What makes television so great?


The strangest thing happened in the last twenty years. TV stopped sucking. Well, let’s qualify that. It stopped sucking as badly as it did before. Recently, I talked to my father about what he watched on TV as a kid. I expected the traditional parental response to any question about their childhood taste, something like “My TV was interesting and funny, not like the crap they put out these days.” Strangely, he actually remarked that television has only been improving since he was a kid, starting (in his opinion) with Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

I considered starting this article off with my own opinions, but thought it would be a bit disingenuous to write a piece about current television being superior to older stuff. After all, I am pretty biased because of my birthday; I’ve never seen any older shows in the context in which they were released. Hence the testimonial from my dad, who has by and large watched television from the “˜70s through now with some regularity. He knows his stuff.

So if TV is better now, what does that really mean? What is good or bad? I’m holding television to a standard of averages. By that I mean I am looking at the worst shows and the best shows available in each period and seeing where the middle ground lies, in essence, what quality the “average” TV show was operating at.

After all of this qualifying and ass-covering, let’s get down to business. For argument’s sake, I’m beginning the age of “not sucking” at the same time as the Golden Age of Television started.

Unfortunately, nobody really agrees when this happened, so I’m setting an arbitrary date of 2000. This is general because some contend it started as early as 1997’s “Buffy” while others believe it began as late as 2005’s “Mad Men.” I don’t really care about these contentions, because describing some time period as a Golden Age is very likely to cause more confusion than it disperses. 2000 it is.

The television was invented in 1927, but that makes the medium seem older than it was. It was only during the 1950s that TV became recognizable as a staple in most Americans’ homes. With that in mind, it’s a very young medium now, even younger back in 2000.

Just as film built on the closest art form before it, theater, television built itself with film in mind. And for a long time television was regarded as a poor man’s film, brain-rotting filth that sucked away hours of a youngster’s life with no apparent benefit. Many still hold to this opinion in varying degrees, myself included ““ the difference is that television as a medium has been improving at an accelerating rate in the past few decades, the last one especially. So a time waster it may be, but what makes film critics nervous is that good television is now the same type of time waster as movies are.

And why is this so? Most television is no “Citizen Kane,” with a few important exceptions.

For two structural reasons, television is already becoming an artistic medium with its own unique qualities that differentiate itself from other media. The first is versatility ““ while a film can only plop an audience down for a few hours, television integrates itself into their very lives at different times, either becoming a weekly staple for broadcast TV or a 10-hour experience for Netflix shows.

This kind of open-endedness is a kind of golden nightmare for artists. On the one hand, they have the ability to create characters and universes that age and expand over years of programming and years of viewers lives. My dad says that the time that Buffy was on air actually lined up with a specific part of his life; it probably helped that Buffy is one of the greatest shows ever made, let alone made in the mid-90s. But TV has grown even further since then, and there are examples of television now that are not only technically brilliant but also do things that film can’t do.

If the larger structure of television seasons makes it unique in one way, its episodic nature makes it unique in the other direction. The forced brevity of television episodes make characters grow in spurts and plots grow in leaps. The brief structure of TV forces creators to do more with less, resulting in a final product that, when done well, shows characters and stories that have been growing episode by episode for years.

I love television for what it is and can do and I recognize that there are still examples of horrible programming out there, and that it’s more common than good programming. But Sturgeon’s Law holds for television as for any medium: 90% of everything is crap. It’s that other 10% that makes me happy.

So what happened? Did everyone in the industry collectively decide to make TV better in one day? Most people reading this article are already questioning its premise, citing examples of great TV in the 80s and Honey Boo-Boo-grade shows still on the air today. Clearly, the quality of television didn’t change overnight.