The Golden Age of TV is exhausting
The new Golden Age of Television is a great and wonderful thing, but it’s wearing me down to a nub. You too? There are limits, to our endurance and to how far creativity can be stretched until it snaps.
So, maybe like me, you want to beg the producers of “Big Little Lies” to quit while they’re ahead and forget about a second season. No matter how much money HBO puts on the table.
We’re in the midst of an explosion of small-screen quality, a rare confluence of creative and technological developments that has swelled into a remarkable onslaught of stuff. The rise of streaming video has released us from the schedule grid, the TV screen, the cable system itself. (Not quite enough from the ads, though.)
The creative community understands that the various television formats — eight-episode, 12-episode, 24-episode; half-hour, one-hour, bite-size; available all at once or in controlled release — offer different and often fresher challenges than the traditional two-hour theatrical film. So movie stars are going over to TV in increasing numbers, as are writers and directors. The medium was once considered to film what summer stock was to Broadway. Now it’s where actors go to stretch and show us what they’re really capable of.
As a side benefit, the Golden Age is allowing actresses in Hollywood’s traditional post-40 Phantom Zone to do some of their most powerful work, bringing new and relevant complexities into the cultural conversation. Jessica Lange’s career was revived by “American Horror Story” and now she’s playing Joan Crawford opposite Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis in “Feud.” Actresses past a certain age used to face pop culture exile while their male counterparts swaggered on with ever-younger costars. Damn right it’s unfair, and the richly nuanced performances given by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern in the recently concluded “Big Little Lies” may be the best revenge.
It’s a great time to be watching TV. The only problem is that there’s too much of it. Last year, there were 412 scripted series produced for primetime. When you factor in reality programming, documentary shows, and other non-scripted formats, the number rises above 1,400. FX head John Landegraf calls the phenomenon “Peak TV” and predicts it won’t start to slope off for another two years.
My wife and I just finished “Big Little Lies” along with millions of other viewers. We are concurrently watching the following shows: “Legion,” “This Is Us,” “Billions,” “Victoria,” “Sneaky Pete,” and “Humans.” When more episodes of “Game of Thrones,” “Transparent,” “Atlanta,” and “Westworld” become available, we’ll watch them too.
When we socialize with other couples, the conversation eventually turns to the question, “What’re you watching?” At which point everyone tries to talk everyone else into tuning in to his or her addictions.
In theory, this is wonderful. In practice, it’s a classic First World problem, embarrassingly trivial in the proper perspective but real enough on a weeknight when you’re beat and just want to turn off the old brain-pan. It requires juggling a dozen different narratives, riffling through them to choose one or two for post-dinner consumption, and then engaging in a round of spousal negotiation. In our house, at least, this leads to endless volleys of “You pick,” “No, you pick.” And it makes me realize that there’s something to be said for a show that comes out once a week on a particular night of the week, if only for time management purposes.
The governing metaphor for consuming television series used to be movies on a grid. Now it’s books piled high on a night table, each with its own bookmark and each silently urging you to finish it. I’ve been known to keep three books going at once, but eight is too much. The experience of each narrative universe becomes diluted by the others; the phrase “Must See TV” becomes not a come-on but a commandment.
I know, I know, you don’t have this problem. You read more books than you watch TV. You take long, brisk walks in the woods.
I don’t believe you.
So why the anxiety? Because, I think, we miss the social and cultural glue that comes when everyone experiences a work of entertainment at roughly the same time. We liked it when we could all talk about last night’s episode of “The Mary Tyler More Show” or “Seinfeld” or “Lost.” We liked feeling part of a larger conversation and a bigger passion. It made us feel like we belonged to . . . something. Once we got that from religion; many still do. Then we got it from the movies, but they’ve fragmented into a million pieces. Consensus TV has been one of the few remaining cultural tents in which to gather. And now that’s going away.
Which is why there’s a groundswell of warmth when a shared show does gain traction and becomes a common point of experience. “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones” are recent examples. “This Is Us” shows that the networks still know how to do it. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” was a brief but intense summer fling last year, a passing mass frenzy a la “Jaws” four decades earlier.
And because that groundswell can feel so pleasurable, we want to repeat it. The people who make our entertainments are happy to oblige, even when it doesn’t make sense. I’ll watch a second season of “Stranger Things,” but I’m not expecting it to have the same zing of discovery. HBO’s “True Detective” tripped and fell on its face the second season out, in part because it could never match the expectations set by the first season.
And now that the mysteries of “Big Little Lies” have been resolved after seven short, sharp episodes — we finally know who murdered and who got murdered at the school fund-raiser — I and many others don’t feel the need for more. Anyway, the true arc of this show was never the Whodunnit but rather the Whoizzit. Characters who started out as caricatures of upper-middle-class tiger mom entitlement gradually acquired nuance and depth and pathos, all to our delight and all at the hands of actresses doing the best work of their careers at a time when the movies return their calls with much less frequency.
I loved those characters — Kidman’s soulfully sad Celeste, Dern’s heartsore workaholic, Witherspoon’s flawed, human Little Ms. Fixit — but bringing them back for seconds would only begin the slow process of turning them back into caricatures.
We’ve finished this book. It’s time to put it back on the shelf. And then figure out which one of the tottering pile we’re going to pick up next.