Just over two decades ago, Bruce Springsteen released what would quickly become an anthem for the TV-is-a-wasteland set. Called “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” the song portrayed TV as one more thing in our materialistic world, like money and mansions, that fails to gratify and leaves us feeling hollow.
And a quick glance at a selection of upcoming shows supports Springsteen’s point. Get ready for “I Wanna Marry Harry,” a Fox reality-dating show in which a ginger guy who looks like Prince Harry fools a dozen women who pretend they’re being fooled. Brace yourself for season 2 of ABC’s “Bet on Your Baby,” on which parents treat their toddlers like racehorses. And take CBS’s “Big Brother 16,” please.
But growing alongside the discontent that Springsteen articulated in 1991 has been a fantasy of what TV could be. And I do believe that fantasy has come true, despite all the unscripted nonsense and network laziness, despite the horrors that are Nancy Grace, The Situation, and Kardashian Nation. The fantasy — that a person could fill his or her TV-viewing time with smart shows that simultaneously entertain and broaden perspective — has become a reality. You only need to direct your DVR and online viewing mindfully, and you can consume a full diet of stories without ever having your intelligence insulted.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that, even while it is May, traditionally a time when scripted TV packs up and leaves for summer vacation, my DVR is still getting crammed with topnotch stuff. We’ve reached a point in TV’s post-millennial production-and-release model where, at any given moment of the year, you can watch new episodes of extraordinary shows.
What am I talking about? FX’s “The Americans,” about married Russian spies in the D.C. suburbs in 1981, has grown into a really fine series in its second season. There’s complex intrigue, action, psychological shadings, contemporary resonance, and family drama, along with exciting performances by Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Noah Emmerich. FX is also currently delivering the idiosyncratic, compellingly plotted, and well-acted “Fargo” and the finely wrought comic despair of “Louie.” They’re all what NBC used to refer to as “must-see,” before it became the home of must-flee.
On HBO, you’ll find the brilliantly primitive politics of “Game of Thrones” and the buoyant satire of “Veep” and “Silicon Valley,” three shows that rarely disappoint. What else? BBC America has followed up the engaging “Ripper Street’ with the irresistibly clever and campy “Orphan Black.” Tatiana Maslany’s lead performance as a collection of clones with very different personalities has quickly and deservedly become legendary. Edie Falco continues to be a force of nature, snorting her way through life on Showtime’s honest portrayal of addiction, “Nurse Jackie.” CBS’s “The Good Wife” is wrapping up a fifth season that has featured some of the series’ strongest episodes.
And, of course, there is AMC’s “Mad Men,” a drama that has shown just how literary TV can be. It’s an elegantly scripted period melodrama about the American character, fitted with some resonant symbolism. So that’s eight hours of exceptional material, there for the taking on your own schedule if you so choose.
What’s interesting is that, among all the shows I’ve mentioned, “Mad Men” may be the only one to ultimately make it onto TV’s Mount Rushmore, along with all-timers such as “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Sopranos.” That level of series is, and will always be, rare. And yet we are nonetheless deluged with quality right now, shows that challenge, captivate, amuse, and reward analysis.
And this isn’t just a rare instant when good shows just happen to be overlapping. As some of the current series reach their season finales, others will be taking their place. Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” Sundance’s “Rectify,” and Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” are among the strong returning series due in the next month or two, along with a few promising newcomers including HBO’s “The Leftovers” and AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire.” And I haven’t even addressed original series from the likes of Amazon and Hulu, whose “Moone Boy” by Chris O’Dowd, now in its second season, is a sweet coming-of-age comedy.
My point is that the idea of calling TV a wasteland is oddly dated. Yet I still hear it from people all the time — “There’s nothin’ on.” They tell me that they can’t find anything good, and they’re surrounded by it. You may not want to watch TV, or you may see it as a drug; but if you choose to tune in, and are mindful about what to turn on, you no longer need to turn off your brain.