Thursday, July 16, 2009

Beyond Categories

As I have (too?) frequently observed, I have been heavily influenced by Gerald Edelman's proposition that our capacity for forming perceptual categories from our sensory signals constitutes the bedrock of our very consciousness. What I may not have emphasized enough, however, is that the sorts of categories Edelman has in mind are fluid, rather than static; and, indeed, from Edelman's point of view, memory is best regarded as an ongoing recategorization of both categories themselves and their membership criteria, meaning those criteria are necessarily fluid. This would imply the corollary that any individual who insists on rigidly defined and static category boundaries is suffering from serious cognitive impairment.

I suspect there are a fair number of readers who would appreciate my now following a free association path from the concept of cognitive impairment to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, but that is a bit the way I reacted to scanning through the major Emmy Award nominations. While, from the point of view of those concerned with little more than selling soap, my television viewing is too insufficient and idiosyncratic to signify, when I compare what I watch against what has been nominated, I cannot help but conclude that the Academy has been making some really arbitrary decisions based on an ineffective system of categories. I refer specifically to the categories of "drama" and "comedy."

Granted, I may be one of the few people writing on a regular basis who appeals to Aristotle's ontology in which "tragedy" and "comedy" are subcategories of "drama" and are distinguished more by the qualities of the agents than by the nature of their acts (as Kenneth Burke would put it). Remote as it may be from our times, Aristotle's approach has some merit to it. Drama is ultimately about imitation, and we bear witness to drama for the sake of being informed by those imitations. If we are entertained as well as informed, so much the better. (Personally, I believe that if I am just informed without any entertainment, I might as well be spending my time on the pleasures of reading a book.)

Now I can understand why the Academy wants to avoid words like "tragedy." Not only does the word fail to sell soap; but it tends to be the case that, when something tragic does show up on television, all commercials get cancelled out of respect for the tragedy. On the other hand the semantics of "comedy," regardless of how Aristotle chose to characterize it, took quite a beating in the twentieth century. Consider how much critical ink was spilled over the question of whether or not Bonnie and Clyde was a comedy. It certainly satisfied Aristotle's principal criterion as "as imitation of baser men;" but people did not like to call a movie where someone gets shot in the face a comedy. By the time we got to The Sopranos, it was pretty hard to use the old words sensibly any more. As Alexander Pushkin had called his play about Boris Godunov a "comedy of the distress of the Muscovite State," it made perfect sense to me to call The Sopranos a comedy of the distress of organized crime in contemporary times. Needless to say, the Academy did not see it that way. As far as they were concerned, it did not make sense to put Tony Soprano in the company of the Seinfeld guys.

So I have no problem when something that may be "technically" comedy gets classified as drama. Drama is the "umbrella category;" so the distinction begins in a state of muddle and descends from there. This year, however, I found myself reacting to seeing one of the most serious and thought-provoking series I had encountered on television get classified as comedy. I refer specifically to the nomination of Toni Collette for Lead Actress in a Comedy on the basis of her work in United States of Tara. I have only written about this program twice on this blog, but on both occasions I did so to emphasize the significance of its narrative. I referred to that narrative as "the provocative suggestion that there are times when living with the problem my be preferable to living with the consequences of the solution." Such a precept is anathema to the entire institution of advertising, which is based on the premise that any product can be pushed off as a "solution." To make matters worse, in Tara's case the "solution" was a pharmacological one; so the real message was that sometimes it is better to go without your medications and just cope with your condition. I can imagine that every pharmaceutical company saw Tara as a dangerous ideological opponent and was probably relieved that it appealed to a rather limited audience.

None of this is to suggest that either United States of Tara or any member of its production team is unworthy of awards. There is no doubt that this has been Showtime's finest hour in the history of their internally-produced material. Indeed, in the history of televised dramatic narratives, I am not sure that I can compare Tara to anything other than Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" (which I have done) when it comes to significant achievements. However, like "Marty" Tara was a paradigm shift away from the normative practices of television production (just as Thomas Kuhn's original concept of a paradigm shift involved a departure from what was accepted as "normal science"); and the shift was great enough that those determined to keep those normative practices in place have no idea what to do with it. For my part I could not care less what awards it does or does not win. All that matters to me is whether or not the suits at Showtime give it a crack at a second season.

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