The State of Television: As Told by Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, and David Milch

12 Nov

ImageDavid Milch (left) with Vince Gilligan (right)

Back in June, GQ did a roundtable discussion with Matthew Weiner (Mad Men, The Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, X-Files), and David Milch (Deadwood, John from Cincinnati). The discussion covers a lot of what we’ve been discussing in class, and also offers a solid historicization of television – at least with respect to their own shows (all iconic). I just wanted to point out a few highlights from their conversation, as they’re relevant in an ultra-contemporary way to what we’ve been working on all quarter.

The piece begins with the line: “In TV, as nowhere else, the writer is king—none more so than those emperors of the air that control every aspect of an ambitions, ongoing cable drama.” This is a claim that’s come up in several of our readings that is used to springboard the conversation into the topic of TV as a relatively recently recognized genre that is climbing the media hierarchy. Matthew Weiner puts it this way: “It’s a different genre. It’s literally comparing a short story to a poem. Or a play.” Interestingly enough, later in the conversation, Weiner admits that he doesn’t believe his children know the difference between what is TV and what is a movie since they’re all on the same-size screen. Even if his kids aren’t bingeing, this observation raises similar questions regarding viewership and form.

Television, formerly considered the “bastard stepchild” of movies has come to not only be recognized as its own formal genre, but to challenge familiar genres within itself as a medium. The moderator puts forth a question to Vince Gilligan and David Milch regarding their shows as failing to conform to a recognizable genre. The following exchange comes back:

Vince Gilligan: Going back to film: Because it was, as David said, a kind of church, a special place, it carried with it all sort of conventions. If there was going to be a horror film, it was advertised as a horror film. You knew what your expectations were going to be.

David Milch: Now all the conventions have been hollowed out and revealed as barren. And that’s ultimately the transposition of “the story” from the church of film to an entirely different world in which the story declares itself on its own terms, with no preexisting expectations. In fact, the expectations are there to be deconstructed.

This raises the question of TV as reactionary. The piece goes into extensive detail about each of the three writers creative processes, which are all very collaborative. These shows aren’t the work of one mastermind, but rather the work of a roundtable of writers teasing out creative ways to tell smart stories. At one point Matthew Weiner reminisces about filming scenes for The Sopranos with David Chase, where Chase would refuse to shoot scenes in certain ways because that’s what executives on shows that he had previously worked on, like Northern Exposure, would demand in order to cut corners and save money. It also brings attention to the interdependence and collaboration/evolution at work on television. At one point Vince Gilligan directly says that Breaking Bad would not exist without The Sopranos. He follows that later in the interview with the statement that The Sopranos could not exist without Hill Street Blues. It seems to be that part of the beauty of such a young medium (and I don’t believe for a second that this is specific to TV, maybe just more noticeable through compact chronology) is how groundbreaking shows are just setting up barriers to be reacted against by future auteurs. Television is self-aware and hyper-reactive.

Television is changing though, obviously. Gilligan and Milch leave us with some sobering observations about the economic consequences of technological advancement:

Vince Gilligan: “I’ll tell you what I worry about. Being a student of TV history, I know that in the early days advertisers had much more of an impact on what you could do and what you couldn’t do. Now with TiVo, with DVRs, consumers of TV are skipping the very thing that allows TV to exist in the first place—at least in commercial television, which accounts for most of it. It makes me think a new paradigm is in the offing—a new paradigm that in fact is the oldest paradigm—in which each TV show is individually sponsored.”

David Milch: The avatar of that is product placement.

Vince Gilligan: I worry that that will potentially put the kibosh on a lot of edgy, fun storytelling.

Let it be known that David Milch seems to be the Yoda of contemporary television. He drops knowledge bombs throughout the entire conversation to spectacular ends. At one point, he draws attention to change as a theme in television – not organizationally with respect to storytelling, but as a developmental principle concerning narrative. This echoes in the piece when the three discuss the temporality of television – theorizing whether the thirteen-episode season format arrived by way of Great Britain (first season: pilot + six episodes, second season: six episodes) or by way of thirteen weeks being a quarter of a year. Regardless of which is the case, Matthew Weiner makes a remark concerning “realness” and the episodic. Because each episode has a discrete ending and a week before the next one airs, “it automatically makes it more real. Because in the end, there’s things that are hanging the way they are in real life.” This gets continued in a remark about The Sopranos where he says: “Everybody in the story seems to know that guy! Do I know that guy? Was he on?’ No they just act like they know that guy, because they have a life that’s without you.” This congruency of these weekly shows with the rhythms of everyday life seems to be both specific to the medium and a directorial choice aimed at speaking to a viewership and audience specific to television. At the same time that the “realness” draws us in, it also pushes us away by spotlighting our position of exteriority.

Not to belabor the point, but the entire interview (which is actually pretty short) is rich with these types of exchanges. These three are actively shaping a particular vein of television, and have a wealth of astute observations to make that should feel very familiar given or classroom conversations.

You can find the full text here:

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