For what must have been most weeks over at least a couple of years, we used to telephone a friend around the same time every week. It was 9pm and we were settling down for our weekly dose of The West Wing. This was proper appointment television, we never missed it. We chatted for a few minutes before the programme started, then shared a strange but comforting ritual through the title sequence, reciting the cast’s names as they appeared on-screen, in a cod-American accent. These actors and their characters had seemingly become like trusted friends. Every week we spent an hour with them, and more often than not they left us on some emotional cliffhanger.
You can play along with the titles game if you like…
By the time we had giggled our way through “…and Martin Sheen” we were ready to hang up and watch the show. The first words “recently… on The West Wing” had served to remind us of crucial scenes that would be developed, and set us up for what might be to come. We had to reacquaint ourselves with the emotional space in which we were held, captivated, for the next hour. The titles gave us a tremendous sense of anticipation.
I remember my late 20s and early 30s (the late 1990s and early 2000s) as a great era for appointment television. Long-running series like ER, Friends, Frasier and Six Feet Under could serve as chronologies of that period, when Rachel and I bought our first house, got married, moved house and had our first child. On Fridays we would we walk down the street to our friends’ house, bottle of wine in hand, to watch Friends and Frasier, the theme tunes and pre-title sequences would become a familiar routine. This terrific clip I just discovered gives a flavour of each…
This has seemingly all changed. In recent years I’ve been migrating away from television series and towards films. My two young daughters and our other commitments meant that it’s often impossible to ensure we can sit down at a specific time every week. Sky TV has taken many of the series I might be interested in (I stopped watching 24 after the first two series), and the success of those dramas I’ve mentioned helped create a massive proliferation of titles: CSI-almost-anywhere, any number of police procedurals, hospital dramas and so on. I couldn’t begin to keep up, so stopped trying. I’ve never watched even a minute of The Sopranos.
And now it’s become the era of the Box Set: entire series, or indeed multiple series in one handy box format. This has changed how I’ve watched many of my favourite pieces of television in the last few years. I’ve written more than once about the amazing brilliance of The Wire. The BBC showed all five series, practically back-to-back, four nights a week, over a period of a few months. So I recorded it all and watched it almost compulsively, two or three episodes at a time. I was hooked.
Friends recommended the insane comedy Green Wing to me. I had read about this, but it sounded too weird for words. Then I watched it on DVD and found that it is too weird for words, but in an entirely fantastic way. We’ve also been trying to catch up with Spooks, but have so far only managed 3 series, while the final 10th series is currently running on British TV. I missed the first series of the wonderful Mad Men but having seen two episodes of the 2nd series on television and become a total worshipper, I watched the first series on DVD in barely a few evenings.
Watching series on DVD is very different from the weekly appointment. There’s a greater sense of urgency: no commercials break up the episodes and there’s almost an addictive quality to watch more and more (“just one more, then we’ll definitely go to bed…”). The narrative drive is more forceful, as we don’t have to remind ourselves of what has gone before. In fact, the title sequences that were so iconic, memorable and an important part of the experience can get annoying as we become desperate for that fix, the next scenes.
Except perhaps with The Wire, which (as with every aspect of that fabulous show) played the long game. Not only were its title sequences made up of images from throughout the entire series, so there is some ‘reward’ for the eagle-eyed viewer in spotting these moments, but the producers cleverly used different artists to record the title song for each series, and altered the images to demonstrate the overarching ‘theme’ of each series.
Mad Men is probably my only must-see appointment these days, as I try to catch up with all the things I’ve been told I really should see, that I would really like. I kind of miss my regular time with those characters from the old days. But I suppose I could always start again from the beginning…