Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lamenting (While Appreciating) Television's New Golden Age

Things are pretty good when your biggest complaint is that you've been too busy to write a blog for 3 months. Sorry about that.

Unfortunately being busy, and especially my wife's being busy, has meant that my DVR is full to bursting with shows I am weeks or months behind. Of course, we didn't skip "everything" - still make sure we keep up with Game of Thrones and Hannibal, and before that The Walking Dead and True Detective

Sometime in the near future, the Dark Discussions podcast is planning on doing a Breaking Bad episode. Timely, right? For some reason, Phil never watched the show until recently, and now that he's all caught up, and caught up quickly, he's anxious to talk about it. Me too. It is a great show, perhaps even the all time greatest, and one whose success was only possible in this modern era.

The ever fracturing market has dramatically lowered the threshold for success, allowing niche shows - like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead and Hannibal - to survive. Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services then allow them to find a wider audience and actually build a following from year to year. This is completely antithetical to pre-streaming patterns, in which most shows started with their largest ratings, and slowly watched them decline until cancellation fell upon them, whether it be in season 2 or 12.

So we really are living in a Golden Age for television. It has easily surpassed the cinema as a writer's medium (if you haven't seen it yet, please catch Sundance's The Writer's Room, now in its second season - the first is naturally streaming on Netflix), and even mediocre shows are easily superior to those of the Three's Company era. And viewers not only have a wealth of series to choose from, catering to all varieties of tastes (or lack thereof), but they can watch it when they want, where they want, how they want. Really this is an embrassment of riches.

So this is where the bitching comes in. I wrote the above because I wanted to make it clear that I really do appreciate this television renaissance. But with this cornucopia, I feel that we have lost something, specifically the water cooler.

I mentioned how, despite our schedules, my wife and I, make an effort to keep up with Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and others, and the reason is social. Sure these are series we enjoy, but more importantly, these are series we enjoy talking about. We discuss them with each other, with coworkers, with friends, on Facebook. We can't do that if we haven't seen them. Hell, Monday morning Facebook is a spoiler minefield. You see constant brushfires on message boards because someone accidentally spoiled something that happened the night before, while half the readers are waiting until they can binge view the blu-rays.

And this is what I miss. The idea of television as a social event, especially the choice series that have grabbed the public mind the way Thrones and Dead have. Shows like Seinfeld and Lost were appointment viewing, because we didn't have Netflix and DVRs, and we all knew everyone would be talking about the latest episode the next day. Now, after a major character dies on Game of Thrones, you're afraid to mention it until someone has given you the "all-clear".  On-demand binge viewing has great benefits, but it has really put a crimp in the tv devotees social experience (at least with real people, not digitized "friends").

And while I'm bitching about my gift horse, can I also say I am sorry to see how binge viewing has taken away the appreciation of a good cliffhanger. Too often I hear people say that they don't want to have to wait week to week, to agonize in anticipation. I find that sad. Remember this:

Arguably the highlight of the entire series, made even more memorable by the week of speculation that followed. How effective would that have been if we only had to wait 20 seconds for the next episode to boot up in our queue? The final season (or second half of the final season) of Breaking Bad was a masters class in tension but I really wonder how much a person can appreciate its construction without having to suffer that week between initial viewings.

The first episode of the second season of House of Cards ends on a big twist, the sort of thing that you immediately want to talk to someone about. Except, the next episode is already on the tv. And this is a Netflix show, so it doesn't have a scheduled air time, so you also have no idea if anyone watched it. Go to work the next day and ask if anyone saw it, most likely no one even knew it was up yet. If they had seen it, they'd already moved on and were pondering the events of episode 4. I have to wonder why in the world the writers bother sticking with conventional episode structure.

Again, these are minor kvetches in the middle of a glorious revolution. I'm glad I have my drug dealing school teachers, zombies, dragons and lecherous ad men on tv, and I'm even glad that others have their duck callers, dancing stars and wacky sitcom families. But I can appreciate all that we have while still lamenting the things we seem to be losing.