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November 22, 2008

<< Meta-Media Magazine | Near-Futurism >>


I’ll definitely back up Robin; check out NYTMag’s Screens issue. (Is there no way to permalink whole issues? Blerg.)

My favorite story, though, is Ross Simonini’s “The Sitcom Digresses,” which traces the genealogy of the digression/flashback in TV comedies from The Simpsons to 30 Rock and ultimately to the postmodern novel. So:

Tristram Shandy -> Gravity’s Rainbow -> The Simpsons -> Family Guy -> Scrubs -> Arrested Development -> 30 Rock

This reminded me that while we generally have a pretty good sense of developments in technique and changes in style in movies and literature, TV history is driven almost entirely by content. The sense of form is much looser — I know that Malcolm in the Middle or Bernie Mac are single-camera shows, and look different from Seinfeld or I Love Lucy — but what was the first single-camera sitcom? Who first added a phony laugh track? When did that get discredited?

Who are the great television directors? If we really are becoming people of the screen, we ought to know.

Posted November 22, 2008 at 1:51 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Media Galaxy


Of course, the terms are slightly different in television, and one of the reasons why we're not terribly aware of the great television directors is that directors don't operate in TV production the same way that they operate in film production.

Before one of my classes last week, a student tried to put forward Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, and Amy Sherman-Palladino as the three great contemporary TV auteurs. (It seemed to me silly to exclude David Chase, but her proposed standards included being responsible for multiple shows which each did a certain amount of cross-referencing in terms of casting and storylines, which, it would seem to me, would include Tina Fey.)

The demands of production require that multiple episodes be prepared simultaneously, and thus the dominant artistic influence falls either to the producers, or a unique and under-discussed writer/producer position known as the "show runner." (

I totally get that TV is a producer-driven medium. And even the digressions that the article talks about are writerly. But I guess what I'm saying is that we need a better sense of the history of the visual language of television -- which might not be about auteurs at all, but collaborative standards, but also might be about individual innovators. Just as the dominance of directors doesn't mean that DPs or writers aren't important, neither should the dominance of the EP in television stop us from thinking about other ways in which the medium changed -- as a matter of technique. Photographic, editing, sound, acting, and so on.

I think that you and I wold both agree that some of the key developments in both film and television have to do with the nascent understanding that the medium itself is capable of far more than pointing a camera at a stage. (One could argue that early film tried to imitate the staged play, and early TV came out of vaudeville--arguably, the live studio audience, multiple-camera sitcom is still closer to a recorded stage performance than TV as a thing in itself.)

I think that you are largely correct, however, that those developments in television are different than those of film, and "digressions" are a clear example. (The "DVD narrative, as we've previously discussed, is likely another.) What else might we bring into the conversation? And how much of these innovations can we attribute to individuals? Or is television, even more than film, a post-death-of-the-author medium?

Blerg no's the permanent link to the Screens issue.

Thanks a bunch, Jason!

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