“How can you simultaneously like Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, and Downton Abbey? They’re all very different.”
“They’re the same alright. They’re all crazy.”
If you’ve watched enough TV for the past 2-3 years I bet you’d have ran across an episode or two of the aforementioned shows.
Since summer 2007 Mad Men has been portraying the hedonistic life of successful New York ad men in 1950s-1960s. Unapologetically showing the openly chauvinistic, patriarchal, often racist views of the then WASP generation, added with eye-candy stars bedecked in accurate vintage fashions, Mad Men has been winning audience and awards and remains strong into its 6th season.
Premiered a year later was Sons of Anarchy, about war veterans forming a motorcycle group to cover an illicit gun trading. Juggling life between being good citizens (running mechanic shop, properly keeping books and paying taxes, retaining lawyer) and good ol’ gangsta paradise (shooting foes of all colors and connections from Northern California to Northern Ireland), the show has developed a strong fanbase and made it to TIME’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2009.
From across the Atlantic pond Downton Abbey arrived two years ago in such classy post-Edwardian style that entranced audience and earned accolades worldwide, reportedly inducing the return of ladylike fashion and formal etiquette classes. The show has also been unapologetically, historically honest in portraying the upstairs-downstairs aristocratic living that, however shrouded in political correctness, was downright unfair to women, poor and minorities– mixed with scandals of epic proportions.
As I said, they’re all crazy. These shows are full with larger-than-life characters, embroiled in such twists and turns of life and, often, world history, yet delivered believably in fine acting within well-crafted plots that get audience in pins and needles. They’re dramatic, and they’re great.
Which brings me to my ultimate question… why can’t Indonesia produce such good shows? Though Indonesia didn’t have private TV channels until the late ‘80s or cables until a decade ago, TV shows are nothing new. Aside from cookie-cutter family shows such as Keluarga Dudu (or was it Keluarga Marlia?), laden with government sponsors for family planning and whatnots, which I remember very vaguely from my early childhood, Indonesia has managed to produce the likes of Losmen, Rumah Masa Depan and teen show ACI (Aku Cinta Indonesia); well-written lines, strong acting, intriguing yet pretty realistic plots and subplots, and fine camera works.
Even in the early days of private channels, when TV shows started to take melodramatic cue from the imported Mexican telenovelas, our local producer still delivered finely-crafted love-triangle dramas, albeit bad title, such as Jangan Ambil Suamiku (= Don’t Steal Away My Husband), casting silver screen stars like Mathias Muchus and Meriam Bellina.
Indonesia’s journalistic or literature schools have long been sprouting great writing talents, apparent in the proliferation of books and blogs wherever you turn. Most of Indonesian traditions are rooted in storytelling so many Indonesian creative writers already have a good gene on their side. So, what happened?
Seems like in the past decade a particularly dark cloud has descended upon our tubes. Every TV show (read: sinetron) seems to be created on the same plot of down-in-the-luck, pretty protagonists against the satanic antagonists, whose lives only include endless screaming, evil scheming and waking up with well-applied makeup and fake eyelashes. The Dallas and Dynasty ladies might have gone down for breakfast in silk peignoir and diamond earrings, yet Hollywood had enough sense not to show them in 3-color eyeshadows. There’s no acting as characters are one-dimensional, delivering dry lines in such far-fetched settings. They’re also crazy and dramatic, yet they’re lame.
In the past couple of years, as religious tone became the rising middle class’ trendiest accoutrement, so suddenly the protagonists were veiled and performing prayers… in tears. I’m waiting for a sinetron to blatantly show an atheist as a main villain any day now.
Some industry people tried to blame Nielsen rating and profit-seeking producers. Fine, so majority of Indonesian TV viewers are still in lower classes, who arguably clamor for unreasonable drama and unreasonably made-up stars to forget their hard life, but how does it explain that for a couple of decades this same majority, lived in less prosperous Indonesia, accepted well-produced TV shows and catapulted them into top Nielsen ratings? And as education level gradually increasing and economy steadily progressing (does anyone remember that now we’re a G20 member with USD 1 trillion economy?), shouldn’t logically be more room for quality TV shows? Why our local TV shows are spiraling down the quality drain?
I’d argue that the problem is on the supply side. I think many TV show producers are just lazy and complacent nincompoops—too happy to be making a quick buck to realize that with well-calculated investments and viewer education they actually can produce great TV shows for longer term and wider audience—including recapturing the upper middle class that has mostly hooked into cables now, in search for qualified foreign TV shows. That’ll mean even higher ratings and if that’s not more money, I don’t know what is.
Yes, I’m willing to discuss this with anyone in the industry keen to remedy the situation. But after this Law & Order. Wonder when Indonesia will ever produce such consistently fine show as Law & Order, with 4 spinoffs in 20 seasons? Oh God, now I’m really, really stressed out.