Drowning in the mainstream: Don’t be so tough on TV

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 5:13pm

NOSELL

HBO

In 2013, Tina Fey opened her Golden Globes monologue with the line, “Tonight we honor the television shows that have entertained us all year, as well as the films that have only been in theaters for two days.” It was a sly quip at awards season releases, how the December month becomes saturated with the next best film. But as a matriarch of television, Fey was also poking fun at a phenomenon she probably knows all too well: People don’t view television as “art.”

Think about it — when you picture that bleach-haired boy in your film class playing devil’s advocate, what media does he project onto? He unplugs his Sufjan Stevens and tucks the Ayn Rand book into his backpack to begin an unprompted and unwanted discussion about the latest Tarantino movie (it’s not that HE doesn’t respect women, it’s that his CHARACTERS don’t). He’s not sweeping aside self-cut bangs to watch you as you talk about “Atlanta” or making side comments to his friend about how no one truly understands “Stranger Things,” because to the high society artist, television is not worth a critical eye. 

Whenever I coyly throw a television reference into conversation or get giddy over my favorite show restarting, too often the response I get is “Oh, I don’t watch TV.” Rarely do people say “I don’t really care for books,” or “I don’t listen to music much,” and when I mention that I am not really a movie person, every head turns with shock. But for some reason, television is a medium that is acceptable to ignore. 

In a lot of ways, I get it. Television — with its excessive advertisements and time-sucking nature — can be the medium most associated with indulgent consumerism. “The Irishman” didn’t have three separate Poptart commercials peppered throughout and no one is binging “The Lord of the Rings” franchise in a two-day bender. There are drawbacks when it comes to watching television, but that’s true with every art form. Not every movie you paid to see is going to be worth it, and not every album you anticipated is going to be great. But nobody stops watching movies or listening to music because of these realities, so why be so tough on TV?

One of the things that draws people to art so much is the opportunity to live through stories they themselves are not a part of and be moved to feel a range of emotions from something they could not create. I would argue that television is the medium that excels in this the most. There are very few movies in which the viewer can grow with characters over years, sometimes decades, and those that do feature such a thing get critical acclaim. Television exists beyond the constraints of 90 minutes, having multiple episodes and seasons to add depth to characters and create multiple story arcs. 

Those that abuse this opportunity to change and shift their shows fail loudly and miserably — “Community” refers to its own Season 4 as “the gas leak year” and many “Arrested Development” fans choose to ignore the existence of the last two seasons. But so many television shows run their course gracefully, ending in ways that are both artfully sound and fan-friendly. Two recent hit shows — “The Good Place” and “Schitt’s Creek” — both ended their run on the writer’s own terms, recognizing that the shows had run their course and therefore giving themselves the time and opportunity to flesh out proper endings. The results from both were particularly poignant for two network comedies, touching on topics ranging from a family’s love to the legacies we leave after we die. 

Denying yourself television is denying yourself the chance to truly fall in love with stories and characters, and to follow them beyond the confines of a two hour film. How can you worship “The Godfather” but never bother to watch “The Sopranos”? How can you watch every war movie ever released without recognizing the impact of “M*A*S*H”? How can you throw “Star Wars” posters up on your bedroom walls without even trying out “Battlestar Galactica?” Television comes in every genre we know and love, elongating the stories and offering us new characters that don’t disappear once the theater lights flick on. 

Watching television has been painted as the lazy man’s vice, the activity we partake in when there’s just nothing else to do. Yet I say to watch television is to observe art, to understand different people and be moved by different stories. Don’t be ashamed if your favorite form of media is television — whether it’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” or “Killing Eve.” Television is suspenseful, it’s disturbing, it’s clever and sometimes it’s downright dumb. No matter what it is, television is what you and your family or friends are always going to gather around for something to do, something to enjoy together. 

Daily Arts Columnist Samantha Della Fera can be reached at samdf@umich.edu.