I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was in the last five years: television reached a critical mass, a point from which I assume there is no return, when there are simply too many “quality” TV shows for a single human being to watch. I should know – for the first couple of years I tried. But trust me, it can’t be done. Those days are over. Which leaves me, in the wake of the Emmy’s Monday night and with the new fall season already upon us, in something of a television funk. Leaving my personal woes aside, though, I’m also left with the question, where do we go from here?
This has happened before, in fact; not with television, but with music. When I was growing up – mostly in the 80s – there were a limited number of musical artists, and for the most part we all knew them. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Culture Club – they were a kind of universal language. If you were a certain sort, you might be drawn to the more obscure new wave bands – Spandau Ballet, Orange Juice. Or you might have been a rap early adopter. You might have been “underground” and known who Tom Waits was. Or into country. But even most of the outlier artists eventually filtered down to the masses – I knew who Kenny Rogers was, George Strait, Herbie Hancock, RUSH.
Somewhere in the late 90s, though, the music world exploded. The advent of computers meant more people could make more music for less money. The advent of the internet meant those people could cut out the marketing middle men and distribute their music directly. And overnight there were suddenly more bands producing more music than any one person could keep up with. Tracks were separated from albums and the transition was complete. Now we walk around with phones full of music by artists only we know: playlists that aren’t just personally curated by and for us, but that in certain respects are full of music that was made just for us. Maybe no one else on Earth besides me knows what it’s like to move from Royksopp’s “Remind Me” to Branford Marsalis’s “The Windup” (my favorite track from the Marsalis Quartet’s excellent new album The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul). Of course, you can try it now, but even at the moment you do it, I’ll be hearing another track change that only I will ever hear.
It has taken television longer to work up to the same point. We thought it happened in the early 80s, when cable arrived. There’s a great tune by Joe Jackson – “It’s All Too Much” – about the ridiculous state the world has reached, in which there are so many kinds of things it’s impossible to choose:
Two hundred brands of cookies
Eighty-seven kinds of chocolate chip –
They say that choice is freedom
I’m so free it drives me to the brink.
Later in that song Jackson worries because we now have “fifty channels,” which seemed like a lot – maybe too many – in 1991. Almost thirty years on, fifty channels seems positively quaint.
Of course, even with hundreds of channels, it took time for us to reach the situation we’re in now, since not all those channels offered worthwhile programming in the beginning. How many times could you re-watch Steel Magnolias, really? Even when channels began to push their own original programming, it wasn’t always what you’d call top-notch. Anyone up for a marathon of Manhattan, AZ? Maybe a big helping of The Lot? Take your time; look ‘em up. My point is, it took time for cable to mature.
Once it did though, man did it ever. For a while its seemed like we’d reached some sort of television nirvana. The Sopranos, 24 (don’t even act like you didn’t love 24), Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, and The Office, and Modern Family, and Mad Men, and Lost, and I don’t even remember what else. Fine. It became more fun – and maybe more cerebral as well – to stay home on Friday nights, to stay home every night. The cinema suddenly looked a little sad. And look, I take my TV seriously, so there I was, watching Monk and Psych, Haven and Eureka, and Battlestar and Warehouse 13, and Parks and Rec and Enterprise and Family Guy and South Park and Dexter, and The Wire. If it had the faintest whiff of “quality” I was there. I watched so much television I had to write a book about it. Ironically, I gave up reading altogether, and had to squeeze in a classic film or two at odd moments when I should have been sleeping.
And now...well, I can’t even start listing. A few weeks back I applied for a job writing TV reviews (didn’t get it, thanks for asking), and they asked me to list “everything” I watch. Thirty minutes later, I gave up, and I hadn’t even begun on the most recent shows.
So what am I complaining about, right? Well, for someone whose aim in life for several years was to watch every episode of everything worth watching, this new reality does a number on my OCD – but that’s another one of those personal problems, I suppose.
Maybe I’m not really complaining. But I do think it’s worth taking a moment to think about where we’ve arrived. There was a point, not so long ago, where you could shame a person for not watching a show: “You’ve never seen Homeland? Are you one of those people ‘cutting the cord’?” You can’t expect that anyone’s seen anything now, and the days when we shared television as a cultural object are decidedly over.
But I do wonder what’s next. A few years ago, someone did a thoughtful think-piece on how we seem to be choosing our universes now – “I’m Star Wars, he’s Harry Potter, she’s Law and Order.” But I suspect soon it may be “which network have you decided to live on?” Every network it seems has their own streaming service now: cutting the cord is starting to look like less and less of a good idea in an age where me may now have to pay a separate price for each and every network.
Oh you can certainly get by with nothing but Netflix, no question. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched nothing but dark Belgian mysteries. Seriously, like five of the things: that’s how deep content goes. Just know that soon – if it hasn’t happened already, you’ll be watching your very own lineup of shows every night, something absolutely different from anything anyone else on Earth watches. Your significant other will be tuned to something else – no time to waste sharing a playlist. And just like that, TV won’t be something we share anymore.
Is Killing Eve the last show we’ve all heard of? Or is Mrs. Maisel more your thing? Barry? Sharp Objects? Chernobyl? Never mind, I see you’re watching something else.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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