Thursday, November 18, 2010

Towards a Poor Television

In his book Towards a Poor Theatre, Jerzy Grotowski posits the unique value of theatre- what theatre can possibly hold for people that cannot be substituted for by movies or television. Specifically, he states:
"[Theater] cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, "live" communion."

That relationship is something that is absent from movies, television, and the rehearsal room. It's not theatre if there is no one physically present to see it.

Similarly, when people talk about "great television" I think that in most cases they are describing singular moments, broadcast live, that millions of people witness at the same time. It doesn't mean that it is the highest quality programming that the medium offers (after all, think of Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, et al). However it's the one thing that, at least for the present, television can offer that no other medium can. A live thing that millions of people are watching at the same time.

As YouTube, and likely other video sites, increase their amount of live coverage, this value will become less and less unique to television. But for the moment, I think that there are a few episodes in television history (during my lifetime, at least) that equate with the term "great television" in this manner.

4 examples:

This happened while I was in gradeschool.
Never before or since have we stared at a car moving so slowly, for such a long period of time.

In politics:

Bentsen loses the election, but cements his place in history and pop culture.

As noted in Wikipedia, Ronald Reagan later riffs on Bentsen's quip during the '92 Republican National Convention:
...Ronald Reagan answered claims by Bill Clinton's campaign, while poking fun at his own age, by saying,

"This fellow they've nominated claims he's the new Thomas Jefferson. Well, let me tell you something. I knew Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of mine. And governor, you're no Thomas Jefferson."

In the late night talk show arena, two examples spring to mind:

Best summed up by YouTube user metr0man's comments:
I am in awe of Dave's skill here. People still think he wasn't trying to get laughs. Folks... Dave knows what he's doing. He was going for laughs because he knew people will forgive you much much easier if you entertain them. He knew exactly what he was doing. Tiger Woods could learn a thing or two.

Months later and one network over, with a bit less showmanship and a bit more heart-on-sleeve, Conan closes his 7 months on the Tonight Show with class.

UPDATE 11/22/10:
- My friend Mike noted that the late night shows are pre-recorded, not live
- Our conversation also got me to thinking that moments like the above get just as much, if not more mileage, online. So there's a fallacy here in that these moments really are not the purely unique aspect of TV in the same way that the presence of a live audience is for theatre. I'd still say that the scope of simultaneous participation at single moments in time is significant, but it matters less than it did before.