As I’ve mentioned my favorite shows of 2015 to various people lately, I’ve noticed a few blank stares. “Catastrophe”? Huh-what? Is “The Knick” a portrait of a basketball player? And “Master of None,” is that a reality show about a card game? A jack of all spades?
That’s 2015 TV in a nutshell, if you take away the reality-style big-top that has been the Republican debates, as well as the last falling pieces — goodbye, Letterman and Stewart; hello, Colbert and Noah — in the 2010s great late-night quake. It has been the year of Too Much TV. The ongoing fragmentation of TV crossed some kind of Rubicon, as the number of outlets making original series rose to an all-time high, along with the number of series — from 211 shows in 2009 to 409 in 2015. No wonder so many extraordinary shows are unknown to so many viewers: What we have is a serious case of entertainment overload.
The explosion of what business types call “content” began in earnest in the 1990s, as TV quickly expanded from a handful of major networks to hundreds of cable channels, both pay and basic, inspiring Bruce Springsteen’s now quaint complaint about “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Since 2012, that cable revolution has been joined by a flock of streaming services that also create their own shows. The result is that now, with Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, HBO, Showtime, FX, FXX, Cinemax, Comedy Central, AMC, PBS, History, and too many others to name, it’s nearly impossible to stay on top of all the best scripted stuff.
The Golden Globe nominations, announced earlier this month, were a clear sign of the times. Netflix led the TV categories for the first time, followed by former leader HBO, Starz, Amazon, and FX, in that order. The broadcast networks, which still run most of the highest rated shows, were at the bottom. While the streaming service Hulu got its first nomination, for the comedy “Casual,” NBC, a network once celebrated for its comedies, was completely out of the running.
I’m betting many of you have never even heard of “Casual,” a bittersweet look at adult dating starring Michaela Watkins. Like Amazon’s “Catastrophe” and HBO’s “Togetherness,” it’s a charming single-camera comedy with dramatic elements and complicated characters in their 30s and 40s. But it exists in one of the many smaller niches that now make up the TV audience. Perhaps “Casual” and Hulu will get more notice next year, as the streaming service premieres “11.22.63” on 2.15.16, Presidents’ Day. The eight-part series, based on Stephen King’s novel about the Kennedy assassination, stars James Franco, Chris Cooper, and Cherry Jones.
Not long ago, I wrote a piece in praise of a sweet Australian show about friends in their 20s called “Please Like Me,” which airs on Pivot. I immediately heard from a number of readers who were interested in watching but had never even heard of Pivot, which is a cable channel that premiered in 2013 and features both new series (Stanley Tucci’s “Fortitude”) and repeats (“Veronica Mars”). Two or three decades ago, the idea of an unknown channel would have been absurd; now it’s understandable and relatively common.
John Langraf, the CEO of FX, got press attention over the summer for talking openly about the TV deluge — “There is simply too much television,” he said — and how, eventually, a Darwinian process will take over and a winnowing will begin. This “culling of the herd,” as he put it, will not be kind to smaller outlets.
In some ways, the TV business is starting to resemble the music business, which has become an immeasurable array of niches. Musicians now act as their own record companies, releasing their music from their own sites. Survey the end-of-year music Top 10s, and you’ll find that each critic’s list looks unlike the others’.
My TV list does include a few more commonly known titles — perhaps “Fargo,” “Transparent,” “The Americans” — although even they aren’t big hits. (See my annotated Top 10 and my Honorable Mentions here.) But my list also contains lesser-known shows that deserve to be singled out and watched. In the age of the shrinking mainstream, you’ll need to keep your eyes open.