I grew up in a household where the TV was always on. I moved the other way as I built my own life — living for a decade without a television set, for example, and then viewing very selectively once I caved in and bought one. While raising children and making a radio show, I've had little space for anything but sporadic TV watching. But, a few years ago, I began to find one or two shows every season that came to feel like required watching — a pleasure I would look forward to. I could get lost in a good yarn involving an artistry of writing, acting, and storytelling. I realized I was taking in TV shows the way I normally consume good books. When they ended, their characters and themes stayed with me too.
I'm not alone, of course, in noticing this renaissance in thoughtful, crafted television that has flourished, paradoxically perhaps, alongside reality TV. Diane Winston calls it a new "golden age" of television that's made possible, in part, through digitization and the new bar for quality set by HBO and other cable programmers. She watches this trend from an interesting perch and says it has emerged from, and speaks to, the age we inhabit.
Hard times bring out our need for stories that help us make meaning, Winston says, and writers respond. Many of the TV creators that speak to her classes at USC are choosing to write for television rather than film these days. In the current medium, these producers and writers say they can unfurl their stories and help tell the larger story of our time.
I had long been looking forward to this conversation with Diane Winston. She's someone I've admired and known as a colleague for several years, and with whom I've even watched some television — and our conversation did not disappoint. I've wanted to indulge the passion with which I enjoy Battlestar Galactica, or more recently Lost, but also to examine my own sense that these television narratives are important — that they are spiritually and theologically resonant, and even thrilling.
We had lots of fun pulling clips from a few shows to illustrate the themes Diane Winston discusses, and I knew there was one I wanted right at the top of the show. To whet your appetite — and especially if you have always imagined the new Battlestar Galactica as another cheesy sci-fi action show — you can listen to the audio clip here too. The character speaking is a Cylon, a human-made human-like machine with which human beings become involved in an epic encounter through war, peace, and everything in between.
Yet, happily, as much as this conversation confirms my sense of the gravitas of the new shows — on medical ethics; "the other"; the human encounter with its own technology; religious fundamentalism; and the human condition — it also helps me relax and enjoy them. Diane Winston reminds me that there is an innate value and pleasure in the very act of storytelling, a pleasure we need as human beings and have lost in much of Western culture. The power of stories to engage, provoke, disturb, and delight — to "reenchant the world," as Winston puts it — are precisely what make them so resonant in the realms of human relationship, politics, war, and peace. Television series do this differently than other media and institutions. But they may play an essential role alongside newspapers and religion if the story of our time is to evolve and yield new possibilities.
Finishing this show was a wonderful deadline for my producers and me as we prepare to take our first-ever summer hiatus. For the next six weeks, we'll replay some of our favorite programs from the past year as we restore some balance in our lives and work. I'll be heading off to Ireland for two weeks, and am so looking forward to that. I hope that your summer, too, holds both adventure and rest. And may I recommend that you indulge in some great television alongside your summer reading? Enjoy, and be refreshed, in that order.