Tuesday, December 7, 2010
On Terriers and Presidents: A Semi-Political Screed
"I don't know if subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves."
In case you missed it--and you probably did--one of the best new shows of the television season got canceled the other day. It was called Terriers, and it was a private eye show with an inappropriate name and a lackluster marketing campaign; it also happened to be quirky and compelling and funny, and its two co-stars exuded more charisma and on-screen chemistry than anyone outside of Don and Peggy on Mad Men. And when it was over, a remarkable thing happened: The president of the FX Network, Jon Landgraf, held a press conference to explain why he'd cancelled the program.* Alan Sepinwall, one of the most respected television critics in the country and a primary champion of the show, said he couldn't remember that ever happening before.
In the end, the reason was pretty simple: The ratings for Terriers were terrible, even for a niche show on a cable network with a certain amount of critical cache. But during the press conference, Landgraf uttered the statement I've quoted above. He was talking about shows like Jersey Shore and The Kardashians,* about how a show like Terriers sometimes gets lost amid the noise. And he's right. It's always astounding to look at ratings and realize how few people are watching Mad Men in comparison to, say, Two and a Half Men. That's the thing about modern television: It's far better than it's ever been, and yet it's just as bad as it's ever been, as well. Most people turn on the television in search of mindless distraction, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, the hard numbers for a show like Terriers are a painful reminder that those of us who yearn for subtlety in our entertainment are still in the extreme minority.
In case you missed it--and you probably did--President Obama held a press conference this afternoon to discuss the impending deal on tax cuts. It was an odd moment, all these reporters pouncing on him for his perceived capitulation while Obama engaged in a vociferous argument for compromise in the face of otherwise certain defeat. It ended with the angriest pragmatist argument I'd seen from him since he became president; it felt like a moment of clarity amid months of obfuscation. And I'm sure the commetariat will find fault with the things he said, and I'm sure the left will continue with their apoplexy over his willingness to compromise in the face of certain defeat**, and I'm sure the right will continue to champion largely irrational ideas and question Obama's very fitness to hold office.
The problem facing our president, strangely enough, is the same problem that faced a low-rated program on a cable television network. The problem facing Barack Obama is that he is attempting to govern with subtlety, and those of us who appreciate such things are still in the extreme minority. Which means we may not appreciate what he's done until years later. Wrote Lost creator Damon Lindelof, "Cancellation sucks, but ten years from now, we'll still be talking about TERRIERS."
And someday, when we are again unwise enough to elect a blindly partisan figure to the highest office, we will know exactly what he means.
*He also mentioned Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead, which is a little more peculiar, since--while I've never seen Sons of Anarchy--I think both those shows are at least somewhat sophisticated in terms of plot and character development.
**What amazes me is how many smart people on the left fail to see the difference between abandoning one's principles and attempting to govern in the most effective manner. I admit, this is a colossally frustrating moment for everyone except the few remaining acolytes of Arthur Laffer, but today Obama essentially made the most compelling case I've ever seen by a president that he actually does put the American people before politics. And he will be villified for it, because--thanks to cable television and the Internet--people are more concerned with gamesmanship--with the winning and losing of politics--than they ever have been before.