It’s the new golden age of television, and Amazon Studios has signed Woody Allen to create a full season’s worth of it. “I have no ideas,” said Allen, following Amazon’s announcement in January. Having by now wrapped up post-production on Irrational Man, surely the prolific filmmaker, comedian, musician, and magician has something up his sleeve. What can Allen, returning to television for the first time in fifty years, bring to the TV Revolution (Amazon’s coinage)?
Allen is an odd, if bold, choice for television. If commerce is the engine of the culture industry, television is in a class of its own. True, an unprecedented amount of freedom has been bestowed on writers by studio executives. Allen, notorious for demanding creative control, will get that (if not the usual lower budgets). The freedom of cable and streaming platforms from meddling advertisers and sanitizing strictures of network television has likewise resulted in higher quality shows. The 1950s “first golden age” of patriarchal kitsch has given way to television’s “second golden age” of pioneering wit and enlarged spaces of aesthetic and moral complexity. Who knew before Seinfeld that a 22-minute comedy skit didn’t have to limit itself—and its climactic narrative payoff—to conventional, feel-good wisdom? Better stick to Aristotle on this one: comedy deals with ordinary people in their badness. All the more so in a sitcom. Larry David, genius of dissecting the finer, everyday points of social codes of behavior and etiquette—big little things—shows us scenarios going from bad to worse. The more society screws over our hero, the more we laugh. On the dramatic side, The Sopranos, first introducing the much-beloved “anti-hero” to television, has unleashed our long-repressed yearnings for the dark side of humanity. From Mickey Donovan to Walter White and Cesare Borgia, we can’t get enough of it.
Yet let’s be clear: the bottom line is as important as ever. What drives television forward is ratings—the measure of a show’s capacity for infinite renewal. A film is over as soon as the credits roll. Perhaps it will stay with us forever, perhaps it will be forgotten as soon as we leave the theater. In television, the goal is to get the audience coming back for more. The show has to keep delivering. Deadlines are set. Pressures mount. A division of labor creeps in. Creators don’t write, writers don’t direct, and, of those who do, they certainly don’t every episode. Writing rooms predominate. We imagine extremely talented people sitting around the conference table tossing ideas and stories back and forth, exerting checks and balances, coming to a consensus. The show may gain by way of streamlining and refinement, but loses something of the “singular quality,” the je ne sais quois of what sometimes goes by the name of “a work.” A television series is, almost by definition, a synergistic enterprise whose identity—“the show”—transcends the particular episodes that comprise it. Its essence precedes its existence. The audience precedes the show itself. Instead of “coming to be,” it is built.
If the pitch (premise, outline of characters, and so forth) is successful and the pilot is picked up, then begins a classic exercise in the “the grind”: the formulaic permutations, the perpetual riffing on a theme. In Veep, how the politician’s media image drives professional advancement to the exclusion of meaningful political discourse on the issues. In Californication, how the willful self-destructiveness of Hank ensures that family happiness will always elude him. We revel in the clever plot twists and dialogue, always keeping up with the cutting edge. But when was the last time a show quit while it was ahead? A successful show almost always overstays its welcome, shamelessly spinning out episode after episode, season after season, harvesting the golden goose for every egg it’s worth, long beyond the point of having any story to tell, until finally, all the life has been sucked out of it. By the third season, even the best dramas have transformed into top-heavy soap operas (the current fate of Girls), and the best comedies have blunted their fresh narrative edge for a smattering of funny moments.
Perhaps the best shows aren’t a “series” at all (which is really a crutch). With a seemingly endless reservoir of inspired ideas to dip from, of what use could serialized television be for a Trey Parker or a Larry David? Of the television series that work the best, they tend to be based on novels (or perhaps history), whose authors have at least thought through their stories from beginning to end. Television’s job is to flesh them out for the “screen,” then pack up and go home (Game of Thrones, True Blood, and so forth).
What does all this have to do with Woody Allen coming to television? When Allen finishes a film, he never looks at it again. Far from having the desire to sit on his laurels, he can’t wait to get started on his next project. Is it not the realm of possibility that rouses the creative mind to create? Even if his television show (will it be a series?) is wildly successful, it is unlikely he will go in for a second season, and all of us, though we may not like it, will be better off for it.
Allen also writes and directs all of his pictures (in film there is no separate credit title for “creator”). We should expect the same for his television show. The result won’t simply be interesting characters and stories with which we can all identify, but rather, with which we can’t fully identify, which don’t allow for “identification.” Opened to a space of reflective distance, we will instead be invited to contemplate the characters and the dramas they chart out, so that we may gain greater perspective on ourselves. We have to invoke the old distinction between “art” and “entertainment.” Art constrains us to a collision with self-knowledge—of a kind we don’t yet know, or at least don’t admit to ourselves. Entertainment lulls us into self-congratulation about what we do know, or at least tell ourselves. Television as a “work of art” remains, even in the flowering of its second golden age, a virtual transgression of form.
As pundits rightly point out, “immediacy” has always been the watchword of successful television. Also “passivity.” Indeed the two are correlative. Instant gratification requires little of us. We may go to the movies merely to divert ourselves. Still, “going to the movies” has the potential makings of an “event”: one stands to return home with an enlarged worldview, edified and richer in oneself. Television, typically watched in the winding-down hours of the home, is always competing with other channels for the viewer’s attention. The upshot is a popular leveling of the artistic playing field and flattering of the status quo. With more channels and more shows than ever before, television has become, yes, better, but also more “television” than ever before. Instead of becoming more visionary and disruptive, television has become edgier: sexier, cleverer, more violent, more melodramatic.
Whatever the tragic-Shakespearean aspiration in House of Cards, it is the Shakespeare of Richard III, not Richard II (let alone Macbeth!). If the character of Frank Underwood is meant to apotheosize Washington as a monstrosity of corruption and lust for power, how else does it manifest but as Kevin Spacey’s (admittedly invigorating) “shtick” of sinister posturing, culminating in the tossing of reporters into oncoming trains and killing off of senators who get in the way of his grand scheme? Exhilarating, to be sure—it is television at its best.
Allen also has his shtick, along with his magician’s bag of tricks, which, in large part, he no doubt learned from television itself, back in the early days when he was a writer for the likes of Sid Caesar. Yet as a filmmaker, he has learned to subordinate shtick to theme and character, and shocking climax to narrative arc. We may learn in the cliff-hanger finale of Season 2 that Claire Underwood, more substantially, is on a collision course with her conscience, but this comes after so much wavering and backsliding, balanced precariously against a host of other characters, all pursuing their own separate lines of development (how much is erratic improvisation, how much intentional composition?) that any such “collision,” lost to the poignancy of an ethical imperative, can only be read as one more device that will ensure we make it back for the commencement of Season 3.
For all of our cutting-edge satires, they are as smart as they are satirically impotent. Somehow, even our political shows manage a feat that is perhaps only possible, even necessary, in television: to de-politicize themselves. Excluding “news shows” (The Daily Show, Real Time With Bill Maher, etc.), which, with at least one foot in reality, still have the potential to arouse our sense of outrage and injustice. Not so in the world of television comedy fiction. Veep is a master-class in solacing our “ideological cynicism” (Zizek). While it has an Oscar-Wildesque flair for creating characters who aren’t so much likeable as celebrated for their imbecility, it also wins us over by presupposing incompetence and self-interest as the driving forces of our political system, where even the implicit injunction to do otherwise could only cause the show to stall: it can’t run on this fuel. However valiant may be the Chief-of-Staff Amy’s moral stand against President Meyer this season (or at least recent episode, will it continue?), it simply doesn’t work. Why should we care that Meyer’s administration is, indeed, “The worst thing that has happened to this country since food in buckets, and maybe slavery.” This is why we are so smitten with Podus (or eternal Veep). The sheer awkwardness of Selina’s (or Louis-Dreyfus’s?) reaction to Amy’s outburst registers everybody’s level of discomfort with the dangerous proximity to a remnant of political integrity.
We see a similar phenomenon at work in Silicon Valley: it wants to have its cake and eat it too. It takes endless delight in lampooning our latest bewildering, supernumerary technologies and in excoriating CEO billionaires for their total dissociation from (or exploitation of) ordinary people and the environment. Yet it neutralizes the subversive thrust by wholly embracing, without subtext or irony, the central protagonists and their beloved tech startup, whose goals, methods, and interests are ultimately the same, in kind if not in degree of caricature, as the self-aggrandizing billionaires they indict. The most incisive and interesting parts of the show get tacked on as surface motifs, where they are safe from disrupting the essential procedure of legitimizing the very object of its scorn: e.g., the incidental portrayal of an app that, assuming the role of parental authority, renders obsolete the need for actual hands-on interactive parenting.
Where all of these shows excel is in concord with the nature of television itself, whether a sitcom or a series. In television—as in society, if not art—context trumps text. Is “reality television” already built into television’s very notion? In our media-saturated society, when the imperative to keep our finger on the pulse of the times is stronger than ever, the explosion of “niche creations,” providing something for everybody, converges with the immense care that goes into contextualizing them. What we seem to want from our shows more than anything, and what they seem best able to give us, is not only that they are current and fashionable—in some way or other touching on the talking points and issues of the day (what “everybody else” is talking about)—but that they engage in a kind of “world-building.” That they immerse us in the operative fields, surroundings, cultures, and industries of the day.
Characters may be well-developed and defined, but what matters is outward role, and only the shadow of inwardness. Shows come alive to the extent that the inner workings and goings-on of the respective environments in which they are set and about which they teach us approach verisimilitude (however exaggerated). Research, “experts,” are paramount. But what is “social role,” especially in modernity, but a mask? And is it not the perennial task of serious art and literature to unveil this very mask, and expose the human-all-too-human who hides behind it?
The “transfiguration of the human” is something for which Woody Allen has at least striven in the best of his films. The demands of a different medium specificity may be no small cause for anxiety. Hence his prediction that “Roy Price will regret this.” Allen himself foresees “a cosmic embarrassment.” The old-timer—who still types on his trusty Olympia portable SM3, doesn’t use email or surf the web, and takes next to no interest in today’s pop culture—could struggle to anchor the show in a situation that will be especially, let alone immersively, compelling for either Millennials or Baby Boomers. His experience depicting mobsters, magicians, musicians, and so forth, has enabled him—with minimal delegation of authority for costumes and sets—to make a number of acclaimed “period pieces” (typically set in his favorite cultural era of the 1920s), but the top-of-the-head knowledge he relies on for writing and directing such pictures (no Boardwalk Empire) could prove unequal to a full season’s worth of television. Even the neurotic upper-middle-class New Yorker professionals for whom he usually writes hardly become significant as professionals, only as neurotics. It may have been bold of him to give Larry David the title of “string theorist” in Whatever Works, but we don’t believe this for a second. We may not care, either. But television is a different animal.
Lena Dunham has managed to focus Girls around the personal, non-specialized struggles of average (white middle-class) twenty-somethings, but the privilege of youth to seek in an existential vacuum not only wears increasingly thin as they grow up, but reminds us of what has been dubious about the series from the beginning: the kind of navel-gazing “Millennial entitlement” that wants to assert itself, apart from the world, as form. The miracle of Woody Allen’s “neurotics,” endowed with his own brand of existential humor and terror, is that they remain paradoxically “well-adjusted” types. At least, they are eminently, for better or worse, indebted and tied to the broad social relations of city, class, history, philosophical tradition, cultural heritage, and so forth. Will Allen be able to achieve such a delicate balance between the psychological and the social in television? Wild Man Blues (the documentary film by Barbara Kopple that follows Allen and his New Orleans jazz band on their 1996 European tour) could suggest a refreshing place to begin. Certainly more original than that other world with which Allen is so familiar: actors.
Whatever becomes of the project, Amazon’s latest acquisition—Woody Allen—is, from its point of view, strategically sound. So what if a typical Woody Allen film loses money? Amazon has been losing money for years and, to speak with Erlich in Silicon Valley, “Bezos is king.” Woody Allen offers something money can’t buy: cachet. Not to mention that, overseas, a typical Woody Allen film is a great success. Amazon, as hungry for international markets as for domestic ones, is looking for ways to export Prime abroad. A Woody Allen television show available for streaming exclusively on Prime isn’t a bad way to start.
As for the potential scandal of supporting an alleged sex offender? An enormous question mark hangs over that episode, which, as a media phenomenon, perhaps better drives home the scandal of our Internet mob hysteria (along with what would seem to be a pendulum shift toward “siding with the victim” at all costs, even truth). With recent bestsellers, such as Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, sounding the wake-up call to the role of social media in destroying honorable lives (not just working for the common good), does Amazon even announce itself as a beacon of cautious skepticism, a bastion of independent thought, a champion of online privacy rights? The disdain for political correctness surely works in its favor when companies like Starbucks take to exploiting race-discrimination talking points as a marketing tool.
Amazon must be thrilled by the deal, but what’s in it for Woody Allen, besides a fat check? Does he now regard television, sufficiently liberated from its institutional constraints, as a promising medium of creative expression? He wouldn’t be alone, as many others have also jumped on the television bandwagon. Not that the money is something to scoff at. Allen may be turning out a hit every two or three films since Match Point, but the intervening flops must serve as a constant reminder that the need to go abroad to finance his future films always hangs in the balance. With two teenage daughters to take into account, that could be especially difficult. Whether he’s following the money trail, is drawn to the aura surrounding television today, or is being followed by a red badge of shame everywhere but Europe and Amazon, does the old Woody Allen joke here turn savagely ironic? “Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” And has life now led him full circle, back to television? Or has television, perhaps not so bad anymore, even become so good that it’s managed to salvage itself from the disgrace of furnishing the detritus for the imitation of life? Whether Woody Allen will revolutionize the TV Revolution, or will simply be able hold his own, his fans will be watching.
A native of Washington, D.C., Joey Parmet received a B.A. in English and Humanities and a Masters in Comparative Literature from the University of Colorado. He has just written his third play, Almost Human, about an AI startup that teaches the more subtle aspects of literature to computers. Joey lives and works in Boulder, Colorado.