Here’s What They Get Wrong And Why I Disagree With Many of Their Conclusions about Hollywood
There is a story about Hollywood and the two figures have differed from telling to telling. Since the point is the anecdote, let’s say that it involves Jack Warner and Billy Wilder.
As the story goes Jack Warner wanted to woo Billy Wilder over to his studio from MGM. The mogul went to see Wilder and made a sales pitch giving a listing of all of the great films and actors who worked at his studio and the greats works of cinema he could make.
Wilder cut him off mid-pitch: “The difference between the two of us, Mr. Warner, is that you are primarily interested in art, whereas I am primarily interested in money.”
After more than a century since Hollywood was founded the industry of criticism — let’s not call it anything but that fact — has basically been founded in total ignorance of that fact. Indeed, whenever they talk about the business of Hollywood they seem insulted by that idea. I’m going to quote a recent New Yorker article that touches on this in a couple of ways:
“The default setting of the industry is crap. Occasionally, the incentives change just enough to allow for a cascade of innovation, but those incentive inevitably shift back to the norm.”
In one sentence the writer acknowledges that Hollywood is an industry and in the very next sentence degrades for being just that. It would take your breath away but it’s the kind of magical thinking that almost every critic I have ever read seems to have decided to forget.
This article is no different. It looks at the era of the 1970s as the age of auteurs — Coppola, Scorsese, Altman — until the brats — hacks like Spielberg — restored the reign of commerce. In other words there was shining moment when the moguls who were only interested in money lost their grip, these auteurs — whose films were all immensely profitable got to make art — and then these hacks like Spielberg started making films that were only making money. In other words the studios should have been interested in making money when they should have been making art for the critics and people who like them. The public as we all know has nothing to do with it. There’s a similar dialogue when it comes to independent films when they were nice little pieces of Hollywood, and then Pulp Fiction made millions of dollars and ruined it for everybody else.
You would think given the recent labor stoppage in Hollywood this past spring and summer that these same critics might have been capable of remembering Hollywood is a business and the people who labor in merely employees. But no, in the New Yorker the critics continue to rain praise only on obscure foreign films, but even the big studio films that are made by directors such as Scorsese and Ridley Scott. One looks at Napoleon and choosing not only to pan the film, but the entire genre of the biopic.
This article is not, however, about film but rather about television. It deals with two different recent books about the subject of Peak TV: Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile and Greed Upended TV by Peter Biskind and Maureen Ryan’s Burn It Down: Power, Complicity and a Call for Change in Hollywood. (I mentioned the latter in an article I wrote this past year about Ryan’s ‘expose’ of Lost that she published as a teaser for her book.) I think based on the titles alone you know the agendas of both Ryan and Biskind are very clear in the summary of a recent New Yorker piece that argues for a ‘eulogy’ for prestige TV.
It’s worth noting that the conclusions of all three writers are biased to their own prejudices and all of them miss the fundamental point what Wilder told Warner. Critics seem to think Hollywood should be interested in art, when they are entirely interested in money. The New Yorker author comes closest to admitting that but it’s still basically the critic shouting why the people can’t just like the films and shows they like instead of the ‘crap’ that they all go too. All of them might be willing to acknowledge that Hollywood’s job is to provide a product for people to consume. But none of the three writers — or truly any critic — seems to truly comprehend that the industry only produces what people want to see. Americans do not want to see four hour African films about farmers, documentaries about obscure politicians, or miniseries based on the novels of James Joyce. Critics might want to see these films, but they are a percentage point of a percentage point of the population. I don’t like it that almost every project out of Hollywood is a superhero film or a Star Wars spinoff, but if millions of people go to see them, clearly the market has spoken. Because no critic can ever blame its readers for being dumb enough to want to see the next Fast and Furious or Mission: Impossible (though trust me, given the contempt in their reviews they clearly are looking down on the people who do) they will blame the industry for it.
Similarly this article tends to blame the decline of Peak TV with the fact that HBO chose not to offer a one-season deal to House of Cards in 2011 and Netflix offer David Fincher $100 million for a two-season deal. Biskind apparently choosing to blame HBO — and really every other network — for not wanted to take such a big financial risk.
House of Cards and Orange is the New Black dropped in 2013, with all thirteen episodes debuting at once. I’ll write a longer article about my problems with binge-watching as an activity and as a business model, but the blame is clear. John Landgraf claimed that “you can’t make art by throwing money at it.” It leaves out the fact that every studio in Hollywood has to make money first.
And I have to tell you at the end of the day all of the people who choose to argue that the last twenty years have been a golden age of TV have been engaged in selective memory. The year after The Sopranos debuted, TV Guide named the best show of 2000 Survivor, a reality show. We all now know that this show, like so many of the others that have followed, are so manipulated from the inside that they might as well be scripted. But it didn’t matter millions of people tuned into watch, and every industry — even cable and eventually streaming got on board.
And there was a lot of TV that many considered great television that was as much camp as anything else. Desperate Housewives which was a phenomena in 2004, aged badly very quickly, as did much of the work of Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, both on Network TV and other service. And it was erratic even among the success: for every American Crime Story, you got so much of American Horror Story and it’s not like Inventing Anna and Ratched are something resembling gold.
The compromise that critics like me have made with myself over the last twenty years is that TV has always been about taking the stuff you like and discarding what you don’t. I myself made these bargains with network TV over the last decade: I accepted that American Idol was the price of 24 becoming the success it was; I dealt with the fact that Survivor existed because that meant I could enjoy shows like Joan Of Arcadia, and I was willing to let The Voice exist so that I could enjoy 30 Rock and Parks & Rec. I was even willing to compromise with fictional shows leading to more artistic ones: I was fine to let Scandal exist on Thursday night if it met there was room for American Crime.
The reason we seemed to be an era of Peak TV was the same reason it couldn’t last; there were too many shows on the air. Some of them were going to be brilliant and watched by large numbers, some were going to be watched by few, and the reality shows and formulas were always going to be the most successful. A TV viewer makes compromises to enjoy what they watch. Biskind and the New Yorker seems to argue that you shouldn’t have to compromise so they can enjoy what they want. Business doesn’t work that way.
Ryan’s work is an ‘expose’ of the industry but its clear from the writing she has the same axe to grind that she has. Though to be clear, she takes it a step further arguing that ‘there was no golden age of TV’ because it just involved heterosexual white dudes doing bad things which is what they’ve been doing forever.
Ryan’s work is about the toxic masculinity and racism that infiltrates Peak TV, which to be clear, wasn’t news five years ago. She relitigates most of the horror stories we’ve heard ever since, not merely about female writers and writers of color in Hollywood, but how male executives bad behavior is tolerated and female executives are thrown under the bus. In other words, an industry that has been prominently dominated by white males has created a culture of toxic masculinity that still pervades every aspect of it. You could basically fill in the blanks for any industry that’s ever existed.
I don’t think I have to read Ryan’s book to know what it is: based on what I’ve read, it’s another in a long line of horror stories about the entertainment industry shifted to make us hate the shows we’ve spent the past twenty years loving. I imagine that there will be no mention of Frankie Shaw, who Showtime gave a multi-season deal for SMILF in 2017 and then had to cancel the series in 2018 after it was revealed she’d been harassing many of the female actors. Or Sarah Treem, one of the co-runners of The Affair a series that was hailed for its realistic depiction of nudity and which Ruth Wilson unexpectedly resigned from in the midst of Season 4 for unexplained reasons. Later it was revealed she had objected to the nude scenes that the writers — including Treem — kept forcing her to film. Or that Lena Waithe’s The Chi, a series built on the experiences of young African-Americans in Chicago, had to fire one of her leads after season 2 because he was harassing people on set. Like everyone else, she will ignore those who blemish the portrait she’s painting.
Ryan chooses to look at the industry’s shift to giving more female antihero based series such as Insecure, I May Destroy You, Orange is the New Black, Girls and Transparent as a sign of the entertainment industry shifting to better models and away from the temperamental geniuses. Isn’t it pretty to think so. All that this indicates is the business of Hollywood sees a way to make money in the models of these complicated women, whether white, of color, or LGBTQ+. It leaves out the bigger problem that Hollywood being a business, does not like courting controversy as well as the polarizing nature of the industry. You can not escape the average site and look at any show that has a female or African-American as a lead once held by a white, straight male as ‘woke’, and therefore automatically isolating an entire group of the fanbase. Hollywood is a business that has to operate on cost-benefit analysis and it can not make these ‘dream projects’ without being able to avoid financial risk. I honestly think the only reason Hollywood started making strides towards integrating to a large extent in the 1990s was because they were afraid of isolating a demographic. Hollywood was always based on trying to please as many people as possible; in a world where its increasingly hard to please anybody it’s going to be harder to make risks.
Ryan also believes that a more equitable Hollywood and less in thrall to temperamental geniuses will lead to a better era for everybody. I just can’t buy that. Hollywood is a business and it’s a business that is in trouble, something that both Biskind and Ryan seem set on ignoring. Television, like every other business, is risk averse: that’s why you keep seeing so many reboots or spinoffs of earlier projects. It was such in the 1970s; it was such in the age of Prestige TV. Even shows that are as inventive as Fargo are, for all intents purposes, an adaptation of a successful film.
But unlike the writer of this article and Biskind, I don’t believe Peak TV is over, merely evolving. I do agree with Ryan that the future of Peak TV may be female: some of the best shows of the new decade have been female driven, if not female run. I speak of Yellowjackets, the brilliant anthology Cruel Summer, Hacks, The Gilded Age and Abbott Elementary. These series come from streaming services, pay channels, an obscure cable network and broadcast TV. Sure there will be gems that will disappear to quickly and crappy shows that last far too long. That has always been the nature of the beast, and it always will be.
There’s a famous maxim by Theodore Sturgeon that ninety percent of everything is crap. It’s likely that this was true even in the era of prestige TV, and the reason it seemed that it wasn’t was that the world was so fixated by the ten percent that was gold that we chose to ignore everything else that was airing. The problem with television these days is the same problem all critics have: they can’t accept that everything they watch isn’t absolutely perfect without a flaw and that so much of what they consider ‘crap’ is beloved by millions.
So maybe look at it this way. Maybe the Golden Age isn’t over because it never truly existed in the first place. That is the power of nostalgia and selective viewing: we tend to look at certain eras more fondly than others. That we chose to believe that in the past twenty years we were in a golden age may have been more likely then before. But the idea that every single show on the air was the level of The Sopranos or The Shield or Homeland would never hold water. It implied that every single network was producing nothing but gems from the moment they got started and we all know that’s impossible. Even while The Sopranos was airing shows like Arliss were taking up oxygen for six seasons; FX was airing Dirt when The Shield was on the air and Hell on Wheels was airing while Mad Men and Breaking Bad were on the air. Hell, House of Cards wasn’t Netflix’s first show; does anyone even remember LilyHammer? Even if television really was art, that doesn’t mean that every single work of art is a masterpiece. Critics would do well to remember that too.
I’m not going to lie there are many factors that don’t make me feel optimistic about the future of television. But I also don’t think were past the era of Peak TV either because there’s never a single moment when TV is either entirely perfect or entirely horrible. Like everything else in the human experience, it offers great moments and truly horrible ones. It is our job at the viewer to seek out what we enjoy and discard what we do not. And it does not matter to the viewer if it created because it is done for art or money: if we enjoy it, it holds the same value.