to good writing that can really show the intersections and complexities that make up a character, and more writers — from Aziz Ansari to Lauren Morelli — are starting to take advantage of this.

Beyond character development, episodes have the ability to act as crucibles for different themes and motifs. Unlike film, television isn’t chained to a story line that is completed in one work, so it has the flexibility to take on contemporary issues as they arise. The partitions between episodes also allow viewers to kind of readjust their attention with each one, focusing on different issues throughout the season. For instance, in Aziz Ansari’s Netflix original, Master of None, Ansari takes on a wide range of topics — from a meta commentary on racism in the entertainment industry to a portrayal of how millennials act towards their parents. Ansari does this by devoting each episode to a different topic, bringing it all together under the umbrella of his show as a whole. Here, episodes act as chapters, with the Master of None stringing them together like a novel.

Of course, one could argue that it would just be better to spend all of our time entertained by books, but books don’t necessarily have the same popularity that television does today —  a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless. Part of this comes from convenience and demand, but part of it also stems for TV’s accessibility because television is not exclusive to those who have high education or income levels or even to those who are literate. All in all, television has become the everyman’s medium. Take for instance Orange is the New Black, which originated as a book in 2010 and was later developed into a Netflix series three years later. Both mediums were successful, but it was the show that really managed to capture everyone’s attention, and open up a dialogue on mass incarceration in the United States, as well as the abuse that many detainees experience while in prison. Conversations surrounding social justice issues like these are essential to have. It’s hard to get people interested in important issues, and entertaining them while they metabolize information — something that TV does quite well — has proven to be effective. Beyond this, TV taps into our emotional side, as we begin to empathize with characters that we grow attached to; shows like Orange is the New Black use the experience of characters to help viewers process existing systemic problems that are unimaginable to most people.

It’s been really interesting to see what has been done with television recently, and I’m excited to see what new shows will arise, and what issues they will draw our attention to next. Of course, I’m not advocating that we all binge watch the next season of Broad City, or that we don’t acknowledge that, like any kind of art, there is an existing pool of television that feeds off of cheap humor and storylines. Rather, I would encourage people to appreciate whatever  they’re already watching, and start to think of the writing, the cinematography and the characters in a new light, as deliberate details in what could potentially be a profound work of art.