“When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.”
Nearly 60 years ago, the FCC chair Newton Minow delivered an excoriation of television that was officially titled “Television and the Public Interest” but would be remembered, among the broader American public, as the “vast wasteland” speech. Minow’s indictment of TV—its perky game shows, its formulaic sitcoms, its violent dramas—was cutting (one of his accusations against the newish medium was that it channeled “sadism”). And the radiant impact of his criticism helped shape the conventional wisdom that was dominant as I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s: the notion that television was something to be a little bit embarrassed about. It was the “boob tube.” It was the “idiot box.” It was the vast wasteland. It was, in ways both specific and sweeping, wrong. It was also hugely popular—an anxious omen, the criticism went, of how happy Americans were to interact with fictions rather than fellow humans. TV, for a long time, operated as a paradox: a medium so intimate that it kept people separate from one another.
Those fusty ideas have been in decline for a while; 2020 proved how wrong they were all along. For me, during this dark year, television was a lifeline to other people: friends, family, strangers. It was valuable to me not just in the way it’s always been valuable, as a source of entertainment and education, but also as, simply, a source of connection. Minow, in his “wasteland” speech, made a point of distinguishing between “good” TV and “bad,” and you can see echoes of those divisions in terms such as prestige TV and junk TV. But when I think about my own year of television watching, what strikes me is how little those distinctions mattered. Was a given show “good”? Was it “bad”? I didn’t care, really. Instead, I craved a slightly different definition of quality. I wanted shows that made me feel just a bit better about the world, through their kindness or their zaniness or their offering of nostalgia—shows that made me, physically isolated from so many of the people I love, feel a little less alone.