Once upon a time, your life as a highfalutin TV viewer was manageable.
It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that All the Good Stuff was either on HBO or Showtime. They were the cable axis of greatness, the two channels whose series were changing the face of TV, making broadcast networks look like Saturday cartoons, bringing complex antiheroes to mainstream audiences, rivaling theatrical movies, etc., etc., and etc. Just Google “The Sopranos” and “quality TV” and it will all come back to you.
Other channels jumped into the fray, and before the aughts were out, the fight for discerning viewers had spread to basic cable, where AMC and FX had radically expanded our options. The Emmys became a celebration of all these channels, as the likes of “Six Feet Under,” “Weeds,” “The Shield,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad” began to crowd the nomination categories. At that point, finding time to watch All the Good Stuff was becoming a challenge, especially when you factored in TNT’s secret quality corner, “Southland” and “Men of a Certain Age,” and indulged your “Masterpiece” fixation on PBS.
I mean, a guy’s gotta have time to text and tweet in between watching TV, right?
Now the plot thickens again. In the past year or so, a different set of outlets are pushing forward in the realm of original series, on the heels of HBO, Showtime, FX, and AMC. The range of places where you can find special and meaningful TV series is growing a lot less finite by the month. Now if you want to watch All the Good Stuff, you also need to keep an eye on Sundance Channel, BBC America, Hulu, History, Starz, and, of course, Netflix. You now need to clear your DVR of anything iffy that tends to pile up, to make sure you never go above the dreaded “90 percent full” mark. You now need to forget about your life, because you know you like to watch.
Netflix is the big comer in this new phase, with two fine new series awaiting your eyes. “Orange Is the New Black” has gotten a lot of press; “House of Cards” has gotten even more. They deserve their kudos, particularly “Orange,” which I’ve raved about a number of times in the Globe. “House of Cards” is a strong but familiar political drama with cynical leanings, while “Orange” is something fresher, a story about the “Oz”-like prison microcosm that forks over about a dozen great roles to women.
Add to those two shows the five-episode British serial killer series “The Fall” starring Gillian Anderson and blame Netflix for yet another siege on your schedule. “The Fall” wasn’t made specifically for Netflix, but Netflix is the show’s exclusive outlet in America. Hulu, too, has exclusively imported a worthy little UK series to borrow some of your time. It’s called “Moone Boy,” and it’s a charming comedy about the goofy youngest kid in a dysfunctional Irish family. David Rawle is the endearing little geek and Chris O’Dowd from “Bridesmaids,” who’s also a co-writer, is his endearing imaginary friend. The show relies on familiar material, with school bullies, developing libidos, and wacky parents, but, well, so did “Freaks and Geeks.”
It’s easy to understand why more outlets — “channels” no longer works — are jumping into the original scripted series pool. Money, legitimacy, awards, it’s all good — very good. And filling up a schedule with unscripted material — docu-series and reality junk — doesn’t generally hold onto viewers for years, in the way a strong scripted series can. History, for example, launched into scripted drama this year for the first time with “Vikings,” a well-made and thought-provoking action series; the show quickly became a ratings hit as the No. 1 new cable series of the year. It has a loyal fan base, and it will make money as it makes its way through other sales platforms. It has the potential to lift History’s brand to a more prestigious and durable level beyond “Ice Road Truckers” and “Pawn Stars.”
Sundance Channel is the unexpected cable star this year, with one extraordinary series called “Rectify” and a top-notch crime miniseries called “Top of the Lake.” “Rectify” is slow drama, in the manner of “Breaking Bad,” as it combs through the minutes and days and issues of a guy newly released from prison on DNA evidence — but not exonerated — after serving 19 years for murder. It’s haunting and has the potential to grow into a hit, if the second season can maintain the tension. “Top of the Lake,” meanwhile, is a seven-episode miniseries that is dark and compelling and proves that Elisabeth Moss, the lead, has even more to offer than her fine work on “Mad Men.” I’m waiting for Sundance’s spiritual cousin, IFC, home of the original comedies “Portlandia” and “Maron,” to make a move in drama.
BBC America has been reairing British series for years now, and therefore it has been an important player for viewers. With “The Hour” and “Luther,” which returns on Tuesday, the channel has imported some of the best TV out there. But now the channel is making its own original shows, instead of only importing them. “Copper” was a middling start, but “Orphan Black” has been a breakout hit, with a star-making performance by Tatiana Maslany as a group of clones. Suddenly, BBC America has a first-run energy that will help it distinguish itself from its UK counterpart.
As the number of TV outlets continues to expand, and as other reality-fueled channels like History strive for more defining shows, prepare for an even more embarrassing embarrassment of riches. Before long, All the Good Stuff will be Everywhere, to be watched Whenever You Want.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.