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Prime Time in Transition

Prime Time in Transition

This video was recorded at MIT Communications Forum. Fear not, fans of character-based TV fiction: reality shows will not obliterate tales featuring "transactions between human beings – the Jane Austen end of things," as John Romano puts it. This veteran of some of TV's finest cop dramas (including Hill Street Blues and Monk) sees wrenching changes in his business, but reassures his audience that "TV will always be a place for storytelling." It comes as no surprise that this Yale English major prefers writing for and watching programs that deal in "human fallibility and doubt," even or especially when the characters are super sleuths armed with the latest (or fantastic) technology. In the series 24, Romano is most interested in human dilemmas that are not comfortably solved. There are real political threats, evils that the series protagonist Jack faces, at his moral peril. The question is how Jack can retain his own humanity through it all. Romano confesses being bored by the "techno side" of 24, that "somehow we'll invent the right widget to solve whatever problem is being faced." The events of 9/11 provoked some television writers to portray an even darker world, believes Romano. He cites Lost as an example of such programming, where there's "a sense that we are an island threatened by strange alien creatures, and can only depend on each other, and who knows if we can depend on each other." 9/11, says Romano, "fed a lot of impulses, not all of which are admirable." He believes the police drama has an enduring appeal for audiences. "I think the obsession with cops and robbers is hardwired into human beings," says Romano. " Sophocles' Antigone is centrally about that; that's the first cop show in my imagination." Some of the great writers of narrative fiction, such as Balzac, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky "found cops very interesting," because it allowed them to "explore the social contract, our deepest issues," says Romano. Romano believes there will probably always be "a terrific appetite" for such stories on TV, although these days the ones that succeed tend to be "aggressive and crazier," because that's what thrills studio executives. Nevertheless, this humanist writer looks forward to "what TV might be –and movies." He finds special promise in a budding group of filmmakers who are more "John Sayles than David Milch," and whose smallest movies are "about something." In Hollywood, there will "always be a lot of crap," predicts Romano, but "expect great storytelling and narrative truth."


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