I don't have faith in our government; I don't have confidence in our President, our country, or our founding documents. I don't trust experts, doctors, teachers, or parents. I can't believe in magic, love, humanity, or even God. I am a whiny, post-Gen X (Millennial?) weirdo whose cynical attitude is only slightly less irritating than his undeserved sense of entitlement. However, there is one thing I believe in: Television.
Or, as Homer calls it, "teacher, mother, secret lover." Watching TV is how I've spent most of my life thus far. Every period of my maturation can be measured in "New Fall Seasons!" (So, 20). My conversations are peppered with obscure quotes from cartoons; my romantic relationships are defined by a respective situational comedy counterpart (my last girlfriend and I were a Sam and Diane!) I watched every significant cultural event, from the WTC falling to Obama winning, through a lens and dissected by talking heads. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I really like watching television.
So maybe I'm biased when I say that TV is currently our most exciting entertainment medium. Many critics have suggested that we're living in a cultural golden age of television right this very second. Critic Donna Bowman of the AV Club (a publication championing the current quality of television) explains, "Freed by the proliferation of basic cable channels with a yen for signature programming, emboldened by the example of HBO, bolstered by fanatic followings and critical praise, the best television ever is on the air right now, in this decade."
Leonard Pierce, another AV Club writer, explains that a choice of hundreds of stations, premium channels, specialty advertisers, easily obtainable DVD box sets, and online torrents have made contemporary America an incubator for quality television. People can catch up on what they've missed, corporations can make money selling DVDs and ad space, and critics can post 5,000 word articles on the Internet about how great just one given episode is. Sure, American Idol and Jersey Shore still exist, but we can ignore them easier than ever before! Only set your TiVo for the good shit!
While merit-worthy television combines the nuances of great film, novels, and journalism, TV still has several unique aspects that set it apart from any other medium. Only with television can you spend up to 22 weeks a year with your favorite actor/character/cartoon, or heck, even more frequently if you're watching a talk or variety show. Writers can develop and establish an entire community for their characters to inhabit (The Simpsons are the best at this); hopefully, the characters will spill into the audience's communities as well (The Simpsons are the best at this too). Narrative arcs can be developed over individual seasons (like The Sopranos), or stories can take years to be slowly revealed (like The Wire). The turnaround to create a TV show is faster than film (which is why NBC's Community was able to mock CBS's $#*! My Dad Says while they were airing within just an hour of one another), so it's easier for TV to be more immediately relevant; moreover, TV shows have more time in the spotlight than a movie does, so that can let them better capture a movement rather than a moment. While serialized drama is nothing new (thanks Dickens, Dostoevsky, and other long-winded classic authors!), television allows for a dramatic tension now hard to find in literature. This is why I'm waiting anxiously for next July when Breaking Bad's cliffhanger is finally revealed. And best of all, thanks to limitless cable dials and a lazy, entertainment hungry America, television has more options than ever before! Perhaps two studio blockbusters are released in theaters every week; I religiously watch eight scripted shows each week, and even more assorted reruns, catch-ups, and talk shows. There's more than enough TV to keep people fat, satisfied, and buying truckloads of stupid crap for years to come.
It used to be chic to say you didn't even own a television; but now, that just makes you sound like a douchebag. Because without a TV you're missing shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Six Feet Under, The Shield, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, The [British] Office (OK, and maybe some of the American), The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, the first nine seasons of The Simpsons, and ― as of just two weeks ago ― Boardwalk Empire. These are the agreed upon greats; the shows you are expected to be familiar with in order to be a culturally refined American citizen. If you haven't seen these programs then stop reading this article, sign up for Netflix, and get ready to embark upon a journey of beautiful vegetation. Those who refuse to watch these shows are labeled philistines by the hipster elite. Every show mentioned above exhibits multiple qualities found in any satisfying or challenging narrative ever created (OK, that might be hyperbole). Seriously guys, you should watch these shows; otherwise you'll really be missing out.
Of course, that doesn't mean they're the only good TV to watch. The aforementioned shows are ones critics have already spilled barrels of ink (well, more typically, virtual ink) over. I purposefully neglected to mention all of the other great dramas, comedies, documentaries, and cartoons that proliferate across every cable and network channel. This column (the one you're reading right now!) is going to deal with the shows that usually go unmentioned, the shows forgotten by critics and audiences. Shows that are underground influences on the television of today, or shows so strange they seem to have influenced nothing at all. This column's purpose is to discuss shows that took ambitious chances and straddled the line between embarrassing failure and brilliant success. I'm going to point out how much good stuff you can find when you look at the TV nobody's watching.
I humbly present to you my current thesis statement: I want to shine light on the underappreciated pioneers of television. I will do this by persuading readers to watch the shows and discuss why they're so great. I do not hope to unearth any radical new interpretations of popular culture, or redefine the way critics see television. Merely, I want people who are looking for a good way to spend their time to consider watching some of my favorite TV shows. Every two weeks (God willing), I will discuss a different show. You don't need to have seen the show before you read the column (though it's great if you have!), but I will announce beforehand which shows I'll be watching so that any interested parties can watch along with me. Maybe these articles will serve as a primer for strange and underappreciated television, or, maybe these articles will suck the big one. Only time will tell.
If there's one thing I know I'll be able to do it's this: prove to the world, once and for all, that I watch an assload of TV. That's right, a whole assload.
Failed Pilots (these will be embedded in the article!)