From the Bridge: A Life in Television (and, Eventually, Writing Programs)

From the Bridge: A Life in Television (and, Eventually, Writing Programs)

“Wait, that was a movie? I thought it was a TV series with just one really long episode.” Caption to a New Yorker cartoon, 4/23/21

 In the late sixties Oak Park, Michigan had two junior high schools, Clinton (not George) and Frost (yes, Robert); after ninth grade the students from both converged for grades ten to twelve at the sole high school, Oak Park High.  I don’t know how many high schools neighboring suburb Southfield had at the time; I know my brother-in-law of 51 years, Richard, attended Southfield High.  I also know that one of my favorite people on the planet—let’s call her Truth, whose goodness and sound judgment I’ve valued for 50 years now—attended high school in Southfield, perhaps the same school Richard did.  High school provenance isn’t central here.  Frank Zappa is, specifically a 1973 song of his that Truth brought to my chagrined attention, for reasons I’ll get to shortly.  A sample verse: “I may be vile and pernicious/But you can't look away/I make you think I’m delicious/With the stuff that I say/I am the best you can get/Have you guessed me yet?/I am the slime oozin’ out/From your tv set.”

I grew up watching a lot of television.  I still watch a lot of television, though much in the experience has changed due to streaming services and the gradual expansion of the genre and narrative range available to showrunners (not a word when my everyday bible was TV Guide) and writers and all the other creative folk who collaborate to create television in what media critic David Bianculli deems the Platinum Era of Television in his 2016 book of the same name.  I still think often of Truth’s certain judgment, and the Zappa lyrics.  I watch all the same.

Bianculli organizes his book along genre lines, building an argument that shows from the fifties on created the foundation for the platinum age.  I remember genres, and learned genre, though I didn’t know the word then, from that childhood spent watching television.

  • The sitcom, usually focused on family life, in which the week’s conflict resolved within twenty-five minutes of script (now only twenty-two on commercial television), returning the family to steady-state equilibrium till the next week’s easily-managed misunderstanding, mild misbehavior, or minor social faux pas. (The Simpsons, for all its breaking of taboos and critical view of life in these United States, locates its characters in a locked-age limbo, rhyming with its forebears, while Seinfeld asserted its mantra as “no hugging, no learning,” in its own way a sardonic comment on the return-to-equilibrium DNA of its predecessors in the form—for all the hugging and learning, the characters returned to baseline for the next episode.  The second part of the mantra, “no learning,” warrants more attention in relation to what I’ll call the episode mode—this parenthetical might expand into a full essay down the road.)
  • The legal or medical drama, in which the stakes involved acquittal or conviction or life and death but still ended with a neat resolution that returned the lawyers or doctors to their baseline decency and commitment to justice and health for all till the following week’s episode. 
  • The police procedural or private detective show, also with high stakes involving crime and punishment, low-grade mystery and low-grade mayhem, with outcomes assuring the audience that crime doesn’t pay and that law enforcement has room for maverick individual contributors with a license rather than a badge. 

As I didn’t become a moviegoer till later, or a student of film till college, I didn’t know how much these television genres owed to the dominant genres of film, particularly domestic and screwball comedy and crime films spanning gangster movies of the thirties through detective films of the forties and noir of the fifties (much lineage overlap to be teased out there).

My parents, born in 1914 and 1925, had childhoods without television, so in some ways they learned to watch television and read genre cues right along with me; of course I was something of a blank slate absorbing it all, while they brought a half lifetime of experience to what we watched.  Looking back, asking them about how they watched television, how they processed shows and commercials through their previous experience, how they made sense of what was shaping their son, comprise a list of questions I’ll never get to ask them.  My childhood bedroom, in which I slept till the age of 18, supplied with a beige/taupe vinyl rollout bed that served as a couch, was also the TV room.  While I watched many shows alone, various family members often watched with me.  When I was at school, my mother watched her daytime soap operas sitting on that couch; I have memories of her rapt attention to Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and Days of Our Lives (with Macdonald Carey, the detective in Shadow of a Doubt, solemnly welcoming viewers each day with “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives”).  Yes, I remember her fixed attention, the persistent expression of oy as she watched the actors navigate an endless stream of tsuris, some deserved, some courtesy of bad luck or simple blind fate.  I carry the image of my mother watching her “shows,” her “stories.”  She leaned forward, at least in memory, elbows on knees, hands in fists at her chin, though I don’t really believe she watched in quite that way.  I watch television the way my mother watched television.  Her full-body attention to the soaps provided the model for my attention to televised sports as I developed a lifelong Detroit fandom (believe me, there have been few rewards) for the Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, and the Red Wings (“a hell of a hockey team,” as Paul Simon sang in “Papa Hobo”—the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup when I was six weeks old; I had to wait 42 years for them to hoist the Cup again).  I watched scripted narrative as avidly as I watched sports (structured more than scripted). Over time daytime soaps morphed into nighttime soaps with the advent of Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest.  We see them recently in The Good Wife (my sister Cindy turned me on to that) and what Shonda Rimes developed with Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy among others.  Internationally, via streaming services we can see subtitled soapy stories like Shtisel (thanks, Michelle, for the recommendation—talk about tsuris).

 In the evenings variety shows constituted a genre we could watch together.  My father, a man who didn’t laugh often, delighted in Tim Conway’s antics as part of the cast of The Carol Burnett Show.  He respected Carol, Harvey, Vicki, and Lyle, but he laughed out loud at Tim Conway (some links to his sketches here).  I never understood, and I never asked, though I registered somewhere inside what struck me as release and abandon in my reserved father’s laughter; it might have had something to do with how the rest of the cast often cracked up at Conway’s deadpan antics.  In temperament I’m more like my father than like my mother, quiet and withholding like him unless I need to gear up to perform for my job.  Like him, I sometimes laugh out loud at comedy, a burbling out of character but welcome.  The Good Place, for example, makes me laugh out loud, as did Episodes.

Of course these musings lead us to reflect on the nature of the genre of the writing class.  One way to understand the “process revolution” of the 1970’s/1980’s might be by analogy to episodic television’s shift to what I’ll call arc television.  What the discipline has come to describe as “current-traditional” rhetoric reduces writing to discrete episodes while also reducing components of writing to episodes of a sort—this is citation day, this is transition day, this is paragraph day.  Every day the same, each component containable in a single episode of the same length and tone.  Episodic television featured the “very special episode” trope—I remember ABC doing that a lot during ratings weeks in November and May, which set advertising fees for the following year.  Episodic writing classes can have “very special episodes” as well, meant to focus students’ attention—if you must miss any class this quarter, don’t let it be this one.  That students can ask if they’ll miss anything important by missing Tuesday’s class suggests that they still live in Episode Land when it comes to education, each class meeting discrete, each course discrete, each quarter discrete.  Arc television requires investment over time, as does process-based writing and writing as life work.  Every episode connects to the larger arc—miss one and you’ll be lost.  Consider the “previously on” intro in arc television, now a fixture.  Much like the review of previous classes in the writing class.  Consider the “next on” tease in arc television.  Much like the preview of the next class in the writing class.  These function as essential framing exposition and as hooks—at their core they signal to students that they live in Arc Land, not Episode Land, that the episodic moment should be experienced with full attention for its own sake but more importantly for its place and relation to the arc.

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