From Peak TV to Weak TV, an essay

It’s called chiaroscuro

My subscriptions are constantly under review (I hope yours are too). I recently unsubscribed to NowTV and my on-again off-again relationship with Netflix is currently off-again. This saves me £18 per month. The TV+ service is either free at the moment or free because my kid bought an iPad, but in any event, isn’t worth paying for. Amazon Prime continues because I paid for a year and it is of course essential to get that tube of anti-hairball cat treat delivered free on the same day I ordered it 🙄.

Looking at the Guardian’s What’s On article for July, I can see I have made the right decision, and it seems to me that because of the pandemic, the pipeline of new things will have slowed to a trickle. Amazon have just one new show, the second season of Hanna, which I tried but didn’t like. And Netflix are doubling down on targeting the yoof (which, fine), and have nothing that appeals to old codgers like me. Ironic, because all those 20-somethings are accessing the ‘Flix through the account of some guy named Steve whom they’ve never met. Someone twittered me suggesting I try Dark, but I already did and it didn’t take.

(I have a particular bee in my bonnet about too-dark TV shows, of which more below.)

There’s nowt on Britbox apart from Doctor Who, which isn’t good enough to pay for (don’t @ me), and Disney+ seems to be working very very hard not to have a single thing I want to watch. I’d been on NowTV for a good long time, and while most of what they have is trash, I did hold on for Westworld and before that Game of Thrones. But both of those are over and an edgy reboot of a show that was popular before I was born (Perry Mason) isn’t worth nine quid a month.

There are a host of smaller services, so-called “Channels” that you can get to through Amazon or TV+, and I have dipped back in to Starzplay in order to watch a bit of Veronica Mars. Starzplay (in the UK) also still has Counterpart, which is worth watching. But I suspect when I’m through with Veronica, I’ll not renew.

This really feels like the doldrums. Peak TV seems to have turned into Weak TV. I’m interested in how this happened. I suspect that there are a couple of causes. The first is that, as with much of the entertainment industry, there was too much focus on following a formula to replicate a surprising success. When shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Mad Men shook the world of TV, nobody had seen their like before. But then they tried to use them as a template, trying to bottle and mass-produce the magic hit formula, just as Hollywood has done since its beginning. And because, as William Goldman said, nobody knows what works, you just end up with a bunch of copycat shows, mixing and matching the magic ingredients dark, edgy, epic, tits, swearing… and none of it really works.

The second cause of the precipitous decline is related to those original platinum age shows themselves. If you look back at things like Lost, or The Sopranos, or Game of Thrones and even Breaking Bad, people frequently complain that they didn’t stick the landing. Actually, in the grand scheme of things, endings aren’t really important, but people just will not shut up about them. They usually split opinion at best. People were weirded out about Battlestar Galactica’s ending, but it was all there, plain to see, in the show itself. And once you see it, well, you might just lose interest in ever watching it again.

And so a more cynical attitude has permeated the viewing experience. I think people are less willing to get invested, because they fear that the intriguing set up and well-drawn characters are going to be let down by a lame final season/episode. Westworld itself deliberately dodged the bullet by claiming to be recommissioned for further seasons, but that was before the pandemic brought everything screeching to a halt. Something like The Americans had a pretty decent ending, but in the end, people are often just unhappy that their favourite show is over.

As to the darkness. I’m not just talking about the metaphorical darkness of the content (which can be wearying enough), but the literal darkness of the screen. A friend twittered me to say that people often complain about the too-dark screen when creators are trying to do Noir on TV. Which I can see is a thing. But it’s also very much not a thing. If you actually look back at Film Noir, the chief characteristic isn’t so much darkness as contrast.

The thing about Noir is chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark. The thing about modern TV shows and their darkness is: it’s just too fucking dark. In a Noir piece, I might expect to view half of a character’s face, for example, fully illuminated and plain to see. Someone might walk down a street, stepping from patches of bright light into darkness and back again. But I would not be spending £8.99 a month to see an almost completely black television screen and wondering if it might as well be on the radio.

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