Monday, June 11, 2012

#258: Tanner '88

(Robert Altman, 1988)

One of the few TV series in the Collection, Tanner '88 is a grand experiment. It's also one of the earliest triumphs for HBO, which would go on to revolutionize the medium. Created on the fly by Doonesbury strip writer Garry Trudeau, the series tracks Jack Tanner, a fictional congressman played by the pitch-perfect Michael Murphy, in his quest to become the Democratic nominee for president in 1988. The hook? Tanner isn't running against made up opponents - he's trying to take down Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis, the eventual real nominee. Even more interestingly, he's doing it in real time, following the actual primary process as it unfolds rather than looking back on a race long since run.

This premise happens to fit perfectly with both Trudeau's and Altman's respective styles. Trudeau, of course, has made a career out of torn-from-the-headlines subject matter tweaked into subtle satire. In a conversation with Altman on the DVD, Trudeau explains that he suggested Altman to HBO for the project because he assumed they couldn't get him, thereby allowing him to pass and move on to his other obligations. If true, it's a happy coincidence, because Altman's improvisational style, built on multi-layered conversations, documentary-style camera techniques, and naturalistic performances, was not just perfect for the subject matter but perhaps even essential. It allowed Trudeau to build loose scenes and a broad structure for each episode without causing the whole series to collapse. Altman's sly, cynical eye (especially on display a few years later in my favorite film of his, The Player) builds on Trudeau's ironic themes and organic humor with similar efficiency, making the message of the series deeply relevant beyond the contemporary political climate.

The influence of the series is clear both in terms of subject and style. Obviously, Aaron Sorkin was a fan of the series - the core characters of The West Wing share a fatalistic dedication to their mission, and is there any chance it's just a coincidence that Martin Sheen's chief of staff character in The American President was named A.J.? But perhaps more notably, the reality-style, off-the-cuff tone and look of the series has become ubiquitous, as have the various appearances of politicians playing themselves and politics woven into entertainment and media narratives. The story arc is similarly recognizable for its slow burn, novel-style pacing. As with modern masterpieces like The Wire and Breaking Bad, Tanner '88 doesn't really get going for a few episodes, putting off conventionally desirable goals for a television series like hooking a viewer within the first ten minutes, allowing for character introductions, or front-loading major plot developments to keep the audience engaged. We certainly have Altman to thank for this, but HBO's confidence - or at least willingness - to go there with him is an early indication of just how the mindset of one network transformed television in the decade and a half to come.

There are a wide number of reasons why Criterion hasn't selected more TV shows for inclusion. Obviously, Criterion is not in the business of releasing multiple seasons, so any more conventionally successful show is out (it doesn't hurt that these "successful" shows would probably be impossible to license). Similarly, while there were quirky or complex shows in the fifty years of broadcast television prior to The Larry Sanders Show and The Sopranos, the last twenty years have seen probably the vast majority of the greatest television series of all time, from the British Office and Arrested Development to Mad Men and Deadwood (not to mention the four shows mentioned above). This explosion has of course coincided with the popularity of DVD, where virtually every show - whether it runs for 20 seasons like The Simpsons or 12 episodes like Wonderfalls - gains immortality through wide release.

But I think the real reason there are so few TV shows in the Collection is that, well, it's a "continuing series of classic and contemporary films." Although Fishing with John might not be the most cinematic show of all time, there seems to be a certain connection to the film world, whether through guest appearances, tone, or the strange cult following the show has amassed. The other three big television offerings in the collection are two miniseries from Ingmar Bergman (each an unqualified masterpiece whose inclusion is self-explanatory) and a huge boxset (that, knowing what a beast it will be, I have yet to dig into) called The Golden Age of Television. This title rings not just untrue to me (the golden age? we're living in it!) but also somewhat ironic since the boxset isn't really TV as we know it, but rather films that happened to have been made for television. Tanner '88, despite its episodic structure and topical story developments that would not have worked for film, seems to have one foot in the theater, too. Along with having Robert Altman at the helm (this is one of four Altman inclusions in the Collection, all released in close proximity in the 200s) the show's one-off nature, unique (for television) tone, and performances that feel much more theatrical than what was being put on the air in 1988 all lend it a feeling more akin to an experiment in cinema than to the conventional television show.

I don't offer up these reasons to argue why Tanner '88 is deserving of inclusion more than other shows, but rather to try to get at the reasons why it might be included - thereby opening up the potential for more television shows - when no shows have since received similar attention. Again, I think the format and rights issues at the center Criterion's decisions about release are most important in this regard, but it does make for a giant hole in the Collection. Certainly if any show should be included, Tanner '88 is deserving. But opening up the gates for TV as potentially eligible - and then offering such a small selection - gives the impression that the medium has less to offer than is actually the case. This is not Tanner '88's fault, I just thought it was worth pointing out.

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