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HARD TIMES: CULTURE AT A CROSSROADS

Remember, TV is about intimacy

October 26, 2008|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

In the beginning, the TV picture was small and fuzzy and black-and-white. Looking good was not the medium's main concern -- to be seen at all was the point. The production values of "The Honeymooners," one of the funniest shows television has ever produced, were approximately that of a vaudeville sketch. If Jackie Gleason had ever tripped, the whole Kramden apartment would have come down around him.

As if to emphasize the fact that television was not cinema, movies got bigger and more colorful after television came along. But then color came to TV, and the small screen got bigger too, and the picture got sharper, and the sound split into stereo. Over the last decade or two, a lot of effort has gone into making a date with television look and feel like a trip to the movies. Naturally, it became more expensive to produce.

But bigger isn't always better. (Sometimes it's just the bad made really big.) Television is at heart about intimacy and economy, about doing more with less. I don't mean just the familiar cheap recourse to overhead-cutting game shows and reality series that put a few more kopecks in the network coffers. I mean that it is best at communicating small things, person to person. It is a medium of talking heads and two-shots. It thrives not on spectacle but on conversation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
Calendar drawings: A cover story in today's Calendar section about "Hard Times," the impact of the economic downturn on culture, includes several staff-drawn sketches inspired by and parodying Rich Uncle Pennybags and the Chance and Community Chest cards of Monopoly, Parker Brothers' board game that was published and popularized during the Great Depression of the 1930s. An explanation of the drawings and proper credit to Parker Brothers should have been included with a notation that no endorsement by Parker Brothers was intended or exists. The Times apologizes for the omission.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 02, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction
Calendar drawings: A cover story last Sunday about "Hard Times," the impact of the economic downturn on culture, included several staff-drawn sketches inspired by and parodying Rich Uncle Pennybags and the Chance and Community Chest cards of Monopoly, Parker Brothers' board game that was published and popularized during the Great Depression of the 1930s. An explanation of the drawings and proper credit to Parker Brothers should have been included with a notation that no endorsement by Parker Brothers was intended or exists. The Times apologizes for the omission.

As mass-market entertainment goes, TV is unusually well positioned to survive hard times. People will watch it, because it's free, more or less, and they will especially watch it when they're out of work. Remaining the world's favorite waste of time, it will not be without sponsors. But if the soap and car and drug companies were to reduce their advertising because people were buying less soap and fewer cars and pioneering new horizons in self-medication, it still has a recourse. It can go back to its roots.

I don't mean that it should be small, fuzzy and black-and-white again, only that executives and producers and creative people should treat it as if it were. (And take pay cuts reflecting whatever downturn might turn up.) It's not as if the best ideas come from the richest networks anyway. As when French New Wave filmmakers found that a shoestring budget was no impediment to creating beauty or suspense, really poor television, by refocusing on what's important -- the human touch, the great performance, the thoughtful script that needs no gussying up -- could reinvigorate, if not reinvent, the medium. Stylishness costs money; style comes free.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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