Over winter break, I was making my list of the top five television shows of 2010 for the Daily when it hit me — there’s an obnoxious amount of quality television currently on air. Obnoxious in the sense that it drives me bonkers to think about how many excellent shows I need to regularly watch, both as a TV columnist and a devotee of the medium, all while balancing studies, work and this thing called a social life.
As I perused my final tally — “Justified,” “Parks & Recreation,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “Terriers” — I was appalled by the number of awesome shows I had left off. There was the unrelentingly clever “30 Rock,” the endlessly genius “Community,” the slightly-disappointing-but-still-great “Lost,” the understated “How to Make It in America” and the rest of HBO’s programming arsenal, among a bevy of others.
And those are just some of the shows I regularly keep up with — I’m always one season behind on AMC’s acclaimed alliterative duo of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and have yet to sample loads of other critically beloved shows, like “Fringe,” “The Good Wife” and “Doctor Who.” Late-night TV-wise, it’s a total clustercuss — I sob at the number of ?uestlove’s epic “Remix the Clips” I’ve missed on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” because I was watching the repeat of Conan interviewing Donald Glover or some other jabroni, which I missed at its regular time because I was watching Jon Stewart eviscerate Glenn Beck on “The Daily Show.”
But the party don’t stop there, no. Whoah-ooh oh oh oh oh. More intriguing shows are constantly premiering on all networks, like “Lights Out” on FX, “Episodes” on Showtime and “The Chicago Code” on FOX. Now there’s even Starz, the new pay-cable player that is whipping out much-admired original content like “Party Down” and the upcoming, splendid-looking “Camelot.”
Sweet baby Ganesh. See what I mean about obnoxious? I’m getting annoyed with myself just thinking about all the must-watch shows I just named.
I try valiantly to keep up, sneaking in DVR recordings of “The Simpsons” between classes and leaving “Glee” on in the background as I do homework. But it seems as if no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to follow all the good TV I feel like I’m supposed to watch — it’s as futile an exercise as expecting to see a minority star in a CBS sitcom (BOOM, roasted). And catching up later on DVDs doesn’t count — it’s an entirely different experience to be part of the cultural conversation, watching episodes as they air, discussing events with friends and reading real-time tweets about how utterly mental that last death on “True Blood” was.
I do feel like an idiot for complaining about this surplus of must-see TV — it’s like a kid who’s whining because he has too many Christmas presents and can’t figure out which one to open first — but consider the implications of this oversaturation. What if this abundance of quality television is actually suffocating creativity?
Let’s take a look at the situation analytically: Our lives are constrained by the unchanging variable of time. We have only so many hours to fill with eating, sleeping, going to class, studying, socializing and so forth. Watching TV fits in there somewhere, depending on your priorities. So when the Next Great Show premieres, in order to be able to watch it, people will have to adjust their weekly schedules — sleeping an hour less, perhaps, or spending less time doing homework.
But unless they are maniacs like me, there’s a limit to how much television people will watch during a week. They’ll be resistant to immediately adopting new shows, no matter how good they may be — especially since there is so much good TV they have to watch anyway. The Next Great Show will likely struggle to attract viewers and be axed before it has found an audience.
Let’s take the example of “Terriers.” The critically adored show was densely plotted, beautifully acted and all that, but it averaged abound a million viewers and was promptly canceled after its first season. As I spread the gospel about how great “Terriers” was, around the airing of its third episode, I noticed a common response — “I’ll get around to it after I’ve caught up on ‘Mad Men’ and finished the rest of ‘The Wire,’ ” and yadda yadda yadda. There’s no doubt in my mind that those people would have loved “Terriers,” but they were already too busy watching a gamut of other essential shows. And even though I hope they’ll catch “Terriers” on DVD, the show’s fate has already been sealed.
The demise of “Terriers” definitely involved other factors, but the thought that its doom was at least partially due to the excess of quality television will always pervade. Nowadays, whenever I hear that an awesome-sounding show has been greenlit, I actually become worried — will people have time to watch and appreciate this show? Will it find enough viewers to fulfill its creative potential?
In this sense, I’m grateful for brainless television like “Dancing with the Stars” and “$#*! My Dad Says.” I need these crap shows to exist, for the very purpose that I don’t have to watch them. If all reality shows and third-rate sitcoms were replaced with cutting-edge dramas and quick-witted comedies, I’d probably flee to a monastery in Dharmshala.