Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dark = Artistic?!

Yesterday, while cruising across Fresno to pick up a pizza - which, yes, I ordered over the Internet, thus finally confirming all my wife's fears that had been inflamed by Sandra Bullock's 1995 thriller, "The Net" - I was listening to NPR's "All Things Considered" and caught the tail end of some commentary by Andrew Wallenstein on scripted cable shows:
Cable hasn't entirely lost its artistic streak. AMC is keeping the flame burning with the likes of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." But "The Closer" and "Royal Pains," they get like three times the ratings.
I quickly Tweeted a note to my readers (and myself):
Did NPR just say that "dark equals artistic"? Huh?
BTW, if you'd like to read my Twitter feed, my handle is "akapastorguy".

Back to my story... so, this morning, I pulled by NPR's website & checked the transcript of the commentary to make sure I'd heard him correctly. And I did.

There's two underlying assumptions in the the lines I quoted above that really set me off:
  • First, the implied argument that "Mad Men", "Breaking Bad", and "The Shield" (mentioned earlier in the piece) are good because they are gritty & dark in tone... and not bland detective or medical shows. (After reading the whole piece, I realize that Mr. Wallenstein is attempting to prove that cable programming is becoming derivative & staid - but I still think the particular shows he chose to illustrate his point underline the "darker is gooder" critical viewpoint.
  • Second, the other implied argument is that shows that get better ratings must be, by definition, less artistic than shows which get lesser ratings. While this may be true at times (and at this point it's time to highlight something like "Two & A Half Men"), this isn't a hard & fast rule of thumb - and it's a lousy principle to use for evaluating the subjective artistic worth of any kind of work, be it television, literature, movies or music.

Finally, "artistic" is such a loosey-goosey word to use here - it's vague & subjective & used primarily to "bless" things you like, often in opposition to things that you do not like. (The word "fundamentalist" serves a similar function in religious journalism, except as a pejorative "curse".)

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