by Hannah Degner
It’s exciting to begin actively engaging in my culture at the moment the potential of TV shows has dawned on our collective mind. All of a sudden, we’re pitched forward in our seats, craning our necks to see what television will become. But the nature of new media propelling us forward means that often we don’t seriously consider what we’ve left behind. There was a time, a little over a decade ago, when TV was no one’s heated cultural debate. It was just “bad”.
When I was a kid, I was not allowed much television. My mom supplied me with stories, crafts and outdoor excursions enough that I didn't often give the TV set a passing glance. But on some days that lagged, I would wonder why we had the thing at all, if not for me to enjoy like the other kids I knew.
When I felt old enough to try creeping down the stairs and peeking into the living room on sleepless nights, I learned what happened after my mom tucked me in: exhausted by exerting all her energy on the well-being of another, she would lower herself onto the couch and cherish the latest episode of Friends, which when I was around three was in its prime. She has described this ritual as an immense comfort, a small concession to herself and her desire to be a part of something that had nothing to do with being a parent. She laughed at jokes that adults make when they’re padded in a plush layer of friendship and share just enough baggage with each other to seem plausibly real, but deal with none of life’s angst or monotony.
In recent years I have discovered that my stepmom had the same ritual after putting my sisters to bed. By that time—just after the turn of the millennium—she was settling down at night to the last couple seasons of the show, the ones that only exist because season two was so good and these characters and writers were now infallible icons. I don’t think she noticed that the show was deteriorating, becoming a farce. The simplified reality inside that box was comfortingly vacuous. Friends never asked my moms to consider their own lives; we kids were asleep, and this was their storytime.
Flash forward 15 years and you’ll find us all watching TV—sisters (2), mothers (2), fathers (2), brothers (2) in all the directions my family extends have their own taste for the stuff. I’m more invested in the medium than anyone, urged on by my puerile impulse to catch up to the “other kids” of my youth. Like your self-satisfied matchmaking friend who knows "just the girl for you," I relish the opportunity to fit someone I know to a new or old show that they will soon develop strong feelings for. Watching TV is a whole different activity than it once was. The mindlessness that my parents protectively shielded me from—and desperately embraced themselves—is not part of the equation. Instead, my family shares TV and talks about it—a lot—because of the connections we make, the way that it brings our thoughts together when we’re thousands of miles apart. This shift in our attention reflects a social one that’s been taking place over my lifetime. The language used to discuss TV shows has become richer, more articulate.
These great shows install in our lives another window through which we can view ourselves. This window is top-of-the-line, built to last. Films are fantastic, and the best ones maintain a level of control and vision that TV shows are only beginning to reach. But there’s just something about how a show marinates with you over time. You invest a portion of your life into the lives of the characters, experiencing the monotonous ironies of their existence with room to consider the passage of time.
While our cultural conversations generally represent an expansion of the medium, some of what once mattered to television is no longer relevant. As a millennial, I could never quite grasp the difference between “cable” and “network”. This detail, which used to seem like an important part of the conversation, is now an anachronism. My TV is connected only to the power outlet and the DVD player. Shows stream in through the Internet router a few feet away. I don’t pay for a cable connection, but I’m charged for services that allow me to click and play almost anything I want to watch in an instant. The intrusion of a commercial break—once indisputable—is now deeply upsetting.
As the Internet becomes more and more the default venue for shows, the very essence of what makes a “TV show” has been called into question. The voices of many have melded into a constant stream of chatter over the Internet’s effect on television viewership, conception and appeal. These conversations take place on the Internet.
As someone who has already given over a substantial portion of my lifetime to appreciating TV shows, what most bothers me about the attention they’re currently receiving is this: I don’t think we’re having the right conversations. In fact, rehashing the discussion of where—literally where—TV is going distracts from engaging in a closer look at its content. An example of this is embodied in the Internet TV phenomenon House of Cards. This show continues to be given way more attention than it ever should have received. (If you want to see what happens when someone holds the first season of this show to the standards of an aesthetic creation and not a milestone technological achievement, I’ve a blog for that.)
What we should instead be paying closer attention to is recognizing when a show has gone on long enough. There might be more space out there for TV shows thanks to the world wide web, but when better shows are being cut out of existence because of the space taken up by comfortable ones that have lost their creative dignity—as with Friends in its final years—there's not yet enough room to leave our standards low as our commitment soars to new heights.
This trend in our culture of discussing bells and whistles over basic construction has many casualties. Take Enlightened. That show was interesting, like nothing I had ever seen. It was visually stunning and ironic to an ambiguous degree that made people mildly uncomfortable. Our protagonist was deluded and enlightened, manipulative and innocent. The tone explored the line between serene and eerie. The people who watched it loved it, felt refreshed by it. A little bemused. But not enough people. Too many didn't have time to fit in another show, or didn’t know it was out there because there were just too many to choose from. It ended at its highest point, just two seasons in, and has recently become a martyr to the cause of TV appreciation. I keep in my head a list of many other shows from the past twenty years that have been swallowed up in this way. I consider writing their obituaries. Every time this happens to a show that was doing something important, many people come to regret it. Many more people than ever tuned into that show when it ran. I’ve been on both sides of this line, and wherever you fall it’s frustrating to be too late.
We’re constantly made aware of how much there is out there now to see and experience, how inundated we have become thanks to our technological connectedness. I say we use this, not just to talk about what TV is, but to find it. If you’re interested in television, make it an active interest. Find something obscure or foreign and bring it into your world. When you’re up for it, be part of the new wave of TV shows lapping at the outskirts of your attention. And when your show gets bad, and you become aware on some level of your consciousness that it’s not just a rough patch but a symptom of the end: get out. No more absolute faith for as long as some of the original actors are still there and they’re finding ways to bring on bizarre guest stars to intrigue you. Calling yourself “loyal” to something that no longer exists is perpetuating a delusion. Because unless you stop watching, it’s going to go on for as long as it’s making money and the writers and actors don’t feel completely dead inside.
Here’s a little secret, from me to you. Letting go of a TV show is liberating. It's like spring cleaning in your brain. Yes, you will feel a pang of loss at first. You might be sickened by your own self-satisfied tone when you tell your friends that you have nothing to say about how the most recent episode was kind of flat and contrived. Your mind will trail off as they discuss that perfect episode of the past when it was just right. Instead, you'll be thinking about the brand new show you heard has a promising future if anyone will watch it. You watched that show instead, and maybe now it has a chance to reach them.