Monday, May 20, 2013

TV: From a Vast Wasteland to Another Cultural Obligation

I’m avoiding my DVR.

My DVR currently holds 20 hours of TV, including the last several episodes of critically acclaimed shows like Bates Motel and Hannibal. To watch 20 hours of TV takes about… 20 hours. In other words, an entire part-time job for the week. And that doesn’t count upcoming TV for this week; the season finales of Bates Motel, Nashville and my daily dose of General Hospital.

TV used to be a way to simply veg out after a long day, and I suppose to those whose diets include heavy doses of reality fare, it’s still that way. But now that we’re in the second Golden Age of Television, where every new Showtime or AMC or FX show is not only a major commentary on past and current political and social constructs, TV is no longer a relaxation tool. It’s the visual equivalent of a college-level English class.

Here’s a short list (in no particular order) of the impactful shows that thoughtful Americans are supposed to be following: The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Nurse Jackie, Homefront, Veep, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Bates Motel, The Following, The Americans, Game of Thrones, the Good Wife, Nashville, Hannibal, Scandal, The Killing, Top of the Lake, Rectify. You know these shows are important because not only do they get reviewed in Entertainment Weekly, but their writers and actors are featured in the New York Times, Time magazine, and the New Yorker. And please note that this list contains only the impactful shows. If you want to keep up with what the chattering classes are watching, there’s no time for Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, or any reality show. Yes, even the Bachelor.

Once upon a time, there were only three channels (four if you count PBS, but most people didn’t), and TV took a break in the summer. Now there are hundreds of TV channels, Hulu, and Netflix is streaming original content. Add Arrested Development to the list above when its second life premieres. And if there’s any show you didn’t get around to watching during its first incarnation, Netflix will helpfully stream all seven seasons so you can “binge-watch.” Yes, it’s not enough just to watch one episode a week if you’re watching on Netflix. You have to take a weekend and watch one after the other till your eyes bleed and your bladder throbs.

First world problems, indeed.

There are now so many choices, and the choices are so good and so important and so high-brow, that good TV has now become another obligation, like closely tracking political news and following obscure but fabulous people on Twitter. I know I should be watching Downton Abbey, but by this point I have like three seasons to catch up on, and no matter how wonderful it apparently is, and hearing the spoilers doesn’t hurt because I have no idea who these people are, watching Downton Abbey has all the appeal of re-reading Dickens’ “Bleak House.”

Maybe instead of watching a mini-marathon of Bates Motel episodes to prepare for tonight’s season finale, I should just turn on my Kindle and pick a good book instead.

Oh my god, I have thirteen new books on my Kindle…

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