If art can be entertaining, can entertainment be art?
Hart Hanson, creator and showrunner of the Fox television series Bones, visited the University of British Columbia recently to discuss his experiences as a nice Canadian boy working in the rough-and-tumble of Hollywood for the past decade.
In the course of offering advice to aspiring TV writers, he discussed his personal perspective on the medium: There’s entertainment and then there’s art.
Bones, a highly successful crime procedural currently in its ninth season and already picked up for a 10th, is entertainment, he said unabashedly.
In entertainment, he added, you do what the audience wants. In the case of Bones, that dictated a major narrative arc; the audience wanted the two main characters, a rational and logical forensic anthropologist, and an intuitive and spiritual FBI agent, to “get together.” Over time, Hanson made it happen.
Art, on the other hand, follows its own path. Most viewers probably didn’t want Jesse Pinkman to die in Breaking Bad, but he did anyway, because the writers decided, for art’s sake, it needed to happen.
And while he’s proud of his work in Hollywood, and prior to that in Canada on shows such as North of 60 and Traders, he regards TV writing as inferior to, say, writing novels. That might have been disheartening for some in his audience to hear, but it’s not exactly new; David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, once told Salon that he’d rather have been writing movies.
I won’t argue that Bones and shows like it aren’t principally entertainment — hour-long escapes into whatever gruesome murder and dangerous and/or silly situations the characters find themselves in. It’s still possible, however, for art and entertainment to intersect. Breaking Bad may not be everyone’s cup of meth, but it’s a superbly entertaining television series. Its international fandom attests to that. But it’s also a masterful narrative and intense character piece, which makes it as much a work of art as any Dickens novel.
The entertainment-versus-art debate translates almost word-for-word to that other old chin-tugger, comedy versus drama. Film and TV comedies are often dismissed as trivia, and we all know how they regularly get the shaft at awards shows. It took a long time for critics to recognize the brilliance of Groundhog Day, while little argument occurred around American Beauty, but they’re both works of art and also entertaining in their respective ways (depending on who you talk to, of course, since art invites discussion).
With his studio deal, Hanson appears to be committed to the entertainment business rather than the entertaining art business. His new series, Backstrom, a crime comedy starring Rainn Wilson, starts shooting in Vancouver this March. Who knows? Maybe he’ll find the sweet spot. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has a couple of pilots in the works: A spinoff of Breaking Bad centred on the character of Saul Goodman, as well as a detective drama for CBS, Battle Creek. Again, no pre-judgment, but chances are that Gilligan’s shows will make an effort to meld artistry and entertainment.
Maybe it’s a question of what you set out to do.