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Almost Good

In the annals of phrases that just don't sit right, "subtle television" is probably nestled between "classy porn" and "benevolent dictator." It's a hard phrase to process -- subtlety is composed of restraint, forethought, understatement, aesthetic precision. Television, on the other hand, is made up of such works as MTV's Undressed, the XFL and Cybill Shepherd. This is not a medium that rewards subtlety.

Some -- devotees of Marshall McLuhan or anyone currently suffering through his work in a communication theory class -- will argue that television is inherently incapable of subtlety. To quote Canada's weirdest national resource, "In television there occurs an extension of the sense of active, exploratory touch which involves all the senses simultaneously, rather than that of sight alone. You have to be 'with' it."

In other words, television is the media equivalent of a three-ring circus. There's no chance for subtlety there. McLuhan more or less confirms this when he draws the dichotomy between "cool" media and "warm" media; the temperature gauge refers to how extensively one or more of your senses gets saturated with information. Reading is hot, since you're processing a lot of information via your eyesight. Television is cool, since more than one of your senses is engaged, and all of them have to work hard to gather and interpret information.

This is where that twaddle about the medium being the message comes from. Want to convey a detailed, precise, rational, subtle argument? Use a hot medium. Want to go for a simple, emotional sucker punch? Go with a cool one.

I couldn't help but flash back to the interminable hours I spent reading McLuhan the last time I watched 100 Centre Street. The new A&E series triggers the comm theory flashback precisely because it's attempting to do the impossible: create a subtle, compelling television show.

The show's aesthetics were the first clue: the theme music sounds like it's coming from two rooms away, and the credits are muted chalk sketches of the show's principles. Since the show revolves around night court cases and the people who work them, every other scene takes place under cool fluorescent office lights. Nobody has worn a color brighter than mauve.

The acting is understated too. People who think Dylan McDermott's turning in a fine performance may be bored silly watching Alan Arkin and LaTanya Richardson quietly debate judicial leniency, but it's a delightful departure from the scenery-chewing antics in most courtroom dramas. There's a scene in the first episode where Richardson -- who plays a hardnosed judge Atallah "Ayatollah" Sims -- goes over to the house of her best friend and judicial opposite, Arkin's Judge "Let 'Em Go" Joe Rifkind. The quiet discomfiture when she meets his wife, and the two women realize that they've known about each other for years yet are only meeting now made that moment riveting.

The stories are ambivalent and the endings ambiguous. There are no plaster saints working in the judicial system: everybody's good intentions are compromised by circumstances both within and out of their control. One prosecutor's single-minded faith in the system is undermined by her attempt to use that same system to help a friend of hers who's a homeless bipolar depressive; another compromises his own career at the beseeching of his father. Whatever happy endings there are usually come from someone learning that yeah, the system doesn't work but that's not the end of the world.

So: exquisite aesthetics, actual acting and uncompromising storylines. This should, in theory, be a winning series. And if that golden triangle of elements isn't enough, the entire enterprise is helmed by Sidney Lumet, the man who gave the world Fail Safe (the original, not the George Clooney remake), the televised versions of The Iceman Cometh and Rashomon, 12 Angry Men and Dog Day's Afternoon. Sure, he's also responsible for Shining Through, but they can't all be gems, folks. The point is that the man knows how to tell tough stories in an entertaining way.

Or does he? I've watched every episode of 100 Centre Street now, and I still can't make it through the show without my attention wandering. At first, I thought it was me; I figured that all those hours spent reviewing terrible new shows, smirking ironically at Raw is War and watching silly sci-fi series had finally caught up with me, and I was now incapable of focusing on anything that lacked small words, pretty lights and loud noises.

And then I figured out a way to shift the blame. It all comes down to Marshall McLuhan -- he's the one who theorized that movies are hot media -- information-rich experiences that demanded very little from the audience. What McLuhan neglected to mention was that movies offer something television shows don't: closure. We walk into a movie, we walk out two hours later and the experience of watching the movie is over. You can think about it until the cows come home, you can chew on all that information you were, in theory, processing while you watched the film, but you've got some measure of closure from your day at the movies.

Consider a television show: the addictive -- or horrifying -- thing about any show is that it's going to be on again later. The overarching narrative spins out over a series of installments, demanding sustained attention. Combine that with the hunt-and-gather aspect of sussing out and interpreting the actual content of the show, and it's easy to see why McLuhan contends that television is all-absorbing.

In other words, think about how tiring it is to try to keep the who's-sleeping-with-whom data straight on something so simple as your typical Aaron Spelling vehicle.

Now imagine that spending an hour with your brain on overdrive, trying to resolve the interesting, understated points an episode of 100 Centre Street raises. And the frustrating thing is: I do this, week after week. And there's the occasional resolution -- but it's only temporary, before things get even more complicated in the plot.

In a movie, this is what keeps you glued to your seat even after the 32 ounces of Diet Coke you drank in the previews are clamoring for escape. In a television show, this sustained ambivalence only makes your head hurt.

A good television series manages to balance self-contained episodes against season-long or series-long themes. It's a challenge that's unique to the medium, and it's entirely due to the reasons we watch television: to immerse ourselves in the entertainment, and to safely and repeatedly enter and exit the experience. A seasonal theme is usually the most elusive thing about a TV series, whereas the story in each episode is the most immediately satisfying.

100 Centre Street is subtle in all the wrong ways, and that's why watching it throws me off-balance: the overall premise of the series is as clear as a bell, but each episode is so unresolved, it's like watching Act II of a movie without benefit of the preceding or final acts.

So it's frustrating to watch 100 Centre Street, because it's almost a great show, but it's in the wrong medium. And what makes it even more frustrating -- at least for me -- is every time I watch the show, I think McLuhan may have been right. The medium is the message -- and I want a messenger who gets the medium.


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