Television’s golden cage

An explosion in quality programming induces pleasure — and guilt.

Updated: March 11, 2014 12:49:15 am
The growing intellectual currency of television has altered the cultural conversation in fundamental ways.  Reuters The growing intellectual currency of television has altered the cultural conversation in fundamental ways. Reuters

BY: David Carr

An explosion in quality programming induces pleasure — and guilt.

Not long ago, a friend at work told me I absolutely, positively must watch Broad City on Comedy Central, saying it was a slacker-infused hilarity. My reaction? Oh no, not another one.

The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment. I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy.

And what a feast. Right now, I am on the second episode of Season 2 of House of Cards, have caught up on Girls and am revelling in every episode of Justified. I may be a little behind on The Walking Dead and Nashville and have just started The Americans, but I am pretty much in step with comedies like Modern Family and Archer and like everyone one else I know, dying to see how True Detective ends. Oh, and the fourth season of Game of Thrones starts next month. Whew. Never mind being able to hold all these serials simultaneously in my head, how can there possibly be room for anything else? So far, the biggest losers in this fight for mind share are not my employer or loved ones, but other forms of media.

My once-beloved magazines sit in a forlorn pile, patiently waiting for their turn in front of my eyes. Television now meets many of the needs that pile previously satisfied. I have yet to read the big heave on Amazon in The New Yorker, or the feature on the pathology of contemporary fraternities in the March issue of The Atlantic. I am a huge fan of the resurgent trade magazines like Adweek and The Hollywood Reporter, but watching the products they describe usually wins out over reading about them.

And then there are books. I have a hierarchy: books I’d like to read, books I should read, books I should read by friends of mine and books I should read by friends of mine whom I am likely to bump into. They all remain on standby. That tablets now contain all manner of brilliant stories that happen to be told in video, not print, may be partly why ebook sales levelled out last year. After a day of online reading that has me bathed in the information stream, when I have a little me-time, I mostly want to hit a few buttons on one of my three remotes — cable, Apple, Roku — and watch the splendours unfurl.

It used to be that I could at least use travel time to catch up on reading, but now airplanes have become mediated, wired spaces as well. And even when I get to a hotel or a vacation spot, my media library comes with me. In the past, great shows, entire seasons of them, used to go whooshing past me. Now they are always there, waiting for me to hit play. Like my dog, they are friendly and tend to follow me around, seeking my attention. It means people like me end up going to fewer movies. Sitting at home with a big, throbbing stack of quality entertainment and a big old screen on which to view it, am I really going to spend $12 to sit by a stranger, watch more commercials than I do at home — you cannot skip them in the movie theatre — and hope that what I see on screen was worth getting in a cold car and competing for parking and seating?

All the new windows for content have created an in-migration of creative interest. David Fincher, one of Hollywood’s most coveted directors, followed up producing House of Cards by signing on to make a series for HBO called Utopia. Guillermo del Toro, a big-deal director, has created a series called The Strain for FX. Even at the Oscars, Hollywood’s biggest night, TV seemed like the cool hipster at the party. Ellen DeGeneres’s just-folks delivery treated incandescent celebrities as if they were regular people who like eating pizza and being on television. The winner of the award for best actor, Matthew McConaughey, has also been making a big splash on TV with True Detective.

The growing intellectual currency of television has altered the cultural conversation in fundamental ways. Watercooler chatter is now a high-minded pursuit, not just a way to pass the time at work. The three-camera sitcom with a laugh track has been replaced by television shows that are much more like books — intricate narratives full of text, subtext and clues. On the sidelines of the children’s soccer game, or at dinner with friends, you can set your watch on how long it takes before everyone finds a show in common. In the short span of five years, table talk has shifted, at least among the people I socialise with, from books and movies to television. The idiot box gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it.

All these riches induce pleasure, but no small amount of guilt as well. Television’s golden age is also a gilded cage, an always-on ecosystem of immense riches that leaves me feeling less like the master of my own universe, and more as if I am surrounded.

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