It’s that time of year when once again we get to see how the lowest common denominator manages to assert mass control on American popular culture. We see it regularly, of course, published in weekly ratings or even just on cable so-called news networks. But this is the time when networks announce which shows survived their fall run and will make it into the back 10 of the spring television season.
Yesterday, the NBC mid-season pick-ups, drops and forced hiatuses provide yet another point of proof-positive that those who love television are not the people blessed with Nielsen boxes (and indeed, that the Nielsen system, at least as far as television goes, is broken). The fact that Community is on indefinite hiatus while shows like Whitney and the incredibly dull celebrities-discover-distant-ancestry show Who do you think you are? continue on provides depressing further proof that the peacock network has jumped the shark. Or been eaten by it.
Here’s hoping they see the light and replace the god-awful Are you there
Vodka, it’s me Chelsea (I’ve seen the pilot — it makes Whitney look clever and well done) with the remaining 11 episodes. Over the debate and conversation on the interwebz that this ‘hiatus’ has prompted, some in the industry report optimism of its return, others pessimism.
I’ve spoken before about my soft spot for NBC. This is the network that brought me SeaQuest back in the early 90s — the first show that I watched with devotion (please don’t mock me). It was also the home of Homicide: Life on the Streets, which at the time could never have been on any other network but the then-gritty and daring NBC, as well as the golden years of ER.
And we cannot forget that the peacock brought us The West Wing, which remains my favorite show of all time. The blue foldered complete box set counts among my prized possessions.
There are some positive things that can be said about NBC. It has shown commitment to Chuck, the little spy dramedy that could(n’t always deliver), and boasts the Tom Brokaw legacy and Brian Williams continuation. There’s also a smattering of other non-Community comedies that many rate highly: 30 Rock, though my loathing of Tracy Jordan often gets in the way of my enjoying it, The Office and Parks and Recreation (though neither my cup of tea).
But there’s no denying that it is a far cry from the ‘must see’ network it was back in the 90s and early aughts. Instead of trail-blazing, it’s following suit. Its spring lineup includes Smash, a Rachel-grows-up Glee answer, The Voice (answering American Idol), Fashion Star (answering Project Runway), and of course, Grimm, which is a mediocre Supernatural-meets-Buffy mash-up. Prime Suspect has gotten the ax. Instead, we’re introducing The Firm and Harry’s Law, both because we need more lawyer dramas on TV. This in addition to the limping along Law and Order SVU. Let’s not even go into the renewal of Celebrity Apprentice because, might as well kill me.
I don’t (completely) mean for this to be a snobby, condescending, liberal elite, arguably “hipster” critique of the decline of American culture, though I know that’s probably how it will come off to some. It’s really more intended to be a think on where we are versus where we’ve been, television-culture-wise.
What makes Community‘s (likely permanent) loss depressing is the fact that as a show, it has layers. It is not the deepest program on television, and in some ways I think that’s the point, and keeping with that it is a meta critique of American popular culture — particularly television — that is well done and well performed. It is something made exclusively for those who watch television not as a way to kill an hour or two while they eat their nuked tv dinner, but who do so for the cultural conversation that can and does come from it.
To put it in other terms — it is for the types of people who go to Comic Con for Comic Con, and not those who attend just to see the Twlight panel.
There was a time when there were ‘water-cool’ shows (to use an 80s turn of phrase) — where did they go? Why?
This disappointment is not about Community in and of itself. It’s not even, really, about NBC. It’s more about the system overall and the shift in the cultural landscape. The amount of mediocre and thoughtless programming on television — and within American popular culture generally — is devastating, and is evident not only in the types of programming available, but in what we as a society accept as representative of us as a people and culture. For now I’ll stick to television, but if you want any more evidence, watch 10 minutes of a Republican primary debate.
It is possible to find engaging programs, no doubt; it is even possible to find smart programs if we look for them — and not only as British imports. But the second golden age of television that we enjoyed during the aughts is clearly on its decline.
No more West Wing. No more LOST. Battlestar Galactica, the Wire, the Sopranos are also gone to DVD boxset heaven, and The Office has declined into a land of tired awkwardness, baby-obsession and the revelation that the bulk of these characters are just horrible people. Buffy is 8 years off the air and Veronica Mars is a fond memory. As a side note, there is not a single space opera/western to be found, even in Sci-Fi Network (I refuse the ridiculous rebranding).
In the Second Golden Age, television was able to be smart. Not only that, but consumers were too. Examples of what I mean —
- Battlestar Galactica. From the outside, it is a science fiction space opera about fighting killer robots. True. But it’s really a conversation about faith (and religion) and its place in society, how power is given and received, and the nature of humanity.
- LOST. Taking on similar themes, it adds the struggle for redemption and the very basis of what it means to be good or evil (and how there must be both). Regardless of how you feel about its finale, one cannot ever argue it wasn’t ambitious and about *something*.
- The Wire examines socioeconomic marginalization, and the pressures and motivations behind people’s choices within a city of clear haves and have-nots.
- In a completely different setting and method, Veronica Mars does similarly, bringing into the conversation what it means to be young, female, and marginalized, while talking about adolescence in a way that doesn’t just boil it down to commonplace stereotypes (see in contrast: Glee).
- And Buffy did much of this too — at least the young, female, coming-of-age part — in a way that made it relevant and at the time, new (though the amount written about Buffy’s contribution is staggering and I don’t need to rehash).
Additionally, think about West Wing, which tackles these things and more (albeit quite differently) with idealism and intelligence — the writers never dumbed it down, never treated the audience like they were stupid, and it, like these others, can stand the test of time. Those behind West Wing expected their viewer to keep up — and they did. This was not a show written for the lowest common denominator, instead it was a show with ambition about ambition. It said it was okay to be intelligent, to expect more. And it encouraged a generation of people to engage in current events and politics. The number of people I know, from both sides of the ideological spectrum, who got involved in politics, the law and social issues because of this show is astounding. Talk about a program with legs and long-term cultural impact.
I think one of the problems is that today’s producers don’t allow audiences to be smart the same way they once did. At least not on network. For instance, Homicide would never be made today — or if it was, it would be on something like FX with more sex and gore (which I think would significantly take away from the story). It certainly would never be on one of the alphabets. West Wing is probably in the same boat, even with Sorkin’s Social Network success.
At least there’s Mad Men and Game of Thrones, and we have the brain-twisting multidimensional Fringe until the end of the season (though I doubt for any longer). Sons of Anarchy, despite its flaws, does provides something a bit different, though it’s no Sopranos. There’s Breaking Bad for some, though I’ve not been able to get into it. And there is a promise of a new half season and a movie of Arrested Development. I would also argue there’s How I Met Your Mother and even, though to a lesser extent, Supernatural.
Mad Men and Game of Thrones are easy. Mad Men is nothing if not a masters thesis on culture, feminism and gender norms, and how we remember history — as a country and as individuals. Game of Thrones can easily be argued as a treatise on power and the nature of leadership. Beyond being well written, superbly produced and perfectly acted, these shows meet or exceed the level of exploration into human behavior or the human condition as the celebrated programs of the last decade. They move at the pace they need to in order to tell their story and they expect their audience to keep up and ‘get it’.
For How I Met Your Mother, here is my argument for why it belongs in the “deeper than” bloc. Though nowhere near as serious as these other offerings, it does have depth despite its design as a traditional sitcom. HIMYM‘s exploration of late-20/early-30-something struggles and expectations is extremely relevant and realistic. Its 6th run, which tackled loss of a parent, quest for personal identity, and the pressure of major real-life decisions, was an overlooked gem and one of the best bits of network television last season. It may wrap its exploration into some ridiculous gags and sitcomy situations, but in the end, there is something real beyond the laugh track. The characters change and grow, their situations are relateable, and the commentary on expectations and the path life takes is clear. It’s not actually about who the mother is, and those who think so miss the point.
Supernatural is the other one I know I need to defend here and honestly, it probably needs its own essay. It doesn’t quite reach BSG or even BtVS levels of exposition, but there is more to Supernatural than cute guys battling the monster of the week or even a dose of truly quality television horror stories. We have the ongoing good-versus-evil conversation, of course, with all the shades of grey, and all of the central characters fit the anti-hero trope so popular these days. But Supernatural, I would argue, goes beyond that and even steps more into the same territory as Community in many ways. It’s guilty pleasure for literature/American-studies majors, a television program that explores the role of popular culture and storytelling within that culture. There is internal awareness within the show itself, even beyond the two or three “meta” episodes they do every season (e.g. fan-fiction, comic con, spoofing other television programs, even finding that they’re actors in a tv show). The allegories borne out of battling monsters from stories and legends — classical gods, angels, devils, looking for God Himself — are often blatant, the messages blunt, but they’re near always dynamic. Redemption, faith, good versus evil, the value of family and the need for personal growth (reluctant though it may be) are here — as is the manner in which stories and culture can clash so violently with the real world, or help to develop and change it. In this way I argue that Supernatural is quite well in keeping with the initial intentions of its genre (harkening back to the early days of Frankenstein and Dracula — the novels).
I realize that may just seem like me reading too much into it. It is what it is.
This is not to say that today’s shows aren’t engaging and that none of them are worth watching. Good television does not have to be about something deeper any more than good comic books have to have allegorical elements. Sometimes a procedural can just be a procedural, just like an outcast superhero doesn’t need to stand for a marginalized group.
For me, shows like Castle, Suburgatory, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Revenge, and The Vampire Diaries, are all extremely entertaining. One could look at Suburgatory, as an over-exaggerated conversation about economics and superficiality in the bubble of the suburbs. Modern Family can be argued as a present day answer to All in the Family that puts stereotypes on the table as a well-meaning nudge rather than aggressive mean humor (unlike 2 Broke Girls, for instance). The others, however clever the writing or great the performances or engaging the plotlines, are entertainment. So too are the soaps that are, somewhat shockingly in my mind, still on the air (Grey’s Anatomy, I’m looking at you). And there’s nothing wrong with that. Television can and should be a great way to escape. But it can also be so much more.
All I’m saying is why does so much of network offerings have to be so stupid?
And do we really need another 2+ hours of prime-time talent competition?