Physical therapy is additive. Each immobilized joint and wounded tendon requires its own manipulations to come back to life. At peak, I spent six hours a day (four sessions of 1-1/2 hours each) with heating pads, putty, pulleys, gravity and ice; mending my broken hand, shoulder, and back. I marched in place, massaged my scapula, clenched my fist, cranked my pinkie, and tilted my pelvis. Thank goodness for yogic Ujjayi breath to pace my exertions. Thank goodness for miniseries’ to divert the tedium.
The last time I watched TV with any regularity was in the 1980s. My wife liked ensemble series; St. Elsewhere and LA Law provided our escape from graduate school grind. Since human nature rejects anything a spouse enjoys once that spouse becomes ex, I haven’t watched a series in over 25 years. Ah, how time and circumstance change things. Sitting around, massaging my extensor tendon, I have fallen under the thrall of the miniseries – soap operas addictive as potato chips clawing at the underbelly of art.
Krys Holmes once gave me a useful definition: “Entertainment takes you out of the world. Art pulls you deeper it.” I think of her words every time the logo ‘HBO Entertainment’ pops on my screen between episodes of Boardwalk Empire. It confirms I am watching entertainment and not art. So why am I as captivated by the gangsters of 1920s Atlantic City as any character from Dickens, Hardy, or Shakespeare? When Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg weave the Oedipal tragedy into the second season, are they simply plot robbers, or are they aspiring to something higher?
There is an art to the miniseries form: multiple plotlines, complex characters, moral ambiguity. For me, Breaking Bad and The Network don’t have enough plotlines to maintain interest over multiple seasons, while Downton Abbey just keeps ladling them on. Some machinations resolve within an episode, others stretch out for years. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards) turns a good deed just often enough to keep us guessing about his intentions, but Thomas, Downton Abby’s footman turned military coward, is so consistently reprehensible his scenes fall flat – we cannot care about someone who’s never nice. Characters who endure moral transformation are most compelling. Bryan Cranston (Walter Whyte in Breaking Bad) leaves me cold; I don’t believe that the damage he creates justifies his intentions. But Kelly McDonald (Mrs. Thompson in Boardwalk Empire) mesmerizes me; her evolution from abused wife to pious Catholic to stock market shark is as fascinating as it is unrealistic.
Of course, in the realm of the miniseries, realism is relative. The Wire attempts real-world veracity. Breaking Bad is every-day America with an uncanny understanding of the Periodic Table. They are both too real for me. I prefer glamour in my escape: period costumes, lavish sets, and amusing accents.
Which brings me back to the ‘HBO Entertainment’ logo and Krys Holmes’ definition of art. Popular miniseries are one of the few morsels of shared culture we have left. And they are certainly entertaining. But at their best, I think they rise to the level of art. The crimes Walter Whyte commits to provide for his family invite moral discussion among his viewers. The Network’s inability to broadcast news sanitized of bias reflects a world of competing truths. Frank Underwood’s underhandedness doesn’t just portray corrupt government; it fuels attitudes that all government is corrupt. No one can watch House of Cards without coming away mistrustful of the hooligans inside the Beltway.
The best miniseries are entertainments that inform our view of reality. They have moved beyond escapism. They’ve become art. Or maybe that’s just what I want to think, watching them for hours very day.