State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” TV Drama

Robin Nelson,
State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” TV Drama.
Manchester: Manchester University Press.
ISBN: 978-0-7190-7311-3
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)

Even with the continued growth of television studies in the academy and television criticism in the popular press, little has been written about television aesthetics. In the thirteen years since John Thornton Caldwell’s Televisuality (1995), only a few book-length studies of television aesthetics have emerged, including Jason Mittell’s Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (2004), Greg M. Smith’s Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (2007), Jason Jacob’s Body Trauma TV: The New Hospital Dramas (2008), and Glen Creeber’s Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen (2008), along with monographs on individual programmes or creators (eg., Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies (2005) and Creeber’s work on Dennis Potter). It is in adding to this too-small library, then, that Robin Nelson makes a most valuable intervention with State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” TV Drama.

Nelson’s study centres on what he calls “high-end” or “quality” (in some passages, “Quality”) fictional television, and is largely devoted to the hour-long serial/series narrative, with but passing discussion of a few sitcoms. He isolates his subject through a number of related discriminators; “high-end” in this telling refers to big-budget prime-time programming with high production values. Further, this “high-end” tends to be marketed as “must-see”, “appointment” television. This is, then, a notion of “quality” programming that emerges from particular institutional and economic contexts in the United Kingdom and the United States, his principal focii. Nelson aims to draw out the “force-field” of influences[1] that has encouraged the proliferation of these sorts of programmes, as well as their meanings and pleasures, alongside a notional exploration of “what the term ‘quality’ might mean, and to whom” (p. 6).

Nelson restricts his study to programmes produced from 1996 to the present, based on a chronological framework that divides television history into three large-scale eras[2] : TV1, the US network era, 1948-1975; TV2, the post-network era, 1975-1995; and TV3, contemporary digital/global television. The book, then, is an attempt to unpack the relationship between television production and its cultural and institutional contexts in TV3 as a distinct period, one in which the weakening of network domination has led to a “’great value shift from conduit to content’”[3] . In this digital and global marketplace marked by a seemingly endless proliferation of programming, and a concomitant multiplication of options for viewers, TV networks are seen to respond to competition by producing expensive high-end programming even when such a strategy would seem to compromise their own profit margins. “Instead of serving profits through control by oligarchies over a distribution bottleneck on the back of constraints on bandwidth…, profit is to be made through distinctive programme content, with additional income gleaned through dissemination across media platforms in a vertically and horizontally integrated, multidimensional environment.” (p. 55)

The “quality” programming under discussion, then, is driven by niche marketing that both allows and encourages viewers to choose risky and challenging, rather than comforting, fare. This programming is driven in part by demographics, as these programmes are frequently targeted at the coveted 18-49 age group; and are paid for not only by ancillary profits (though this is largely unaccounted for here) but by transnational financing arrangements in the case of Europe, and from the considerable coffers of the media conglomerates in the U.S.[4] It is in his consideration of the economics of these high-end shows that Nelson is at his strongest, carefully navigating the double-edged nature of conglomeration and transnationalization. On the one hand, media conglomerates have the financial means both to pay for these costly shows, and to risk those investments by encouraging innovative approaches (especially in the case of HBO and other subscriber channels who are not dependent on advertising revenue); on the other, the financial dominance of those globalized behemoths, as always, threatens the viability of equally innovative independent television production companies. Nelson’s sense of nuance here is laudable, and his account of the relations between economics and aesthetics is cogent throughout.

Across the whole of the book, Nelson alternates between chapters delving further into the contexts in which “Quality” TV3 programming is produced and circulated, and those which examine more closely his chosen case studies: The SopranosShooting the Past, and ShamelessQueer as Folk (UK), Sex and the City, and Carnivàle24SpooksBuried, and Oz; and BlackpoolCasanova, and State of Play. This allows him to balance an exploration of large-scale trends with fine-grained analyses of his case studies to excellent effect. Indeed, it is largely in the latter chapters that Nelson draws out the characteristics he sees as central to his “high-end” fare as a “distinctive televisual mode” (p. 26): “cinematic” visual style, genre hybridity, reflexivity and textual playfulness, a strong authorial presence (especially Stephen Poliakoff), realism, ambiguity (including a lack of conventional closure), social relevance, and a degree of riskiness in representations of sexuality in particular (homosexuality in Queer as Folk, female sexuality in Sex and the City).

While each of these characteristics appears salient in the discussion of several of the analyses on offer, some receive significantly more attention and careful examination than others. For the most part, Nelson centres on narrative and representation, and in this regard, he handles genre and social realism quite well. “Cinematic style”, on the other hand, is largely reduced to editing rhythms. He frequently invokes The Sopranos’ debts to modernist European art cinema, which are evident, but he never grounds such claims in any rigorous or systematic analysis of style and narration. Indeed, he relies on an opposition between televisual and cinematic style that seems not to acknowledge their blurring boundaries. While he sees innovations in TV technology (eg., HDTV) encouraging greater emphasis on visual style in that medium, the fact that increasingly films are watched on televisions rather than in cinemas is ignored. Thus, developments in contemporary cinema designed at least in part to suit the material and technical parameters of the small-screen are left aside (for example, the closer views and more rapid editing of the “intensified continuity” paradigm), though it is precisely these trends that have had the most impact in turn on televisual aesthetics. Nelson’s sense of visual style is limited in other ways as well: he refers to American television as “brightly lit” (p. 183), despite a continuing trend there towards low-key lighting in dramatic series production.

Perhaps the most serious fault in Nelson’s account of contemporary TV production, though, emerges in his opposition of British and American dramatic series. Chapter Six concerns both the global influence of US series, and UK resistance to or adaptation of that influence as an attempt to maintain a specifically British televisual culture. Nelson begins with an overly broad comparison of the two, reliant on familiar and unexamined generalizations (British television is more realistic, more politically challenging, and more character-driven) which sideline any number of examples to the contrary from both shores (for example, it’s not clear how Monarch of the GlenBallykissangel, and Midsomer Murders, to name a few, fit his account of British TV, nor how The Wire would fit his account of American TV).[5] Likewise, Nelson never recognizes that, just as in the case of art cinema, “quality” television may have its own sets of conventions, not least in its British manifestations – in “social realism”, the downbeat ending is ultimately just as conventional as the happy ending in other narrative traditions.

Nelson then contrasts two espionage shows and two prison dramas, each set including one American and one British programme – 24 and SpooksBuried and Oz – in order to demonstrate his opposition of these two television cultures. Thus 24, as exemplary of American broadcast TV, incorporates surface innovations (eg., split-screen), but remains much more conservative than its British “equivalent”. It is in this context that Nelson performs his only extended examination of any programme made for the American broadcast networks, his other examples being constituted entirely by premium subscription cable channel fare. Had Nelson focused exclusively on production within a specific economic model like subscription TV, this would be no fault at all. However, his British examples emerge from a range of production contexts – and after all, HBO and Showtime programmes typically air next to those produced for broadcast when distributed to worldwide markets. Nelson aims to account not for productions enabled by one financial model or another, but rather, again, a “distinctive televisual mode”. Surely, then, programmes aired on subscription channels and broadcast channels exist not in binary opposition, but along a spectrum of production contexts and the aesthetic options they allow or disallow, and that should be taken into account in a synchronic analysis such as this one. In this light, his claims that US networks are able to air and produce distinctive fare but only within quite strict limits (p. 70) are hampered by a paucity of examples. Further, one might argue that a wider range of examples would undermine this argument.

Take, for example, his claims concerning CarnivàleCarnivàle (HBO, 2003-5) here is presented as an ideal example of “high-end” television (as opposed to the more conservative “quality popular” (my emphasis) television produced for broadcast in the U.S. (p. 2)) in part because its combination of realism and fantasy enables the latter elements to be read as allegorical of contemporary issues explored through intricate metaphoric structures (pp. 106+). But: as opposed to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (20th Century-Fox Television, 1997-2003), each season of which uses fantasy and horror elements to play out complex allegories of contemporary women’s experiences? Or, as opposed to Battlestar Galactica (NBC/Universal, 2004-present), which similarly uses science-fiction to comment on contemporary geo-politics? And what of Lost (ABC/Buena Vista Television, 2004-present)? Nelson claims that Carnivàle’s generic hybridity gives rise to a hesitancy on the part of viewers to clearly categorize the show in terms of the conventions of one or another genre, thus opening up possibilities for greater complexity of meaning in the interplay of historical-realist and fantastic elements (p. 105). Yet in Carnivàle, this synthesis is apparent from the start, and remains consistent throughout the show’s run. Lost, by contrast, not only gave viewers no generic framework at all for its first season, but continues in season four to offer no way to determine whether certain elements are fantasy or science-fiction. Moreover, each episode of Lost combines distinct and varied genres through its alternation between events on and off the island in divergent time-frames. This much has been evident throughout its run. Though of course Nelson had no access to them (and so this is more a reinforcement of my position, that an account of contemporary quality TV should account for broadcast programmes, than a criticism of his), in fact, it is hard to think of any other television show from any country quite so formally sophisticated as Lost has become in recent episodes. Initially, the show alternated present-tense events with flashbacks in a pattern that viewers could easily discern with a minimum of exposure. Currently, though, the present-tense storyline alternates with either flashbacks or flashforwards, often giving viewers no way to determine where they are in the larger chronology until the last moments of the episodes. The complex non-linearity that results begs a comparison to the European art cinema at least as much as does The Sopranos. This is not to criticize either Carnivàle or Nelson’s quite perceptive analysis of the same, but rather to suggest the fruitfulness of a broader, more inclusive approach.

Indeed, the insistent Britain vs. America dynamic across the book as a whole is limiting. Right way through the book, Nelson asserts that audiences give preference to home-grown fare: “worldwide audiences are known to prefer programming which appears to resonate with, or reflect, their everyday lives.” (p. 2) This plays into a running theme concerning the ways in which British producers and channels are able to fend off American domination. But this observation is made from a strictly Anglocentric perspective (comparing British ratings for ER and Casualty, for instance (p. 130)). At the very least, such assertions should account for variability in production capacity from country to country, an especially relevant issue in the context of Australia and New Zealand, where homegrown programmes appear relatively sporadically, and indeed where the influx of British product is just as threatening to the representational specificity of local television culture as American product.

It should be noted, too, that while Nelson examines discourses of “quality” in contrast to dismissals of any possibility of artistic worth in commercial media (exemplified by Neil Postman), and identifies characteristics associated with “quality television” (social realism, formal complexity), he never really interrogates notions of “quality” as such. That is to say, what counts as valuable in aesthetic criticism of television? What does it mean to say that The Sopranos demonstrates “wit and intelligence” (p. 180); to and for whom? What standards are being invoked in judgments concerning the “quality of the performances” (p. 210) in the British miniseries State of Play? Nelson is never fully reflexive in this regard, though he is much more successful in identifying the commercial functions ideas of “quality” perform in the contemporary global television market.

Finally, then, this is a flawed book. Nonetheless it is ambitious in its scope, accounting as it does for broad, transnational, transgeneric trends that have had significant impact on the medium as a whole; and it does important work in bringing aesthetics to the fore of analyses of contemporary global television. If nothing else (and certainly there is much else of note here, in both his exploration of trends and his critiques of individual programmes), Nelson’s acute grasp and incisive discussion of the relationships between aesthetic innovations and commercial contexts in the TV3 era alone vouchsafes the book’s value. Subsequent commentators may criticise it along my own or other lines, but they will not be able to dismiss it.

Paul Ramaeker,
University of Otago, New Zealand.

[1] Robin Nelson, State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” TV Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007): 5.
[2] Here, Nelson is borrowing from Mark C. Rogers, Michael Epstein, and Jimmie L. Reeves, “The Sopranos as HBO Brand Equity: The Art of Commerce in the Age of Digital Reproduction” in David Lavery, ed., This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos (London and NY: Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2002).
[3] Ibid: 20, quoting Timothy Todreas from Value Creation and Branding in Television’s Digital Age (London and Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 1999).
[4] Changes in the “fin-syn” rules, allowing networks to produce and thus “own” their programming, is critical to Nelson’s account.
[5] On the basis of this contrast, Nelson is able to claim a British influence on the turn to realism in American genre television with Hill Street Blues, though 1970s Hollywood cinema arguably was a more immediate touchstone: “‘I read the script,’ [Hill Street Blues director Gregory] Hoblit remembers, ‘and immediately a whole visual sense came to me about what it ought to be. Hand-held camera. Let’s get the film as dirty as we can. What I said is, “Let’s go for the Serpico look.”’” (Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time, NY: Random House, 1985: 290).

Created on: Saturday, 20 September 2008

About the Author

Paul Ramaeker

About the Author

Paul Ramaeker

Paul Ramaeker lectures in Film and Media Studies at the University of Otago. He is currently working on a manuscript about the influence of the international art cinema on American film from the late 1960s.View all posts by Paul Ramaeker →