[This essay was originally published May 2015 in Wired. It was a collaboration that brought together this essay, an interview with Mitch Hurwitz, an embedded reader poll constructed by Wired, and some spectacular visuals also from Wired. All of these sponsored by Netflix. The collaboration was well received. AdAge called it the “Snow Fall” of native advertising. A Netflix board member let me know he (or she) loved it.
Then for reasons unclear to me Netflix took the essay down. This sent my essay into oblivion. Yesterday, a friend asked for a citation, and I thought “Oh damn, not only is there no citation, there’s no essay out there at all.”
So here the essay is. I have removed the Hurwitz interview, the poll, and visuals from Wired. I have done a little light editing, including updating some of the references and renaming the subtitle. Originally this was “Difficult men and brilliant women turning popular culture into culture.”]
People are watching TV in new ways. The couch potato, once a fixture of talk show ridicule, op-ed disapproval, and man-caves everywhere, has slipped into obscurity. We’re not sure where he went. He just did.
The “channel surfer” has also disappeared. That twitchy creature, dashing from one entertainment assignment to another, he too has left us. Gone.
What we have instead are highly sentient people watching TV in an upright position. And they are watching lots of TV, big chunks of continuous TV, entire seasons in a single week. No longer barely conscious or amphetamine-edgy, these people are staying put, paying attention, watching skillfully and passionately.
The weird thing is that when we ask people to describe what they are doing, they say they are “binge-viewing.”
The truth is otherwise. First finding: people are not watching predicable shows with happy windups by the end of each episode. They are not watching junk TV. They are watching great TV: Orange Is the New Black, Killing Eve, and Atlanta.
Second finding: less and less escapes them. The ethnographic interviews showed us viewers who are alert to the fine details. People are committing to the narrative even as they second-guess casting decisions and creative philosophies. These viewers are keen.
In point of fact people are not bingeing. They are feasting.
The hidden fact of the matter is that TV got better. Against the odds. In the very face of sanctimonious criticism from industry regulators like Newton Minow who declared it a “wasteland.” By his reckoning, TV was a cultural sink-hole. It could only get worse, drawing American culture downwards into mediocrity.
TV got better partly because it escaped the stupefying control of ratings and regulators. Now the difficult men and the brilliant women of cable could go places TV had never gone before. While experts and intellectuals scolded it for its failings, TV began an exploration of new dramatic possibilities.
Quite suddenly, a series of virtuous cycles unfolded. Good TV created smarter viewers. Smarter viewers in turn made for better TV. Good TV created smarter writers who in turn made for better TV. Good TV created better critics who in turn made for better TV. Opposers threatened us with a descent into bad. TV somehow managed an ascent into better. Even Hollywood says so. Look at the migration of talent. Bona fide movie stars are prepared to make TV because that’s where real creative opportunities now lie.
The new technology stepped up. Netflix evolved feverishly to aid and abet the new TV, and it’s possible to get the best shows anywhere at any time. Viewers were no longer captive of good enough. Thus ended the time-honored practice of “flipping around,” settling for “whatever’s on.” Now we have access to virtually everything captured on film and video. Now we could feast.
As TV got better, it became more social. This was one of the revelations of Netflix research on streaming. We saw people watching TV together for intellectual purposes, so that they could take a show apart scene by scene. They do it for the purposes of mischief and play, happily accusing one another of being “just like Lindsay on ‘Arrested Development.’” They do it for purposes of self dramatization, wondering in some cases “what would Moira (from Schitt’s Creek) do.” (The answer: the most impulsive, capricious, and melodramatic thing possible.) But most of all, they are flexing critical skills and augmenting deeper knowledge and mastery of this once disdained medium called television.
This puts paid to the intellectual’s favorite idea that TV creates “anomie” and “alienation,” that it helps isolates Americans from one another. Wrong. Americans may watch TV alone, but they do so to access a set of shared topics. And not just shared topics but shared languages. We talked to a mother and teenage daughter, people who have a contested relationship of the kind common to adolescence, people who sometimes have difficulty finding one another in conversation. (There are several identity issues at issue, especially “you’re not the boss of me.”) But when watching NCIS, certain conversations become possible, especially when talking about Abby, the Goth scientist in the basement. Abby, you can conjure with. Topics once impossible now flourish.
Steven Berlin Johnson had a close look at TV a couple of years ago and discovered that popular TV shows “increased the cognitive work they demand from their audience.” He saw this in the work of Steven Bochco and shows like Hill Street Blues. In the place of single story line, TV narratives were taking on new complexity.
“Paging Mr Minow! Would Mr Newton Minow please go the nearest courtesy telephone!”
Some shows were even engaging in virtually secret messaging. Only the most dedicated viewers could discover the intricate plotlines. Producers were actually making running gags more complicated and dramatic subtleties more embedded with the knowledge that viewers could re-watch episodes. TV once worked hard to protect the viewer from anything that looked mysterious. Now mystery was OK.
Some will remember that famous scene from The Wire in which Lester Freamon explains something technical. Jimmy McNulty says, “Can you run that by me again?” The audience sighed with relief. Clarification! The professor gives a second explanation, this one twice as complicated as the first. The message: “Try and keep up. We are not coming back for you.”
TV became more inclusive. Once preoccupied with nuclear families, white picket fences and stunned Protestants, it began to acknowledge families that were ethnic, gay, divorced, melded, blended, adopting and variously multiple.
TV actually started to engage in new risk-taking. This was the work of competition within a community of difficult men and brilliant women. If you weren’t going to try it, someone else would. This put paid to “playing it safe.” In one famous, formative experiment, a network tried putting some kids in a house with cameras running. Hey presto, Reality TV.
Reality TV is the new favorite target for intellectual disdain. But you might say this is a popular medium deliberately giving up control in order to capture something more interesting than the genre and existing story engines could deliver. And TV ended up giving us something much more daring that anything intellectuals have ever risked. Risk? No, see, they have tenure.
Mike Meyers was keen to scorn most Hollywood conventions with his Austin Powers series, but he took special pleasure in creating “Dr. Exposition.” This was the great dolt who, in a conventional show or movie, joins the proceedings whenever things get complicated. In order to explain everything. These days we don’t need Dr. Exposition. Unlike previous generations we know a thing or two about TV content and production. The more complicated the better. Let’s have at it. (Plus, we know they’re not coming back for us.)
Perhaps the biggest change is the death of the old rule that read: Bad things won’t happen to good people. This was a founding TV bargain. Any character who looked like an exemplar of any kind was out of harm’s reach. TV is now prepared to break this rule. As Brett Martin, puts it in Difficult Men, “The sudden death of regular characters, once unthinkable, became such a trope that it launched a kind of morbid parlor game, speculating on who would be next to go.” To be sure, characters sometimes die because actors want to leave show. But our difficult men and brilliant women are sometimes killing characters because they can, because it’s good for the narrative, and because they are worried we might just be sitting there, a little too complacently. Couch potato, awake!
TV has become more irreverent and when necessary scatological. Strangely, the Trojan horse proved to be the cartoon: The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, Beavis and Butt-head, to name a few of the early ones. Out of the mouths of babes … came the strangest, most transgressive things. TV had annexed the vulgar.
TV got “cringier” with the advent especially of The Office, first the UK version, then the US one. Now we are treated to a succession of characters who have a gift for doing the wrong thing, for making a spectacle of themselves. This is TV excavating everyday life in pursuit of rules to break. TV goes all anthropological!
In some ways, this is a simple story. It’s a medium growing up, systematically breaking the old rules and opening up new terrains in the search for new dramatic and comedic territory. More broadly, this is popular culture becoming culture, plain and simple. Once a “wasteland,” once a “guilty pleasure,” TV is becoming, um, good.
Thanks to the intellectuals (as below) and regulators (on high), we continue to torment ourselves with the idea that it is merely entertainment, something beneath our dignity. We can’t help wondering we ought to apologize for all those viewing hours. And now, thanks to streaming TV, we watch great stretches of TV, entire seasons in a week — well, clearly an apology is called for! We call it “binge-viewing.” Think of this as the last gasp of the old order, Minerva’s famous owl taking wing at dusk. This is the last message beamed from the old TV.
The critics were wrong. TV got better. As it got better, viewers, writers and critics got better. And as this happened, popular culture became culture plain and simple. American culture rose. (If you’re a culture creative, I hope you are factoring this in.) We haven’t quite comes to terms with this radical change. We are still turning out old-fashioned apologies. We insist on calling it “bingeing.” But is it bingeing? Not at all. Now it’s feasting.
(these were not in the original Wired essay)
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