Thursday, July 14, 2005

American TV: bad and good

The bad: “That’s a pretty freaking good milkshake. I don’t know if it’s worth five bucks, but it’s pretty freaking good.” Pulp Fiction loses a lot on broadcast TV, with all the swearing dubbed and all the explicit drug-taking cut.

If you like film, you need either a premium cable subscription—HBO and others show films uncut and uninterrupted—or a DVD player and a Netflix, or similar, subscription. It’s just not worth the hassle of watching film on broadcast TV: intrusive ad-breaks, dubbing or bleeping of profanity and blasphemy (a recent showing of The Matrix dubbed “Judas Priest!” over “Jesus Christ!”), selective cuts, and the insidious “this movie has been edited to fit the time allotted”.

Not much has changed since Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say routine; and TV’s self-censorship seems as odd now as it did then. “Ass” is routinely bleeped out. “Crap” is routinely let stand. Fox censors Hell’s Kitchen—a show driven solely by Ramsay’s vitriolic outbursts—by not only bleeping out swearing, but by blurring out the mouth of anyone swearing. Got to protect deaf people from this corruption too. (I’m not sure what they do in the closed captions.)

The oddest thing: sometimes dialogue is censored by simply blanking it out with a moment's silence. Blazing Saddles was broadcast this way, which made for a very odd experience: an awful lot of gaps.

The good: I’ve started watching Lost on the summer reruns, and I finally see what all the fuss was about. The premise is simple, almost hackneyed: survivors of a plane crashed on a remote island gradually find that they, and their surroundings, are not all they at first appear. But the storytelling is very good, unusually so for a mainstream American series. It’s very measured; it’s not afraid of leaving loose ends untied; and it foregoes cheap cliffhangers in favour of a gradually-building mystery.

Lost knows that what you don’t see is as effective as what you do. We see the aftermath of the plane crash, and we cut back to the moments before the crash as we learn more about individual characters, but we never see the crash itself. We know there’s something big crashing through the jungle, but we never see it; it’s more interesting to see its effect on the characters.

And so far, it’s avoided falling into the “who do we kill off this week” trap. There’s 47 survivors left, but it’s OK that we don't know all of them, and it’s OK that we don’t know much about some of the main characters; the characters, like the plot, unfold gradually.

Highly recommended. I’m hooked.