We think we’ve identified the problem with television. At least, we’ve noted something that’s happening to it: There is a lot of it. This, we have talked about now for a while. And, as 2015 draws to a close, some people, like folks at Vanity Fair and the Guardian, are mentioning it again. And not only is there a lot of good television being made, but it’s also coming at you from all sorts of different places. No doubt, 2016 will exacerbate the trend, as streaming services improve and cable fights to keep its share of the market. But in actual fact, none of this is really a problem.
Having too much good TV to watch is a stupid complaint, one only a mostly bored, coddled, late-capitalist culture could create to fret over. We have too many products that we enjoy! Won’t someone end the madness? But, you might say, having too much of a good thing is often not a good thing. In fact, having too much of a good thing, as a consumer, is downright awful, because thanks to decades of training, we accept that if something is good, we want it. And if there’s too much stuff we want, our resources – in this case time, social commitments, a semi-active lifestyle – are strained too far, and we simply can’t cope.
This is why consumer product reviews are so popular. We like them so much we’ve started using them to rate each other in the same way, often based on some services we provide. We like the best product, even if that product happens to be another human. The customer is always right! And we don’t want to waste our time with any crap. Which is why we like TV reviews and TV recaps and TV think pieces. They are, essentially, product reviews, guiding us to the best of the best television. Except, in this case, they merely puts us back at our original problem: everything is the best.
It is all very exhausting.
But perhaps we are thinking about this the wrong way. Perhaps the problem we think we have – that there is too much good TV – is not really our problem at all. Perhaps our problem is that we are each not merely TV consumers, but weirdly competitive TV consumers. That is, we are not merely happy to choose from the all the good TV available and watch what we like the most; we must constantly make sure that our friends, relatives, neighbours and co-workers are also watching all the same stuff. You might argue this is simply friendly nature. Isn’t it nice that everyone is giving everyone else a tip on what good TV is actually great TV, according to them? Isn’t that just being helpful? No, it’s not. It’s just annoying.
One of the most notable things about all this good TV and, subsequently, all the reviews of this good TV, is its over-intellectualization. (I am, admittedly, guilty of this – very guilty.) The end result of this means that telling someone they should watch a TV show that you’ve seen but which they haven’t, isn’t just you saying “you should watch this great TV show I’ve seen.” Instead, it’s you saying, “I’m really smart by association to this TV show that is, from all the things I’ve read on it, very smart.” It no longer comes across as sincere. But we like doing it because, at a base level, it is effectively another ranking system, just like the ones we more obviously use to rate a book or our latest car ride or apartment stay. Oh, they haven’t seen Breaking Bad? Three stars.
This might sound ridiculous, but think of the best conversation possible as a result of this TV query. What do we really get from it? Be honest. Very rarely do the following minutes of dialogue involve as serious a thinking-over of the show as the one you read online in an episode recap. In fact, even when you do find a kindred TV spirit who likes, as you do, to really think about stuff, usually you just end up saying, “Oh, I’ll email you this recap. I can’t really explain it, but they really nail it,” and that’s the end of that. That’s probably the best-case scenario. More often than not, you merely confirm a shared interest in the program and its greatness, exclaim disbelief at the latest plot twist or cliff-hanger, before descending once again into a stony, uncomfortable silence in which you each toy with the idea that, hey, maybe you don’t have anything in common after all.
Maybe in time all this good TV will be naturally pared down. Maybe in 2017, there will be 300 scripted shows out there, instead of 400, as there apparently will be in 2016, merely as a function of a crowded market. Until that time, however, we can solve this so-called problem of ours very easily by ridding ourselves of the social anxiety that comes from the shared expectation that we have to consume all this good TV. We can think of something else to talk about.