Mass Audiences: Bones, The Wire, and Hart Hanson
The most fascinating thing I read this weekend was not David Copperfield (as, ahem, it probably should have been), but actually this transcription of a keynote address given by Hart Hanson at the “Future of Story” conference at Edmonton. (Things going on in Canada other than the Olympics: a “Future of Story” conference). The talk seems to have been fairly colloquial, as the transcription isn’t exact and Hanson sometimes trails off into “…”s and “?”s, but it’s nevertheless one of the more thoughtful discussions of network television I’ve seen in a while, and especially interesting coming from Hanson’s perspective.
Hanson is the creator and showrunner of the Fox series Bones, an impressively popular mash-up of forensic procedural and romantic comedy starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz. In the keynote, Hanson talks at length about the differences between the kind of television he makes and shows like The Wire, and he describes the process, moral content, and careful calibrations required to make truly mass audience programming.
If you know The Wire, they never reset the plot for you, they never explain the dialogue, it’s really difficult to follow. There’s no effort made to explain anything, and characters who are weak [?] and horrible triumph, and good men die like dogs in the street. That’s not entertainment, but it’s awesome to watch… for a very small group of people. The Wire seldom gets above a million viewers.
My show – and this is not boasting, it’s just a difference – my show, that one [pointing at the screen] gets around twelve and a half million viewers. So, it’s much better than the one… [laughter]
The question is, is it better than The Wire, and that’s a crazy question: the answer is definitely yes and definitely no.
Hanson draws distinctions here and elsewhere between television that entertains, which Bones certainly does, and television that does… something else. He doesn’t get too bogged down in defining that “something else,” but relates it to that old debate about the artist vs. the craftsman. Hanson sees himself as a craftsman, a guy whose job is to get 12 million people to enjoy what he makes, and he’s clear about what that entails. He has to mirror their own values back to them and walk the careful line between what they desperately want (an ending, a romantic conclusion between Bones and Booth), and what they actually need as long-term viewers (further complications, endlessly spinning out the tension between the two leads). Unquestionably, he does his job very well.
And yet, as thoughtful, down-to-earth, and common sense as Hanson’s keynote is, there are all sorts of assumptions hidden inside his comments. Saying that The Wire and Bones have completely different audiences is accurate, but doesn’t take into account the fact that you can watch Bones for free by simply buying a television and plugging it in, whereas HBO isn’t even a part of the standard cable package. Sure, you could never put The Wire on a network because there would be an enormous audience outraged by its obscenity and immorality, but it would also find viewers it didn’t reach on a premium cable channel. Hanson also glosses over any argument that an audience can gain pleasure in more than one way. Without question, the show he writes is entertaining, but he doesn’t accept that The Wire is also an admittedly different form of “entertainment,” even though he describes his own “great delight” in watching it. That same contradiction appears again as Hanson insists that he writes Bones because it’s what he’d want to watch, and yet The Wire is one of his favorite shows in spite of its total failure to be “what America wants to watch on TV.”
The whole keynote is worth a read through, and he goes on to discuss a world-changing episode of Magnum, PI and slipping a line about Jesus being a zombie into his show. I came away from it equally intrigued about his refusal to view himself as an artist and frustrated by the contradictions between his imagined audience for Bones and himself as a viewer. If Hanson likes to watch both Bones and The Wire, why shouldn’t the rest of his audience? I could keep going on this for a long time, but I’ll leave with this, which seems to be at the center of Hanson’s conflict.
You have to be proud of what you do if you want to entertain a lot of people. This is why I instantly forgive and even admire the pulp writers – they don’t like it when you call them that – the pulp writers who somehow believe they are Proust or Mann or Stegner, when they’re writing crime novels or law novels or forensic novels. They are giving us what they want. They are appealing to a huge audience. I try my hardest to provide what I like to watch on television, on network television.