Tuned In

The New King of Tinytube

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A few weeks ago I blogged that, with the purchase of a new HDTV, I had abdicated the position of Professional Television Critic with the Worst TV Set in America. Now a new aspirant has claimed the throne: Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe, who, like I once did, bought his 20-inch set back when an innocent America was delighted by the antics of Ross Perot and captivated by the hip-hop stylings of Kris Kross. Says Gilbert, the constraints of his modest cathode-ray boulder keep him focused on what’s important in TV:

My ordinary set helps me keep my eye on what’s essential about the TV
material I cover — primarily fictions such as drama and comedy series,
made-for-TV movies, and (yes, they’re fictional) reality shows. Without
a lot of sophisticated sensory overload, I think, a show’s writing,
acting, and editing stand out more clearly. I can stay in touch with
the true marks of good storytelling, without having to parse them out
from a dazzling barrage.

I definitely agree with Gilbert on one thing: the supersizing of American screens not only encourages more cinematic TV but excuses using great visuals as a substitute for storytelling. I half wonder whether the influence of giant screens explains what I’d call the quality plateau of the new pilots I’m seeing for fall. There’s an unusual lack of really awful pilots and an unusual surplus of interesting, competently made pilots. But there are no pilots that stand out as more exceptional than the rest, the way Lost did in 2004, or Arrested Development in 2003, or Freaks and Geeks in 1999. If the big-screen beautification of TV means that we’ve defined mediocrity upward, that’s good, I guess, but I hope we don’t lose real standout scripts that don’t translate as well visually.

That said, I think there’s something a little King Canute vs. the sea about hanging on to an old TV out of principle. TV is what it is nowadays, and a critic might as well have the option of seeing it as it was intended. (Of course I have to believe that, having just dropped well over a grand on a giant piece of glass.)

Regardless, Gilbert makes a valuable point: that changing the box you use to deliver the medium affects the medium itself. And we’re in a weird time now, where we no longer share a universal way of viewing TV. Just a decade or so ago, you might have a bigger TV and I might have a smaller one, but we were both watching a cathode-ray box with a 4 to 3 screen ratio. But now there’s a substantial chunk of the audience watching on something that looks a lot more like a movie screen, wide and narrow and lit with plasma or LCD. Another major chunk is still watching on old-school boxes. And a growing minority are catching shows on iPods, or computer screens, or 7-inch portable DVD players. Even if we’re watching the same shows, are we really watching the same thing? And who can say which of us is watching the show the right way?

I don’t know, but for now I’m erring on the side of using a screen that doesn’t threaten to crash through my living room floor. And if anyone there is a friend of Matthew Gilbert’s, you could pick him up a modest, 4 x 3, 20-inch flatscreen for a few hundred bucks. It won’t corrupt his judgment any more than his current, "heavy but quite liftable" set. But it might just save his back.