Culture & Criticism Since 2003
It came as no surprise today to read that several of the major commercial television networks have petitioned the government to loosen the decency standards. Since the beginning of broadcast, they’ve been at the mercy of every skittish parent with an eight year old to “protect” and the problem has only gotten worse as the religious right learned they could get their way by howling louder over less and less.
No wonder cable’s come to beat the pants off broadcast TV. First it was the premium stations, with programs like “The Sopranos” and “Oz” and “Deadwood”. Then the other cable stations came in with “Farscape,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” It may now be too late for broadcast TV, even if they can overcome the religious howlers.
For years, everyone has expected a new wave of programming to come from the Internet. YouTube showed that if you are willing to sift through a lot of crap, there are jewels to be found. And through Vodo and Kickstarter, some interesting projects appeared. For example, there was the Canadian effort, “Pioneer One,” a six-parter with good writing, acting that ranged from good to at least game, and low production values (the first episode was shot for just $6,000). There was also the visually arresting “L5”, which featured special effects as good as anything Hollywood was turning out at 1% of the cost.
The first episode of “Pioneer One” was downloaded 470,000 times before episode two appeared, and at least 3.2 million people have seen it, based on nothing more than word-of-mouth and some promotion on various Torrents sites.
More recently, Garry Trudeau, the creator of “Doonesbury,” took a sabbatical to work on his own net-programming project, “Alpha House,” a satire of Congress starring John Goodman. The first episode was somewhat sitcom-ish, but showed potential.
And now Netflix has stepped in with a thirteen-part production called Orange is the New Black. Dramas about prisons have been done to death, but ‘Orange’ is slick, professional, original, and, most surprising of all, streaked with sly, unimposing but unstoppable humor. All the usual tropes are there—the psychotic guards, the sadistic trustees, the bulldykes, the kittens, and plenty of lesbian sex and titties, but there is also very solid writing and some very good acting.
Even without the suffocating Puritanism, commercial TV suffers greatly from rigid dictates: 42 minutes, split into five segments, each with a mini-climax or cliff hanger to ensure the audience returns after four minutes of ads—which utterly destroy any atmosphere a writer might strive for. Cable TV, learning from the BBC, leaned to program without ad breaks. Now, with freedom of internet-streaming, even time constraints can go. Why should a show be 42 minutes, or 54? Let the story tell itself in its own fashion and at its own pace. Let the story tell itself in its own fashion and at its own pace.
That’s why in due course, network programming will become big. It will attract the storytellers—the writers, the directors, the producers. Public attention and money will quickly follow.
With Orange the Internet has taken the same course HBO took when they announced they would do original programming. In time, the results might be even better.
Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.