I have only seen the first two episodes of HBO's In Treatment, an Americanization of the Israeli drama series BeTipul. I want to give the series a chance to show me how it works, so these remarks will be tentative. But the gist is that so far, I don't like it very much, though not enough to want to stop watching. (For an overview of the show, its origins, and its new media distribution strategy, see Tasha Oren's column in Flow.)
Medium essentialism is the idea that each artistic medium should exploit its essential properties, and that the best examples of work in any medium are those that best exploit these properties. This approach to artistic evaluation may be most famously exemplified by Clement Greenberg's writing on modernist painting, in which he argues that the greatness of Pollock and others is their exploration of medium-specific properties such as the flatness of a picture. In cinema, many of the seminal works of theory are medium-essentialist, including André Bazin's realist aesthetics, best expressed in "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema." Bazin was writing in an era in which cinema was still working to win a skeptical high-culture establishment over to the viewpoint that it is the worthy companion of music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, etc., as a legitimate art form. A rhetoric of essentialism, based on the idea that cinema has formal properties that are specific to it, and which no other medium can exploit, was an important strategy of legitimation.
As a way of understanding media or as an approach to evaluation, few scholars today find medium essentialism to be of much use except as an object of criticism. The idea that a film is good only when it is "cinematic" hides the open question of what counts as cinematic. If only those things that cinema has that other media lack are to count as good, then an odd bunch of movies would win our acclaim as the best of the medium. Actually, although we might celebrate the way some filmmakers do things you can't do in a play or a novel (like tracking shots and off-screen sound), much of what people respond to in films (and other audiovisual, moving-image media) are things they share with other forms. Representation of faces is shared with photography and other visual arts. Representation of speech is shared with literary and dramatic arts. Representation of visual forms, lines, patterns, colors, etc., is shared with many media. Narrative transcends the specificity of any medium. And the audiovisual media make use of sound recording and of musical performance. Like the Wagnerian total work of art, films and videos and TV shows are combinatory, ravenously adopting whatever artistic possibilities may be on offer from other forms and media. Insisting on cinematic cinema or televisual television is an unfortunate kind of formalism, narrowly understanding the medium's appeals within a rarefied sphere of aesthetic appreciation and slighting much of what makes the experience of art so rich and varied.
In Treatment is a chamber drama. Every episode (of those I have seen and read about) takes place in a single time and place. Most of the takes are medium shots or close-ups of a person speaking or listening. There is almost no visual action. Occasionally a character stands up and takes a few paces, as if to acknowledge that the show lacks excitement and needs to break up the monotony. Many events are described by the characters, but few are represented onscreen. The show's language seems stilted and speechy, and in the episodes I have seen I can't stop thinking that these are actors reading an overwritten script rather than characters behaving as real people do. (I am especially fond of two of the actors I have seen so far, Blair Underwood and Gabriel Byrne, and eager to like them in this show, but so far I don't.)
In Treatment, like every HBO show, wants to be different from the ordinary TV program. Distinction is HBO's house style. But In Treatment's difference seems positively retrograde, eschewing the visual and dramaturgical approach of the typical TV show or movie today--the short scenes, fast-paced action, virtuosic cinematography, pop song soundtrack, jumbled timeframe, etc.--for something much more like a serious play, by which I mean much more pretentious and boring. I hate the show because it's like a play. Why make a TV show like a play? If I wanted to see a play (I usually don't), I would go see one.
This is the medium essentialist in me speaking. Theoretically I think I'm wrong. I don't want being "televisual" or "cinematic" to be the last word in judging a work. But I hope that by unfolding its story in a way that gets me to know and love its characters and care about what happens to them over a long term--i.e., by fulfilling an expectation I have of serialized television--it will win my affection. I think on some level I conceive of TV as essentially repetitive and that this balances my conception of TV as essentially visual. These are naïve opinions rather than reasoned, theoretical ones. Maybe the show will make up in repetition (with variation, of course) what it lacks in visual appeal.
I'm especially irritated with thinking this way because I know that much of the great television of the past has been stagey and speechy, though not often as pretentious as In Treatment. Some of my favorite shows of all time, like All in the Family and The Cosby Show, were much more stagey and speechy than any show on the air today. But today's television aesthetic has turned away from the theatrical style of All in the Family, with its proscenium space and long scenes punctuated by exits and entrances, and now the highest term of praise for television is to call it cinematic. I buy into this logic one some level--I'm part of the television culture that has produced this logic--even as I detest its ideological implications, as I have blogged previously.
Medium essentialism may be a poor way of understanding a medium because of what it leaves out, because of its inherent bias. The essentialist may identify an essence that others reject. It may be that a medium doesn't have an essence. (This, as I recall, is Noël Carroll's objection to essentialism in Theorizing the Moving Image--or perhaps it's that he thinks film isn't a medium but a number of different media, which I think is also true.) But as we watch and think about television (or whatever form of expression), we carry with us expectations about form. Some of these are essentialist expectations--for instance, expectations that good movies and TV will tell their story in vivid actions rather than wordy speeches, because this kind of storytelling exploits the possibilities of audiovisual media.
Below is a snippet of Episode 2 with Blair Underwood as the patient, a Navy pilot, and Gabriel Byrne as the shrink.