I don't watch that much TV. And I especially watch virtually no TV as it comes on the TV; I'm a Netflix TV guy. But even I have a few things to say about TV, as the new seasons start up and everyone notes, once again, that they're going to suck. I have no doubt that most of them will suck, and I certainly don't pay attention to what new sitcoms are going to be paired with Two and a Half Men. But in case you hadn't noticed, we're living in a golden age of TV. I'm probably not the go to person to talk about this, since I'm nowhere near as up on TV as I should be - I haven't seen a single episode of The Sopranos. But I have recently started filling out my knowledge of recent TV successes with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, Deadwood, Dexter, and others.
The thesis of this post is that TV sucks, and by TV I mean the regular normative kind of TV: the kind of TV where every episode is exactly the same, follows the same formula, has no overarching storyline, has virtually no character development, etc. There was a time (aka the 50s) when the American mainstream wanted a reassuring and repetitive commercial art form, and they got it, and for some reason we've been stuck with it ever since. Occasionally, something great happens within this formula (like The Simpsons or Futurama) but regular, TV-TV usually delivers things more along the lines of Full House or CSI: Miami. I know both of those things have their fans, but they're not for me.
But now we're not stuck with TV-TV. The revolution happened, and it happened by drawing elements from outside of TV's long and boring history of non-experimentation (for the most part, it also happened on pay channels, which is not a big surprise). Here's the ideas from outside of TV that I think have had the greatest impact toward making TV not suck.
1.The Godfather, Parts 1-60
Apparently, we had to wait 30 years for someone to realize that you could take a long-form, gritty, deep crime story, ala The Godfather, and tell it on TV, where it might be less gritty but could be even deeper and longer. Crime sagas were just begging to be epic TV shows told over years of deep and engaging episodes with an ongoing storyline, but no one did a good job of it until lately (various police procedurals, from Hill Street Blues onward, tried a version of this, but it rarely went outside the police procedural genre). And now we're practically drowning in (recently concluded) crime shows with an epic, overarching storyline. This is the genre that started the TV revolution, with The Sopranos, and if it's hit a low ebb now, I've still got years of DVDs to get through.
This Brought Us: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Dexter
2.Christopher Guest on the Small Screen
In 1999, Larry David, the creator of the repetitive, bland, unfunny, and well-beloved show Seinfeld, did a one hour HBO mockumentary called Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was a TV special, shot with a single camera and treated as if it were a documentary about Larry's life. As a fake documentary, it represented a bold and different way of doing comedy. Well, the idea was bold and different for TV - Christopher Guest had been doing it on the big screen for decades, and Woody Allen invented it in 1969 with Take the Money and Run. Seriously, Woody Allen invented it 40 years ago and it came to the small screen like five years ago. Still, I'm glad it finally came, and it's responsible for the best of TV Comedy.
This Brought Us: Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office [UK], The Office [US], Arrested Development, 30 Rock
3.Did You Know Brian K Vaughan Writes for Lost?
The American people have told us at the box office, over and over again, that they have a taste for genre entertainment: science fiction, superheroes, neo-noir, etc. And in the comics world, those genres are being practiced with enormous success, particularly since they have a weapon movies don't have: the cliffhanger. Pair an exciting detective, science fiction, or superhero story with the cliffhanger, and then put it on TV, and you've got yourself a TV show only slightly less addictive than crack. It's no surprise that, when Lost started sucking, they hired comics writer and cliffhanger master Brian K Vaughan to right the ship (spoiler: he didn't).
This Brought Us: Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars
4. This car has a dent in it. And another dent here, and another dent here.
Quirkiness sells. It sells tickets to Wes Anderson movies, tickets to Napoleon Dynamite, advertising time on NPR's This American Life, books written by David Sedaris, and thousands upon thousands of "vintage" T-Shirts at thrift shops (awesome!) or Urban Outfitters (posers!). People love watching awkward and slightly weird characters have disjointed but ultimately charming adventures. And it didn't occur to anyone to put them on TV? I think Seinfeld might be as close as it gets, pre-revolution...yuck.
This Brought Us: My Name is Earl, Monk, Flight of the Conchords, Six Feet Under
As near as I can tell, those are the big four. But I know that I left out a lot of great shows from the revolution, and I probably left out a lot of influences from movies and other media that helped bring about the revolution. And since I'm not the most TV savvy guy in the world, I need your help: What shows and trends did I overlook? Post a comment and put me in my place.