Discovering the Wonder and Pleasures of Historical Television

At the recent Film and History Conference, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the renowned Tom Gunning deliver a compelling talk about the nature of wonder and cinema.  There was something charming and delightful about his obvious love of early cinema, a period that isn’t as sexy as, say, contemporary blockbuster film but which, perhaps surprisingly, shares a great deal in common with it.  While I would love to write about that issue, today I want to think through another set of issues that Gunning’s talk raised for me, namely, is there wonder to be found in television?  If there is, how does it differ from its big-screen counterpart?

At first, I wasn’t sure that it does.  Television seems to work on very different logics—aesthetic, industrial, and political—from film, or at least it used to (though this point is, obviously, debatable, considering the long and intertwined history of the two media).  Then I began to think about historical drama television in particular, as well as recent discourses of quality and complexity (raised by such scholars as Jason Mittell), and I began to think that yes, television (and in particular, historical television), can offer us a particular type of wonder.

In her stunning essay on the Hollywood historical epic (which I highly recommend reading, even if you’re not particularly interested in that genre), Vivian Sobchack compellingly argues that these larger than life films offer spectators a means of being in time, of negotiating a particular way of experiencing ourselves as historical beings.  While the immersiveness and extravagance of a widescreen or CGI spectacle are largely out of the realm of even the most cutting-edge and high-end of TV drama (even Game of Thrones saves its CGI luxuriance for especially important moments), there are other pleasures of television that I think can engender in contemporary spectators a sense of wonder and sense of being-in-time.

There has long been a sense of immediacy to television, situated as it is within our homes, and to some this might suggest that television acts to tame some of the wilder excesses and pleasures offered by the epic film (one of the subjects of my dissertation).  At the same time, however, television also taps into a similar wellspring of libidinal energy and, as Amy Villarejo and Michele Aaron have recently pointed out in their work on the queerness of television, there is something increasingly promiscuous about the act of television viewing.  In an age of DVR and time-shifting, we in the audience are now invited to not only take part in the unfolding of the events of the historical past, but also to actually control how those events happen.

There is, however, still something of a resistance to seeing television in particular as capable of either conveying any sort of historical truth or engendering in audiences a sense of historical experience similar to that of, say, the epic (one of the most high-profile ways of representing past historical moments in the cinema).  Whereas epic films typically last upwards of 3 hours or more that one must watch all at once in a theater (if one wants to get the complete aesthetic experience), television’s narratives are stretched across several episodes (typically 10 in the case of cable, where most historical dramas go to live).  Whereas epics typically utilize all of the technological affordances of the cinema—widescreen technologies, long shots, casts of thousands, technological wizardry—television must make do with mostly indoor settings (though there are exceptions), as well as cheaper special effects.

And yet.  And yet I find myself increasingly drawn to the world of history brought to life on television, and not just because that is where decent storytelling has taken up residence.  Instead, it has something to do with the intermingled pleasure and embodied experience of watching television.  If epic films about the past engulf us as spectators, television history much more explicitly invites us to become a part of the workings of the past, through its evocation of the familiar genres of television, the family melodrama, the soap opera, the costume/heritage drama.  It is a mistake, I think, to dismiss these series as just more fluffy/soapy forays into the aesthetics of the past.  Instead, I would argue, they ask contemporary spectators to take a stance, to engage in exactly the types of unbridled sexual excess that makes so many series, from Rome to Game of Thrones.  I would even extend this to the violence on display on such series as Spartacus, as we as spectators are invited to understand the intertwining of sex, violence, and power in a world that is not our own yet is also a hyperbolized version of our own fraught sexual social world.

To experience the wonder of television is, in a sense, to give ourselves up to the jouissance of a different viewing experience of film.  This is not to say that one is better than the other, nor to suggest that there is not a relationship.  After all, part of what gives series like Rome and Spartacus their cultural capital is their reliance upon tropes and idioms expressed in their cinematic counterparts.  Nevertheless, as history becomes ever more prominent on our television screens, we would do well to consider what types of pleasures and wonders historical television offers us.  At the same time as we find ourselves drawn into the fraught worlds of politics, power, and violence, we must always be aware of our being in time.  We must always remain conscious of both our being in the past and our being in the present.  And that awareness, it seems to me, is one of the greatest of pleasures.

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