Audiences are becoming smarter.
It wasn’t always like this.
TV rots your mind! Chewing gum for the eyes, as Father Ted says in one episode. And it’s quite hard to deny, having grown up in the UK with the likes of terrible laughter track sitcoms such as Birds of a Feather, One Foot in the Grave, and, later on, the atrocious My Family. Lines were spoon-fed, we were told when to laugh, and every double-entendre about drainpipes/drawers/bedsprings was rolled out for our despair on cue, like a hungover clown before an audience of snivelling toddlers.
Today’s comedy is a different animal. The evolution of the cringe comedy à la Ricky Gervais ushered in the arrival of such shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a mockumentary following the life of a cantankerous old man. It was basically Victor Meldrew all over again, except this time no one was telling us when to laugh. And thank goodness for that – it was, and still is by today’s standards, a pretty good series. The lack of canned laughter is now the comedy standard – no one tells us what to do!
No one has to.
What about drama? We’ve had a spate of ‘clever TV’ in the past decade, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to the Ayn Rand stylings of Mad Men. Perhaps the greatest sign that the TV execs don’t just think we’re a bunch of thickos is evident in the decision to broadcast the excellent German spy thriller Deutschland 83 over here. Not an English adaptation like The Experiment, not redubbed, but subtitled. It’s also the first German language drama to air in the US. We follow a young East German spy’s foray into the West for the first time, where he is just as overwhelmed by the choice of brands in the supermarkets as he is by the covert operations he must undertake in the name of the DDR. It’s a new world for him, and, in many ways, for us.
It takes a huge leap of faith in the audience to launch a historical show that, for the most part, does not concern us. The two Germanys and their polar ideologies might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Why take the risk?
Because it’s damn good TV, that’s why. With a coveted score of 100% on RottenTomatoes, the show is slick, clever, and totally gripping. It injects life into the spy genre, and scenes where young “Moritz Stamm” (his spy alias) plants bugs and retrieves floppy disks from hotel safes are so painstakingly nerve-wracking that they have the viewers covering their eyes. He’s not a pro, but a football-loving everyman plucked from his normal life who just wants to go home. He is us.
It’s the small stuff that makes Deutschland 83 outstanding. It’s watching downtrodden East Germans savoring a cup of naughty (verboten!) Nescafé, instead of their usual state-issued shit. It’s Moritz silently marveling at the array of bath products in his luxurious Western hotel room, or listening to the Eurythmics in bemusement. It brings Goodbye Lenin! to mind, where we watch Daniel Brühl’s character scramble to replicate minute details of the DDR in a reunified Germany, so as not to upset his ailing, fiercely socialist mother.
The small details are what make drama compelling. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner points out how watching ad man Don Draper scrub his mouth out with dish soap after cheating on his wife is far more daring, and far more revealing of character, than what any other show was doing at the time. It’s worth noting that Weiner cut his teeth as a writer for The Sopranos, perhaps the first of the dramas to take a far more ‘internal’ approach to story and characterisation. Every look, every nuance, even a sip of a drink has meaning, and the camera picks that right up. Tony Soprano’s trips to the psychiatrist add another outlet for inner struggle. As he pours his poor old mob boss sob story out to the aloof, mostly silent Dr. Melfi, we are able to pick up on when he is putting on an act, trying to elicit sympathy, or even admiration. We call out his shit right along with Melfi, and not because we are told to.
Matthew Weiner elaborates:
“…Because to see something that was that good be financially successful was very important. To prove that the world was not filled with idiots. And even if they liked it for the wrong reason. Every argument that you heard in a writers’ room, every time you tried to do something good, was that people wouldn’t understand it. And they wouldn’t like it and therefore it wouldn’t sell. And everything good that had ever been made had flopped.”
The audience doesn’t need to be told. We can decide for ourselves.
Here’s a bit more from Weiner about how we aren’t morons.
And here’s the trailer for Deutschland 83, if you haven’t seen it yet.