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Must-See TV

Not because you want to, but because you have to.

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Last week, on Monday, I sat down to watch a new television show with a great deal of buzz behind it: Lone Star, on Fox. Reviews were rapturous; it was said to be vibrant, delicious, captivating. Then came a phone call I had to take, and I pressed the red button on my DVR so that the show would be stored in memory for later viewing. I thought I would catch up with it the following night.

Must-See TV

Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, ‘The Odd Couple’ (circa 1970)

Photo Credit: Everett Collection

The next afternoon, I read on a blog that Lone Star had had a disastrous first outing in the ratings. Its creator took to the Internet with a plea for help in securing a viral viewership, calling his own show “an underdog of epic proportions for you.” But I was surprised by the emotion that washed over me. It was relief. There was no need to begin watching Lone Star because it would not last. I had been liberated from the burden of another serialized television series demanding my attention.

Surely this is not the feeling one is supposed to get about a television program, of all things. And yet I find increasingly that the thought of watching nearly any dramatic program is bizarrely fraught, because television’s creative minds and programmers are in the grips of an obsession with making serialized programs with plotlines that stretch over an entire season, taking between 13 and 22 hours to play out. 

This was, to put it mildly, not the way television worked when the broadcast networks held 90 percent of the audience. The only serialized dramas then were daytime soap operas (and the occasional evening soap, like Peyton Place in the 1960s and Dallas and Dynasty in the 1970s and ’80s), and they were not given pride of place in the industry. The essence of television then was not the story but the situation, not the plot but the genre. There were cop shows and detective shows and doctor shows, and what made them different were the quirks of the protagonists or the actors (Cannon was the obese detective, Ironside the paraplegic cop, Jim Rockford the ex-cop/ex-con detective). Sitcoms were about families or workplaces, and even the workplaces were substitute families.

You could dip in and out. Nothing progressed and little changed except at the beginning of the season, when a new character might be introduced or a subsidiary character eliminated with a line of dialogue. Consistency from show to show was not considered necessary; my favorite sitcom, The Odd Couple, ran three different flashback episodes about how Felix and Oscar met (on a jury, in the Army, and, strangely, as children whose fathers were in flight from the Chicago mob).

David Carr, the witty media columnist for the New York Times, recently lamented that “television, which was once the brain-dead part of the day, [has] become one more thing that required time, attention, and taste. I have fond memories of the days when there were only three networks and I could let my mind go slack.”

Now, television is so much better than it was that complaints like Carr’s and mine seem churlish. Why have nostalgia for something largely lousy? But the truth is that the new television builds in a degree of resistance to viewing it at all. The structure and manner of these shows make it very difficult to join them midway through. That would be like starting a James Michener novel on page 155. (I use Michener as my model here instead of Dickens, which is what TV people want you to compare them to, because they don’t deserve that comparison.) You could do it, but you’d be unable to figure out who was married to whom, who was whose child, and so on. Unless you are with a guide who can lay it all out as you watch, you will likely become hopelessly lost.

That is why, in the face of the serialization mania, the old model not only persists but remains triumphant, at least where ratings are concerned. The most successful broadcast programs still follow the old dip-in-and-out model—CSI and NCIS in drama, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory among the sitcoms. Their audiences are (relatively) huge, and they do not make anyone feel that if he skips a week, he is going to have to catch up. But you will note that these are not the series that grace the covers of magazines, or whose cast members fill the gossip columns—and they rarely win awards. Buzz and critical celebration are reserved for the more elaborate, more twist-filled, more convoluted, and more peculiar shows that become incomprehensible if you miss one (or God help you) two or three in a row.

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