Look. That’s all TV asks of its audience: just look. Watch. Turn it on and let the light and shadows pour over your eyes and sound fall upon your ears. There’s never been anything easier than to sit still and let the jumping box work its hypnotic unblinking gaze on your readily open psyche. It’s the most marvelous, magnetic, and potentially destructive invention of the 20th century and its power hasn’t lessened in the decades since its rise in the mid-20th century.
How many hundreds of millions of hours of television have been broadcast since the 1950s in America alone? Considering that there were only 3 channels up until the late 70s, when cable television began in earnest, and then grew exponentially in the late 80s when FOX began broadcasting over open airwaves, and cable TV really began to find its way into homes across the country, a rough estimate can be placed up to around a few billion hours aired at this point–maybe, and most likely, many more. But how could this staggering onslaught of aired content be quantified at this point? Hundreds of thousands of of cumulative hours are now broadcast every week. There’s now more TV extent than could be ever watched in anyone’s lifetime, commercials included, and the programming continues to pour forth unabated from its faceless, nameless source.
How much empty dancing foolishness, toothpaste commercials, callous ringing laugh tracks, chicks with tits and dudes with buff pecs scoping the beach, and all other manner of fluff bullshit has filled the heads of generations of TV viewers over these long decades, disregarding all sense of sanity or dignity so long as the channel could sell the next ad spot at top dollar. In other words, most television in history has been complete and utter bunk–garbage noise and shiny sights to distract and entrance our floating brains and stimulate the abstract senses of its viewers to keep their eyeballs hooked on the screen until the next break. May God help us for the monstrous behemoth that has suckered the few precious moments of life that we’ve all been gifted.
That being said, television is a delight: its bounty has sown horrifying garbage into our collective psyche but has also been the blind educator to generations of people, informing them of social, political, and cultural opinions and attitudes that have shaped everyone’s perceptions, for good or ill. So many delightfully stupid hours have been whiled away in front of its gracious presence, staving off loneliness, participating in shared moments with the rest of the population, and in general providing entertainment of many delights that plumb the spectrum of human experience. Never before has such a continuous stream carried such complex bundles of information in an easily relatable and understandable format.
Of course, much of it is garbage. That’s easy to say without seeming hypocritical, particularly in the endeavor that this project aims to clarify: most TV is terrible horseshit that insults its audience’s intelligence. Whether or not its audience particularly cares about its intelligence being insulted is perhaps a discussion for another place. I personally think that people like watching ostensible garbage because it both serves to make them feel superior to the material and also gratifies a base instinct of enjoying stupidity for stupidity’s sake. After all, most sitcoms that have ever aired are empty-headed half-hours of nothingness with bright lights, attractive people, and lame obvious jokes that even the simple can understand. Nobody must enjoy this kind of crap, I think, while nearly a decade has passed with the same show I first scoffed at in its first season chugs along generating hundreds of millions of dollars that I could never fathom.
But I do know quality when I see it. You kind of can’t after watching so many decades of television, after sitting there analyzing, thinking, and dissecting the merits or detriments of TV shows. It’s the same kind of chutzpah that allows me to start my own film and TV criticism site online–I’m an overeducated pop culture junkie who unfortunately knows all the tricks of the trade of fiction like the back of my hand and has a running mouth by way of the keyboard.
But this series of articles is here to praise the most illustrious of what television has to offer, not to mourn it. My opening paragraphs have unfurled my own personal anger and distaste towards the medium, so no use continuing to beat a dead horse: let’s focus on the good material that’s come from this insane medium.
This series of articles, titled Great TV, will celebrate what awesome series the medium has produced up to this point: long-running, complex storytelling that often more than surpasses anything film has been able to create. Some incredible works of art have occurred on television alongside the cruddy banal garbage that has spewed forth since its inception, after all. So here are the series I’m going to dig a little further into to realize this goal over this project: The Prisoner, Arrested Development, Parks & Recreation, I Claudius, Deadwood, Firefly, Spaced, Frasier, The Returned, Fortitude, The Wire, Darkplace, and Look Around You.
Each of these series is a masterpiece and have accomplished something mere film cannot: break through the restrictions of time limits to create something that’s more than its parts would initially suggest. These series are too large and complex for a simple film to elucidate, and that’s what makes it Great TV.
Although not any of my selections found a popular audience upon their premiere, they have gone on to being well-loved and repeatedly watched by future demographics they never sought to appeal to–or even conceive of–in the first place. There’s just one big hit on this list (Frasier) but outside of that there isn’t a big name in the bunch. But this only leads to the rarity of finding a perfect TV series, or at the least the great ones.
Some of these are underseen masterpieces while others have since become cult classics. Either way, there is greatness in each of these TV shows. Most of them are incredible examples of storytelling while others are deceptively brilliant comedies. Either way, Great TV is a series that will detail exactly why these series are brilliant displays of long-form storytelling that is now chic and widely discussed. Simply put, these series are examples of what Great TV can be and the heights of artistic expression that television can attain.