Talking About TV Is Maybe Ruining TV
The latest debate amongst internet TV nerds is a'raging about whether the big beautiful serialized show format kind of ruined TV. But for me? I take one thing away from all of this: We really need to stop taking TV so damn seriously.
The latest debate amongst internet TV nerds is a'raging. Yesterday, The AV Club's Ryan McGee wrote an essay in which he posited that while a show like The Sopranos, a big beautiful serialized show, was great and all, the success of its format kind of ruined TV. Yeah, because people don't make contained episodes of television anymore; in order to be Great you have to make weekly installments, rather than episodes. It's an interesting point, maybe? His basic gist is that when it comes to regular episodic TV and serialized TV, "It’s the difference between making people anticipate where the show is going, and making them wait for it."
Hm, OK, yes. That point is well taken, especially using his example, HBO's Luck, a show in which so very little happens episode-to-episode but that is clearly galloping (horses!) toward something. He also later goes on to argue that many potentially otherwise good shows are hobbled by the perceived mandate to work in this particular style, shows like The Walking Dead and The Killing, which strain for profundity and Important Television-ness by drawing out stories only to mostly fall flat. It's true! Imagine if The Walking Dead told a neat little zombie story every week and that was the show! Like Fantasy Island or something except with flesh-eating monsters. That would be fun and would better fit the horror genre. All right then. A point for Mr. McGee.
But then! In the other corner we have Time's James Poniewozik, who weighed in today disagreeing with McGee. He basically says that McGee is almost creating a problem where there is none and that the real issue is good serialized TV (The Sopranos) vs bad serialized TV (The Walking Dead). Which makes sense. Poniewozik also lists some examples of how the serialized form has helped television, and it's all very well-reasoned, as is McGee's essay, so perhaps you should read them yourselves and figure out where you stand on this Great TV Debate.
But for me? I take one thing away from all of this: We really need to stop taking TV so damn seriously.
Maybe this is just the exhausted sighing of a person who watches, for work!, some 4-5 hours of television (at least) every night, and then talks about said TV every day, but good grief, you guys. It's just TV. It's just shows. It's just stuff we watch to while away the hours until the sweet embrace of sleep o'ertakes us or we force ourselves out of the house. Talking about TV, enjoying the little processes of it, unpacking things here and there, making a few dissections, is all well and good, but it's recently all begun to feel so heavy. It's a problem of volume, perhaps. It used to be that modern entertainment ultra-geekery was relegated to things like music and movies. We all know someone who, should you be dumb enough to give them an opening, will gnaw your ear off for hours while prattling away about Finnish New Wave cinema or early Prussian silent films or the sociosexual ramifications of the bass line on the newest funk-punk record. But that is mostly tolerable because largely the objects being discussed are standalone entities, single albums or films that, for even the most obsessive, eventually run dry of talking points. But TV never stops! It just keeps coming week after week, and so we are inundated with millions of blog words about the narrative arcs of Homeland and Breaking Bad, terms like "bottle episode" are forced into the vernacular, battles over the quality of The Walking Dead and The Killing rage on and on for weeks, all with a seriousness that belies what we're actually talking about. We're just talking about TV shows!
I don't begrudge people being passionate about television shows they like, or about the very medium of television, but somewhere in the past few years didn't it kind of stop being fun? Some imaginary yet oddly concrete stakes seem to have been built into the conversation that have us, mistakenly I think, using television shows as broader cultural signifiers. Or rather, have us trying to isolate and define specific trends and meanings within an ever-moving target. That's where McGee's argument loses its way. Trying to put a pin in the television moment and label it something — determining all of television somehow changed or damaged because of a handful of shows, in his case — is to forget how many trees there are in the forest. Also, the perhaps unconscious stratification of television, this idea now that there are Great Shows being made by HBO and FX and AMC and then there's the other stuff, far below, has made for a kind of television snobbery that isn't just tunnel-visioned, it's increasingly irritating. Lest you think I don't know that the kettle's getting a phone call from the pot right about now, I'm fully aware that I'm guilty of this myself. It's hard to not feel forced into being culturally correct about television when there's such an increasing emphasis placed on what TV shows signify about the culture, about the self.
This isn't to say that there aren't great shows that are worth talking about, of course there are. But the pace of television is such that without a little perspective, big conversations about TV tend to seem a little overly sweeping. And overly thought, really. With all this noise, it's started to become very hard to not only care about how The Walking Dead relates to Deadwood relates to Dexter, but to actually just enjoy the shows. It's all talked about so much, so often these days that the actual meat of the shows almost seems to have lost its position of prominence. I think we all need to take a deep breath and a step back and maybe just let these shows be shows and then maybe, after a little time, yeah, sure, do some public thinking about what it all means. Or, at the very least, let's broaden our purview here. Where's the essay on Unforgettable, on The Finder, on Holmes on Homes? Isn't there more to discuss than the same six shows that are allowed to say "shit"? We've so thoroughly flogged these things that I think we don't even know what they are anymore. What were we even talking about? Oh, the show about zombies. That secret sleeper agent series. The thing about dragons in Makebelieveland. Those fun Sunday night entertainments. What are we getting so worked up about?