Novel Television

david thomson on the age of “home theater.”

In “Murder in the North,” David Thomson not only reviews the captivating new television trilogy, Red Riding, but also analyzes the current state of television watching. He emphasizes not only the content of recent shows we watch on the tube, from The Sopranos to re-released films on DVD, but also the experience of watching television in the age of what Thomson calls “home theater” (think 500 channels on, satellite networks, Tivo, DVR, and “the new screens that we are buying, as big as CinemaScope windows”).

…a change is in the making—call it home theater, if you like, if you still feel confident about that word ‘home.’ It’s the grim huddle of people who’ve given up going to the movies for their fancy new screens—plasma, digital, or HD, but the feeling is that at last television looks like something. It’s not exactly photographic; rather, it involves a digital or electronic sheen that seems to thrill young people.

The essay is a kind of meditation on the phenomenology of television viewing. We watch the shows, but in the age of the digital, the shows are also watching us, which is a way of saying that the intriguing new forms of shows such as Red Riding are, for Thomson, linked to the lives we are leading as we watch them.

…there are series that are works of visual conjuring just as some old movies now enter a Borgesian library of variants. Their pursuit tends to be meditative, solitary, and unnerving. It resembles reading.

We burrow into our dens, domesticated, feeding on addictive flashes of possible insight. But, as with the characters on Red Riding, we are also terrified. We can’t make sense of the whole. We are lost—or is it Lost? Whatever it is, it’s captivating—and it illuminates the ways in which television is returning to older modes of artistic captivity.

So Red Riding is a secretive modern novel meant to be exhumed on your own; when you go to let the dog out afterward you hear the wind moaning and you feel nervous of the dark in your own yard. You don’t follow or master this film, yet it’s alluring enough to keep you at attention.

Andrew Garfield and Sean Bean in Red Riding: 1974.

With shows such as Red Riding, Thomson claims, each of us navigates “a culture of TV series and elaborate DVDs.” New details and clues get “unpeeled before our eyes.” Events such as the final scene of The Sopranos need to “be seen over and over again.” But nothing quite adds up. This is the new world, segmented into chapters, streamed to bits, parceled out into niche experiences in darkened corners. It’s not a comforting space, but it is one that opens up new avenues to collective revelation through, paradoxically, grave isolation. Watching in our own homes, we glimpse the channels that keep us connected, unable to break free. We are alone here, caught in the blue ray beams.

You can’t like it, because the life it shows is forsaken and mean-spirited. But the looking is overwhelming. The abiding feeling as it unwinds, as you strain forward to discern details, is ‘I have to see this.’ …In its edgy beauty and grisly hesitation, Red Riding is a new kind of television—it is like somber music played at home and alone.

Though we are confused here, home alone, we are also fused, linked into the fiber optics and the optic fibers that increasingly define our togetherness. The new “home theater” is a space up for grabs, a compacted zone of private and public, a consciousness-making chamber, a mood machine, a stage set that might, via remote control, actually dramatize our very enchanted difficulties and our very difficult enchantments.

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