The A / B of TV
Over the New Year holiday period in Japan, despite my general distain for every day TV, I've been entertained by one TV programme that runs every year, called "A or B". A sort of game show, the contestants , usually a pair of are well-known celebrities, to tell the difference between the real and the replica, the high quality and the low quality. Each stage focuses on something different but the categories are usually fairly stable each year, comprising food, musical instruments - Strads versus Yamahas - professional versus amateur dance and the like. Despite it being absent the last few years, the category that made me most curious above the entertainment value, was the film section. Here, the same sequence of a drama using the same setting and actors, was filmed by a professional and an amateur. Invariably I'd get it wrong. But more than that, I usually thought that the amateur's version was better.
I'm not going to analyse the semiotics of Japanese framing and film techniques, I don't know enough about it, but I will make a simple observation. The framing of the amateur usually felt much more familiar because it was more inline with the techniques used in American drama and cinema. The professional used techniques that were more common in Japanese drama, which has a particular way of framing scenes in long shot and close up that is a bit unfamiliar to an eye trained on American TV shows. So when it came to deciding A or B, the measure of better was not purely one of quality, as it might be in types of wine or a musical performance, but whether it corresponded to what was perceived as professional in that filmic culture. It makes the judgement more subjective than objective.
In general, there is another quite a visible common difference between the typical Japanese TV drama and their American counterparts, but it is a difference that makes Japanese dramas, or at least the Japanese versions of Suits and 24, unpalatable to me*. In essence they look too real. Now, it has to be said that 24 is hardly realistic, and Hawaii 5-0 makes Honolulu seem like a hot bed of syndicate crime gangs and terrorists, when in fact it is one of the safest cities in the US, but the realism I'm talking about is aesthetic. Perhaps it's budgetary restraints, although I suspect that isn't the only factor, but the look of some TV dramas in Japan is as if you were watching unfiltered with your own eyes - it's too clear and clean. This, counter intuitively, serves to distance me rather than draw me in. The clarity highlights the un-realness of it.
American TV dramas while at times looking fake - you can tell Steve and Danny aren't really in the car as they bicker - exist through a lens that is filtered with a shorter depth of focus. This takes some of the sheen off the picture and even colourises it to suit a particular style, dulling or highlighting particular hues. The effect though, is to create something more compelling and more real. More real because perhaps knowing that it is just a story suspends your disbelief, as you do in the cinema, and just enjoy it. It's more absorbing.
The rise of streaming TV, especially Netflix, is also leading to a correspondent rise in production values of TV dramas, providing long form story telling with a level of quality previously only seen in cinema. This is still a format that hasn't reached its full creative potential, but already the choice about what to watch is becoming overwhelming - the Expanse, the Mandalorian, Stranger Things, reruns of Hawaii 5-0 - and is set to rise further as Disney+ and Apple add more content. Still, most of the shows I still like to watch are the serialised, episodic, weeklies and mostly featuring some sort of detective element.
My favourite shows growing up were Knight Rider and the Dukes of Hazzard. I haven't come so far. These days I enjoy the re-imaged Magnum PI and more recently the Equalizer. The key is that the emotional and temporal involvement is low - no compulsion to find out what happens next and lose a day in a binge fest - but the entertainment value is high enough that it's an enjoyable way to switch off for an hour. It's certainly formulaic - setup, problem, resolution, usually professionally and personally - but then it's not cognitively taxing without being mundane. Which is as it should be for a piece of entertainment and I can better put my brain cells to work on something other than the machinations of Game of Thrones.
What I want out of a TV drama then is both simple and not. The production values and quality have to be high enough that it's necessarily absorbing, but the plots and format should be simple enough so as to not require much effort while at the same time keeping me engaged enough to want to come back next week. There is certainly an art to doing that well within those constraints, and I hope it isn't entirely supplanted by the possibilities of streaming. I might eventually get used to the Japanese style of TV drama too, but for now: where is that last episode of Wandavision?!
*I should point out that my sample of Japanese TV dramas is very limited and cursory, so perhaps these observations are off the mark. It is also true that there are and have been some TV dramas in Japan with exceptional story telling.