TV Isn’t About to Get Worse. It Already Is.

The problems that Hollywood’s writers are protesting can be seen on our screens.

A placard in front of TV screens showing blurred images
Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic. Source: YouTube.

The moment the Hollywood writer’s strike became a possibility, some TV fans and reporters worried that shows were about to take a turn for the worse. Some predicted an era reminiscent of the 100-day strike in 2007–08: a parade of reruns, reliance on reality shows, and hastily lowered standards on-screen. But it’s way too late to be anticipating TV’s decline now. As streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Peacock have gone from representing the entertainment industry’s Wild West to its inevitable future, television at large has embraced quantity over quality—a fact that striking Writers Guild of America members know better than anyone. The painful truth is that TV isn’t about to get worse. It’s already worse—and the quality might slip even further.

How many times have you watched a new show only to realize that an entire season has passed but barely anything has happened? How many times have you checked an episode’s duration and wondered why it’s doubled since the show started? How many times have you forgotten the details of a show hardly a week after you binged it? I have spent a decade watching as much television as possible for a living—including as chief TV critic at Variety from 2018 to 2022—and I’m here to say: It’s not just you. There is so much TV now, and the impact on storytelling has become unavoidable. The early years of streaming, which introduced shows such as Orange Is the New Black, The Handmaid’s Tale, and BoJack Horseman, felt like an exciting tasting menu. Today, we have an all-you-can-eat buffet that won’t let us stop eating long enough to breathe.

In my quest to be a TV completist, I’ve taken on every kind of show. I’ve followed sweeping dramas, wacky comedies, and reality shows whose greasy, addictive episodes I could devour like popcorn. I’ve found something to love about almost all genres. And yet, as streaming offerings have ballooned over the past five years, I have struggled to even register the dozens of shows premiering every month, let alone watch them. Moreover, for every great series I’ve reviewed in recent years, there were 10 more that barely made an impression. Streaming’s once-revolutionary lack of time constraints compared with broadcast networks’ became an excuse for shows to forgo tightly edited narrative arcs. Take the most recent season of Stranger Things, which averages nearly 80 minutes an episode, and whose finale clocks in at two and a half hours. When Netflix announced that the season was a triumph with “1.3 billion hours viewed,” the priority appeared clear. For streamers, the goal seems to be to keep you watching more TV, not better TV.

Another newer, troubling detriment to TV’s trajectory is the endless recycling of franchises. By the end of my Variety tenure in November, I was pleasantly surprised whenever I got to tackle a show that wasn’t a spin-off, a reboot, or a reimagining of a cinematic universe that a streaming network’s parent company owned. In fact, the last three shows I reviewed for Variety represented a microcosm of that problem: Netflix’s Wednesday (a spin-off of The Addams Family starring Jenna Ortega as the taciturn teen), Disney+’s The Santa Clauses (a continuation of the The Santa Clause movies starring Tim Allen as a Santa experiencing existential panic), and Peacock’s Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin (an offshoot of the Pitch Perfect trilogy about a female a cappella group, starring not a single woman from the original films).

As TV writers tell it, getting shows green-lighted is especially difficult if they don’t have some connection to a recognizable intellectual property, particularly one like Star Wars or Marvel. Some writers have found new and genuinely innovative ways into old worlds, such as Bisha K. Ali’s Ms. Marvel, Tony Gilroy’s Andor, and Rolin Jones’s Interview With the Vampire update. But the list of more half-baked takes on preexisting IP—The Time Traveler’s Wife, Jupiter’s Legacy, The Book of Boba Fett—just gets longer. A truly original, breakout hit like Showtime’s Yellowjackets or FX/Hulu’s The Bear is an exception. Meanwhile, the success of Paramount’s Yellowstone soon became grounds for several spin-offs and Western-flavored copycats, all hoping to grasp the magic of a series that became popular because of its singularity.

As the industry prioritizes sheer volume of output, it’s no surprise that TV writers are reporting untenable working conditions. The newer phenomenon of “mini rooms,” which enlists a small group of writers to outline entire seasons before ultimately putting the burden of editing on a single showrunner, has led to cut corners and creative exhaustion. The unprecedented pace of demand for new series forces writers to churn out screenplays without the time to thoughtfully refine them. Further, not bringing writers on set for the filming of their episodes robs them of the knowledge of how their words become three-dimensional worlds—which is invaluable experience for honing scripts. Under these circumstances, the disappointing number of shows with loose plot ends feels practically inevitable.

If these trends continue, new shows with great potential will keep getting ignored because people simply can’t keep up with them. (Peacock’s surreal treat The Resort deserves better than the blank stares its mention typically gets.) They will continue getting prematurely shut down for tax benefits. (RIP, AMC+’s excellent animated series Pantheon.) They will suffer for lack of writers on set who can address inconsistencies and sharpen lines on the fly, in stark contrast to those that do. (Succession and Hacks employ extraordinary actors, but that biting dialogue ultimately belongs to their writers.) And they may even get left in dark corners of the streaming ecosystem. (Stream High School on Amazon Freevee, if you can find it—or even know what Freevee is.)

At its best, television can be a thrilling, elastic medium that goes into profound depth on characters, unfolds stories over years, and uses a writers’ room to draw from a range of human experiences. But TV’s evolution into a conveyor belt of “content” has incentivized predictability, and threatened creativity. The effects, both for striking screenwriters losing their livelihoods and viewing audiences at home, are obvious—and have been for a long time.