Is TV More Ephemeral Than Ever?

Yesterday I made a snarky comment that was at least partly serious. I said that most cult flop TV shows are like American Idol contestants: they’re incredibly important for a few months, and then they’re forgotten as soon as the show is over. Every year there are some shows that make 10-best lists, get save-our-show campaigns, and inspire more online discussion than most hits. Then they’re canceled and they vanish from the discussion; even those of us who loved them no longer have much to say about them. The show that goes away and still lingers in the public memory — the Freaks & Geeks type of thing — is rare.

One one level this isn’t surprising, since most flop shows are more potential than fulfilment, and that becomes much clearer after they’re gone. Terriers, for example. I liked Terriers a lot, as I’ve said; it was my favourite new show of 2010, and one of the few that actually seemed to be a fully-formed, professionally-made show instead of something that was just potentially good. I still think that. But now that it’s canceled, the “heat” surrounding it will fade, and it might not seem as much of a stand-out as it did when it was the best of a poor crop of new shows. To bring back the Idol analogy, we’re very interested in a great contestant undeservedly losing to inferior ones. That doesn’t usually mean we’re going to follow that person once the competition is over. And a show that gets some cult attention while it’s still on is much more common than a show that builds a cult after it’s gone.

I think it’s not just flop shows, though, that start by getting a ton of attention and then are quickly forgotten. It seems to happen a lot. I can’t prove that, of course, but I think I see this cycle happening with a number of shows: they start out with an incredible amount of online (and critical) discussion, praise and argumentation, and then when they’re gone, they’re gone — nobody seems to talk about them any more. It’s inevitable that a show will lose a lot of its cultural currency once it’s no longer making new episodes; it’s not only inevitable, it may even be right and good. But a show doesn’t have to fade away completely after it stops making new episodes. Thanks to syndication, DVDs and just the fact that some of the characters became part of the language, shows like Seinfeld and Friends were probably bigger than some new shows after they were canceled; Mulder and Scully are still well-known character archetype;s and people who grew up in the ’80s still hold up many cartoons and action shows as cultural icons.

I’m not going to say that isn’t happening now, because nothing ever really stops happening. But it does strike me that it’s less common for a show that started in the ’00s to continue to be really, really famous after it’s over. More common is something like Lost, which seemed to fade away almost as soon as it ended. Even 24, the ’00s show that probably had the most cultural impact, seemed to lose its heat after it ended or maybe even a little bit before; unlike Sex and the City, it hasn’t even been able to spin off a movie version yet.

Of course, Lost and 24 and other serialized shows have the usual disadvantage in keeping themselves in the public eye: they don’t syndicate well, whereas something like SATC does (even with all the censorship and cutting involved). And a lot of the discussion of these shows revolves around arguing about how they’re going to end. It doesn’t matter whether the ending is good or bad, satisfying or unsatisfying; once the ending arrives, much of the heat is automatically gone because there is no more future for these characters, and much of the coverage of the shows was about what was going to happen, rather than the quality of the episodes in and of themselves. But it still seemed strange to find Lost going so suddenly from huge cultural event to something resembling a non-event — unlike, say, M*A*S*H, which had a huge finale and then continued to be pretty huge in reruns.

And then you have the shows that were “rediscovered” after they went off the air — shows like Star Trek or Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch. The idea that a canceled show could become a genuine hit and a cultural touchstone, when it wasn’t in its original run, seems hard to fathom now. Shows do become bigger hits in reruns, still (look at what happened with George Lopez, or NCIS once the USA network started syndicating it). They just don’t seem to become culturally important in reruns — though my perception of that might be skewed by the internet. (I’m not saying this is wrong, since we all like what we like and cover what we’re interested in. But there are always going to be shows that are not having as much of an impact as online criticism would suggest, and shows like NCIS that genuinely are cult phenomena but aren’t usually covered that way.) It seems increasingly like the window of opportunity for a show to be a pop-culture sensation is even more limited than it has been: they have until they go off the air, maybe even a few years before that, and then we all move on to the next thing.

It’s not just television, of course. Movies are the same way; it’s not just that the pressure is on a movie to perform well in the first week at the box office, but that the same seems to apply to the discussion of it. For a week, maybe a few weeks if it really catches fire, a movie is really important, maybe even a masterpiece. And then it’s on to the next thing. (For heaven’s sake, Batman Begins seemed to be almost forgotten by the time The Dark Knight came out, and when Nolan’s next Batman movie arrives, The Dark Knight will probably be old news.) There’s a cycle of over-praise and under-praise that many movies seem to go through, and it’s probably less healthy for a movie’s reputation than building slowly and not getting discussed to death as soon as it premieres. (One of my favourite examples: When The Big Lebowski came out, it was widely seen as a very minor Coen Bros. movie. But it just kept building and building its reputation, slowly and organically.) Some movies can withstand this if they really are great, and if they really do make an impact that’s commensurate with the amount of attention they’re getting. But other times there’s the feeling that the film is being talked about because it’s the New Thing, and that once another New Thing comes along, there will be nothing left to say about this one.

And I think some of the same is happening with TV. Shows come out, they are praised as important and maybe even masterpieces, and then they sort of disappear. Maybe it started with The Sopranos. That show hasn’t disappeared, but the fact that it was dubbed a masterpiece and a culturally significant work of art right from the moment it started has, perhaps, led to many other new shows being discussed in reverential terms. Most TV shows probably have a better chance of building an enduring reputation if they don’t have that kind of baggage piled on them; much of TV is what Manny Farber called “termite art,” as opposed to “white elephant art.” It sneaks up on you instead of blowing you away with its significance. If a show is proclaimed a masterpiece too quickly, it might fade away just as quickly. The ones that really endure may not be the ones that look important or ambitious, just as the most enduring movies aren’t always the big serious-minded socially-significant ones.

I’ve said that this is a golden age when it comes to taking  TV seriously, but that’s not necessarily good for shows’ future reputation — you may come back to an AMC or HBO show a few years later and instead of getting the joy of rediscovering something interesting, you may just wonder why this show was taken so seriously at the time. Current coverage often makes it seem like it’s easier to make a masterpiece than it actually is — and much more than critics, networks like AMC and HBO feed this idea with their publicity, making it seem like the only thing you need to do to make a masterpiece is let a strong-willed writer do what he wants. Greatness is more unpredictable than that, which is why the enduringly great shows of our time might be the ones that weren’t expected to be great.

That said, I’m not sure whether “enduring” is even a mark of TV significance at the moment, given that there is reduced interest in older shows (older anything, really). In other words, maybe the important thing about a TV show is simply how much impact it makes right now, while it’s on — then it retires, having done its job, and is replaced by something else. While I will always love old TV, older movies, books, anything, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad sign that people are less interested in old stuff. (Here’s a different kind of musical analogy: when new music has been strongest, old music has generally been weakest. Mozart and Beethoven didn’t play very much older music, because the public wanted new music that spoke to their lives right there and then. And they got it.) But it would mean I need to adjust my thinking. Traditionally the real test of a work of art is whether it endures — whether, after the hype has died down, it still speaks to people like everything from Beethoven to Big Lebowski to Brady Bunch. Maybe the test now is a different one: how much of a splash it makes while the hype is going on may be more important than what happens after retirement.

But for now, I’m still going to think in terms of endurance and lasting value, and I can’t tell you which shows are going to be the winners in those categories — though I can guarantee you that as with Stanley Kramer movies or many door-stopper novels, some of the shows that are masterpieces right now will turn out to be nothing of the kind, while other shows will unexpectedly endure. I don’t know which shows are which, though — which are the Big Lebowskis of TV, the ones that become classics when they’re not supposed to be. And I’m not going to try and predict the future in that respect.

The other possibility is that nothing will endure and that we’re just going to be in this cycle forever: shows are masterpieces until they’re gone (or until they suffer some kind of decline that makes online critics turn against them), to be replaced by more masterpieces. The general lack of interest in most inactive ’00s shows, compared to shows from the previous decades, may suggest that shows just aren’t going to have as long a shelf life as they once did — ironic when older shows are more easily available than ever, but understandable because there’s so much current entertainment to choose from. (Plus many of the most important shows of the ’00s were reality shows, which aren’t intended to last.) But until I’m absolutely sure that TV is more ephemeral than it used to be, I’m going to assume that we’re in an era with some future classics and enduring works of art. We just don’t exactly know what they are. That’s the fun part, knowing that the masterpieces are right under are nose and we’re not quite recognizing them yet.

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