Critic's NotesBarely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age
By David Carr, The New York Times
- Mar. 10, 2014
Not long ago, a friend at work told me I absolutely, positively must watch “Broad City” on Comedy Central, saying it was a slacker-infused hilarity.
My reaction? Oh no, not another one.
The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment.
I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy.
Something tangible, and technical, is at work. The addition of ancillary devices onto what had been a dumb box has made us the programming masters of our own universes. Including the cable box — with its video on demand and digital video recorder — and Apple TV, Chromecast, PlayStation, Roku, Wii and Xbox, that universe is constantly expanding. Time-shifting allows not just greater flexibility, but increased consumption. According to Nielsen, Americans watched almost 15 hours of time-shifted television a month in 2013, two more hours a month than the year before.
And what a feast. Right now, I am on the second episode of Season 2 of “House of Cards” (Netflix), have caught up on “Girls” (HBO) and am reveling in every episode of “Justified” (FX). I may be a little behind on “The Walking Dead” (AMC) and “Nashville” (ABC) and have just started “The Americans” (FX), but I am pretty much in step with comedies like “Modern Family” (ABC) and “Archer” (FX) and like everyone one else I know, dying to see how “True Detective” (HBO) ends. Oh, and the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” (HBO) starts next month.
Whew. Never mind being able to hold all these serials simultaneously in my head, how can there possibly be room for anything else? So far, the biggest losers in this fight for mind share are not my employer or loved ones, but other forms of media.
My once beloved magazines sit in a forlorn pile, patiently waiting for their turn in front of my eyes. Television now meets many of the needs that pile previously satisfied. I have yet to read the big heave on Amazon in The New Yorker, or the feature on the pathology of contemporary fraternities in the March issue of The Atlantic, and while I have an unhealthy love of street food, I haven’t cracked the spine on Lucky Peach’s survey of the same. Ditto for what looks like an amazing first-person account in Mother Jones from the young Americans who were kidnapped in Iran in 2009. I am a huge fan of the resurgent trade magazines like Adweek and The Hollywood Reporter, but watching the products they describe usually wins out over reading about them.
Magazines in general had a tough year, with newsstand sales down over 11 percent, John Harrington, an industry analyst who tracks circulation, said.
And then there are books. I have a hierarchy: books I’d like to read, books I should read, books I should read by friends of mine and books I should read by friends of mine whom I am likely to bump into. They all remain on standby. That tablets now contain all manner of brilliant stories that happen to be told in video, not print, may be partly why e-book sales leveled out last year. After a day of online reading that has me bathed in the information stream, when I have a little me-time, I mostly want to hit a few buttons on one of my three remotes — cable, Apple, Roku — and watch the splendors unfurl.
It used to be that I could at least use travel time to catch up on reading, but now airplanes have become mediated, wired spaces as well. And even when I get to a hotel or a vacation spot, my media library comes with me. This summer, I used a skinny little DSL connection at my cabin in the woods to watch “The Newsroom” on HBO Go.
In the past, great shows, entire seasons of them, used to go whooshing past me. Now they are always there, waiting for me to hit play. Like my dog, they are friendly and tend to follow me around seeking my attention.
It means people like me end up going to fewer movies. Sitting at home with a big, throbbing stack of quality entertainment and a big old screen on which to view it, am I really going to spend $12 to sit by a stranger, watch more commercials than I do at home — you cannot skip them in the movie theater — and hope that what I see on screen was worth getting in a cold car and competing for parking and seating?
All the new windows for content have created an in-migration of creative interest. David Fincher, one of Hollywood’s most coveted directors, followed up producing “House of Cards” by signing on to make a series for HBO called “Utopia.” Guillermo del Toro, a big-deal director, has created a series called “The Strain” for FX. Oliver Stone spent a great deal of time making a history program on Showtime and now word comes that Robert Redford is doing documentaries for CNN.
Even at the Oscars, Hollywood’s biggest night, TV seemed like the cool hipster at the party. Ellen DeGeneres’s just-folks delivery treated incandescent celebrities as if they were regular people who like eating pizza and being on television. The winner of the award for best actor, Matthew McConaughey, has also been making a big splash on TV with “True Detective.”
At a panel about television over the weekend at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex., that I moderated, Kathleen McCaffrey of HBO said that television entered people’s lives by letting go of procedurals about doctors and lawyers and telling stories about authentic, frequently flawed people.
“So much of the conversation comes from strong serialized dramas about people’s lives and how they live them,” she said.
The growing intellectual currency of television has altered the cultural conversation in fundamental ways. Water cooler chatter is now a high-minded pursuit, not just a way to pass the time at work. The three-camera sitcom with a laugh track has been replaced by television shows that are much more like books — intricate narratives full of text, subtext and clues.
On the sidelines of the children’s soccer game, or at dinner with friends, you can set your watch on how long it takes before everyone finds a show in common. In the short span of five years, table talk has shifted, at least among the people I socialize with, from books and movies to television. The idiot box gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it.
All these riches induce pleasure, but no small amount of guilt as well. Am I a bad person because I missed “Top of the Lake” on the Sundance channel?
Television’s golden age is also a gilded cage, an always-on ecosystem of immense riches that leaves me feeling less like the master of my own universe, and more as if I am surrounded.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/business/media/fenced-in-by-televisions-excess-of-excellence.html?ref=television