Keeping up With the Carcosians

Things used to be so much better, right? Whether its movies, or music, or books, all the good pieces of art have already been created, and we’re left with the bottom of the barrel.

Is this really true though? Movies are a non-starter, they have declined in quality in all levels except the number of explosions or some such nonsense. Music is an interesting question, which I may tackle at some point; I would say yes music has declined, but a: it’s arguable, and b: I’m not versed enough to really comment. Books and visual arts I’ll ignore. Video games are so new that its not really an interesting question – do we really want to compare video games of today to video games of 1990?

That leaves TV. Has TV declined in quality? I think the answer is absolutely, probably more than even movies. So called “reality” programs have taken over every channel, what started as an interesting idea (MTVs the real world), has moved into competitions which could be interesting (Survivor), now it is only talent shows (the cream of the crop, btw), way past their prime contest shows (I had to check, but apparently Big Brother is still on!), staged TV shows featuring some obscure occupation (Storage Wars, Pawn Stars), a whole genre of television which seems to do nothing but exploit rednecks (albeit with their enthusiastic consent), (Duck Dynasty, Swamp Loggers, Axe Men), and worst of all, celebrity worship of the worst kind of people who I can’t really figure out how they became celebrities in the first place (anything with the word Kardashian in the title). That is the majority of TV, and I think it is borderline frightful. Sitcoms are largely horribly stale, doubly so for network dramas, which seem to consist entirely of crime procedurals (CBS currently has CSI, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, and NCIS: New Orleans, not to mention Criminal Minds (a procedural with a slightly different twist!) and Blue Bloods (although to be fair, I can’t really comment on Blue Bloods because I’ve only seen part of it while doing laundry once).

Of course, you protest now. What about Mad Men? Breaking Bad? True Detective? Other new show?

IMDB ranks tv shows by voting, and while I’m hesitant to give those rankings too much credence, you have to get all the way to number 19 before you get an American TV show that wasn’t made primarily in the 2000s. Just about any list of great tv dramas will be dominated by those TV shows which have come out on cable, within the past 15 years, which are serial in nature (so you are expected to watch all episodes in sequence), and which don’t typically have to conform to censors or worry about network reputations. (Of course, not all lists agree. Some lists recognize that perfection in TV was only reached by Season 2 of Murphy Brown)

To answer the question of whether TV has gotten better or worse, we really have to define the question. Has the average TV show gotten better? Have the best TV shows gotten better? Has the average TV show, when adjusted for ratings (ie, the average TV show that people watch), gotten better?

Two things stand out to me in regards to this, the first is that the cause of the greatness is the same cause of the mediocrity. We now have hundreds of choices in entertainment at any given time (during classic TV, the option was 3 to entertain and 1 to educate). Networks had to target the average viewer because specialist programs just wouldn’t work, you couldn’t afford to waste a valuable time slot on something that wasn’t proven, and you couldn’t risk making a show which 10% of everyone thought was great, but 90% of everyone would find offensive.

That changed, now instead of the making tv shows for average viewer, TV shows are nothing but specialist programs. With fifty channels, if you have something that 5% of everyone likes, then you’ve got a chance at winning the time slot; at least in cable anyway. This fragmentation leads to what the cultural critics call “appealing to the lowest common denominator,” although what it really means is that every network is going to be making trash. It means that a cable network can make a show entirely about the Kardashians and it will find an audience, if most people are disgusted by it, who cares?

But it also means that the same system which can afford to produce TV shows that you don’t need a brain to enjoy can also make TV shows which are challenging, complex and engrossing. They can make the TV show which gets weird or maybe just violent. The release from the control of the big three networks has made TV more diverse, dumber on average but more intelligent at its peak.

One other thing to note is that there is a similarity between all the great shows which have come out of cable in the past 15 years, and that is they are almost entirely dramas. While there have been some comedies which people love recently, (30 Rock, Parks and Rec, Arrested Development, The Office), I think the pale when compared to the number and quality of dramas. If you ask people what the best TV drama of all time is, my guess is you’ll get a lot of Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Mad Men (not coincidentally, I wrote up that list, then decided to Google it to at least get somebody else’s opinion on it. The first link I clicked, here:  (and the first hit on Google), had those as the top four). You won’t get too many people saying that Hill Street Blues or ER.

If you go the other way, and ask what the best TV comedy of all time was, my gut feeling is that you’ll get a lot of people saying I Love Lucy, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, and Friends. First, we should questions whether my statement is true, you can argue that the office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, 30 Rock etc are funnier than anything that has come before them. Comedy is more subjective than drama though, what one person finds hilarious is what another finds merely amusing and while these may be the funniest shows on now (or recently), they’re not the most popular. Two and a Half Men and the Big Bang Theory are the most popular sitcoms, and as far as I know they’re not terribly well liked by the critics. Seinfeld was not only the funniest show of its time, but the most popular comedy as well. Same with Cheers and I Love Lucy.

I think a big reason we don’t have the funny, popular sitcom is that humor is, much more than drama, a social reaction. We not only like to watch comedies, but we like to watch them with other people. Drama takes us to a place we’d never experience; a whether it’s a meth lab in New Mexico or Carcosa, comedy takes us to a place we’re totally familiar with – a parking garage or a Chinese restaurant. To be dramatic, you must be unusual, to be funny, universal. Becoming more splintered as a society we don’t have that common connection anymore, or at the very least the artists of today can’t exploit the fragmenting of cable TV to create a comedy which reaches everyone. That is why we seem to be getting more and better dramas while comedies seem to be moving along at a much slower pace.

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