Enough with this “Golden Age of Television” stuff already!

Big confession I’d like to make: I’m way, way over the upper middle class’s current infatuation with television.  This is probably more just curmudgeonliness, or an in-born contrarian impulse than anything else, but I’d still like to say a few things.

For one, I’m tired of boring conversations about binge-watching.  I don’t think most people who start them realize just how boring the are to listen to.  Imagine if we talked about books the way people like to talk about TV now:

Reader: Yeah, so, the other day, I started reading this book, it’s called David Copperfield.  Have you heard about it?

Listener: Wait, is that, can I get that on Amazon?

Reader:  Yeah, totally.  They’ve got ALL the chapters.

Listener:  Oh, is it any good?

Reader:  I mean, first I read like one chapter and I was like, you know, this is SLOW, it’s SO SLOW.  I’m like “where is this GOING?”  Because all it was was just like, you know, about this guy, and how he was born and who his parents were, but then, I just started getting INTO it, you know, and I read like SEVEN CHAPTERS all last night.

Listener:  Oh my god I’m TOTALLY like that too, when I start reading, I just like, I can’t read ONLY a chapter.

Reader: Yeah and you know what else-  I’m totally WAITING to read the next chapter.  Sure, it came out yesterday but I just like, keep them on my nightstand until I WANT to read them you know?

Etc. etc.

In other words, I’m glad that the average idiot has taken the step beyond only watching single episodes of a TV show, I suppose, but why does every single stranger I seem to encounter on the CTA, or for that mater, every marginal acquaintance think they’re like the FIRST people ever to experience this phenomenon or feel the need to elucidate it anew?  Perhaps they’ve actually never had that experience with books, or movies, or anything else… to me it all usually ends up being overblown.

And while we’re at it, something else that’s frustrating to me: why am I expected to binge-watch all this relative crap.  I mean, I totally get what it feels like to be really, really into something great.  The first time I watched The Wire, I sat up watching 6 episodes, and then when they were done, I was gleefully surprised to learn that Comcast had just added the next 6 episodes at midnight of that day, and so I continued watching.

However – there was a time when it was possible to be just a casual TV viewer.  When if I mentioned an episode of Seinfeld, say, I wouldn’t be immediately drawn into a conversation where someone asked me something like “oh, like, have you watched the whole thing?”  Or also, I didn’t have to explain myself if I hadn’t.  I could safely watch, say, the “Junior Mint” episode without being made to feel some sense of dreadful inadequacy that I hadn’t seen the entirety of Seasons 1-3 first.

So – binge-watching, I get it, when it’s really, really good.  but How I Met Your Mother?  do I really need to watch this end to end before I could even possibly comprehend ever single comic nuance of such a show?  Should I want to?

Oh – something else that really pissed me off.  Last week I was watching hulu (I don’t normally do this) and it asked me to “customize my advertisement experience.”  It was all I could to not to smash the laptop to bits right then and there.  How about this… HOW ABOUT YOU JUST SHOW ME THE STUPID TOYOTA AD AND BE DONE WITH IT?  This insidious “customization” is, so far as I can tell, the downfall of what is left of civilization.  Show me an ad if you wan’t – don’t make me pretend it was my choice.

Let’s get real folks – for the most part, television is light entertainment to sell advertisements.  I have no real problem with that, but our growing fetishistic/obsessive attachment to sequenced viewing of eminently predictable genre pieces is sad.  Just to be clear – “eminently predictable genre pieces” are all well and good – they can be relaxing, funny, like I said, “light.”  But can we all stop taking it so seriously?  Put that energy somewhere more useful.  Or at least, don’t bother me about if you don’t (if you must, please, PLEASE don’t talk so loudly when you’re on about it across from me on the el).

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6 Responses to Enough with this “Golden Age of Television” stuff already!

  1. John says:

    HIMYM is, in fact, a show that rewards sequenced viewing due to it’s heavily self-referential nature, somewhat similar to Arrested Development. A lot of the jokes are references to previous episodes but still, it’s a Chuck Lorre show, so it’s not like it’s unwatchable in syndication or anything.

    But I don’t think that your problem is really the fact that we’ve had a string of really good, scripted sit-coms recently, it’s really just people getting psyched over watching TV on Netflix rather than serially. It’s a difference, but is is REALLY worse, or are you just annoyed that it’s making people think differently about sit-coms?

    Given your own (rightful) evangelization about the Wire, it seems to me that you’re not against this mindset in general, you just don’t like it when applied to a genre that used to be seen as more episodic. I’m not gonna argue the point that sit-coms (especially American ones) SHOULD be more episodic because, duh. But still, what you’re talking about hardly rises above the level of minor pet-peeve, especially given as the last half-decade HAS seen some amazing TV comedy.

    My suggestion is to take a deep breath, let it go and maybe try watching a season of Parks and Rec or The League on Netflix. Have I told you how great the ensembles are on those yet?

  2. Josh says:

    I think you missed the spirit of my remarks – I’m not so angry about the episode/serial distinction, what I’m angry about is how much time and cultural energy is wasted on inane discussion ABOUT that distinction. And how badly and inarticulately people make those distinctions. I have heard so, so many conversations that more or less celebrate what the speaker seems to see as somehow INGENIOUS – to wit, that these TV shows HAVE continuities. That’s what I was trying to show about the book analogy – like it’s such a REVELATION when one turns to chapter 2 of a book and discovers that things mentioned in chapter 1 PLAY A ROLE!

    Also, while we’re on the topic – self-reference is the last refuge of crappy TV (and movie sequels). Okay, sure, episodes have to do with each other. But a lot of what I’ve been exposed to have been shows with generally bad writing and really OBVIOUS jokes where, even if I haven’t seen the previous episode, I can tell about 30 seconds before that a previous episode is about to be referred to. It’s all so telegraphed that the smarminess more or less hits me over the head – like “hey, dummy, laugh now! We’re about to make a reference to something you’ll ONLY get if you saw a previous episode.” And this happens over and over again for 22 minutes, and then I’m like “yeah that wasn’t funny.” I’d almost rather NOT get the jokes. And then I’m not all that interested in watching 10 more episode of the same just so I can see more and more allegedly “compressed” moments like this. They replace allusion with reference, and in so doing, destroy deeper comic potential. So yeah, now that we’re on the topic – my problem with most of those shows is that they’re badly written, episodic or not.

    I’m not annoyed that it’s making people think differently about sitcoms, I’m annoyed at how bad they are at talking about that thought. I’m also annoyed at how SERIOUSLY they take it all. This is more in the vein of the “we have the entirety of world culture available at our fingertips and we’re playing Candy Crush.” These shows and our fixation upon them feel more like playing an obsession-inducing mindless game than in being successful either as comedy or drama.

  3. David says:

    Just because you (rightly) hate television, Josh, and everything it serves/stands for, doesn’t mean it’s not experiencing its “Golden Age.” 😉

    The title of your post would have been more apt if you had made a case for a time in TV history when there were more good shows available to the casual TV viewer. That might be a hard case to make.

  4. juan says:

    This post was great. I think I understand Josh’s annoyance with people’s obsession over TV shows, and their expression thereof. I’m glad I’m not exposed to meaningless chit-chat like that (maybe because I’m not upper-middle-class).

    But, since we’re on the topic of television, let me share some impressions, on pain of annoying Josh or some of the other gentlemen on the blog. I started watching The Wire, I’ve watched 7 episodes of season 1. What I’d like to say is that, compared to Dexter, it seems like I’m emotionally numb to the characters. From a film-making perspective, Dexter is the worse show of the two, it had a lot of crap that should not have been there. But I really liked some of the characters. With The Wire, I find myself incapable of actually caring for any of those characters, although the plot is interesting. I don’t know if any of you had the same experience.

    By the way, have you seen the Grammys this year? What’s up with this shit? Some critics on the net were saying the music industry is dying, and by the looks of it they’re right. I don’t see the next Beatles round the corner any time soon. Most of the music we are hearing these days is sooooooooooo mediocre. Big awards go to Macklemore and Daft Punk ft. Pharrell. What have we come to? For fuck’s sake.

    Parks and Recreation is one of the best comedy shows in TV history.

  5. David says:

    I miss you, Juan. Deeply.

  6. Josh says:

    Hmm.. The Wire characters… This will sound contrived but I think I very clearly remember most of the sympathy I felt for the characters kicking in around the end of season 1. My initial impression was that this was a more ordinary police-procedural with an interesting plot; later, especially the last two episodes of season 1 (and especially especially the last 10 minutes of the last episode) I saw a lot of possibilities open up both for the show and for television as a medium in general. I won’t spoil it for you; in fact the fact that I even said as much probably will make you draw back, I don’t know. I remember early on identifying quite strongly with both Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty though, so maybe we’re just different.

    David – I just meant I was tired of hearing about people talk about it. I have no idea if it’s true. It feels somewhat like a “tallest midget” sort of conversation at some level 🙂 That said, I really don’t hate TV and everything it stands for. I hate the posture certain people place themselves in w/r/t it.

    Also, a great DFW essay about TV (and one that I think generally disagrees with my outlook) appears in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I don’t remember what it’s called though.

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