"We'll be back on the air when we know anything," or why books are better than television
My beefs with Law and Order are the (faux?) handheld camerawork and the humorless deadpan batting back and forth of sound bites about Important Issues. The former may have been edgy in the late 1960s and seemed edgy in early music videos, but now it's an annoying cliché. The latter is an unsuccessful attempt to get around something that books can do better than television: convey factual information.
That shortcoming is especially noticeable in shows about forensic investigation, where characters will recite aloud to one another lines like "In some respects, he meets the typical profile: White male, 30 to 35 years old, lives alone, good job, some graduate school. You know, I bet he tends not to have many friends and has trouble forming relationships with women." Real investigators would know this stuff and would not need to spout it to each other. The actors' delivery is invariably wooden, and the scenes destroy the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for drama or fiction to work. In fiction, this sort of thing is called an information dump. In television, it's called Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
I watched part of an episode tonight over pizza, interrupted occasionally by NBC's cut-ins about the New Hampshire presidential primaries. These are terrible, because even a short cut-in tries to stretch about four seconds of information ("With 57 percent of the vote counted, Hillary Clinton leads Barack Obama, 36 percent to 32 percent.") over several minutes of air time. So you get television "journalists" who try to make the obvious sound profound ("Jim, I think what we'll see here is that if he gets just 3 percent of the vote in this critical early state, you may see him change his strategy."), and you get panicked commentators who fill dead air with annoying verbal tics, like the guy tonight who said "if you will" four times.
But the evening was not a total waste. NBC's Brian Williams, no doubt wanting to convey the immediacy of the occasion, implied more than he intended when he told viewers as he signed off that "We'll be back on the air when we know anything."
And now, readers, over to you. In what other ways do books tell stories better than television? What advantages does television have as a medium for telling stories?
© Peter Rozovsky 2008