How much good TV is too much?
This used to be a pretty simple job when I first became a TV critic. There were the Big Four networks, plus the WB and UPN (and when I started in the summer of '96, they were barely worthy of notice) and the occasional HBO or PBS production that demanded a write-up. It was easy to stay current with all the new shows, and all the returning ones — to feel, even if you weren't watching every episode of every show (because that wasn't possible even in the Clinton years), like you could see the whole picture of TV, even if some parts were more in focus than others.
Then HBO got more serious about original scripted programming, and the rest of cable followed, and suddenly there were new dramas and sitcoms popping up all over the place, even as the original broadcast networks were shifting more towards reality TV. There was more to watch, and more to write about, but it was exciting to see what the medium was capable of becoming (a.ka. the subject of my book).
Every now and then, someone would ask me if I felt there was too much good TV on TV, and I would always respond that more good TV is simply more good TV. What could possibly be the downside of that?
Well, this TV season is the first time I've began to feel like there may, in fact, be too much good TV.
This is tricky to write about without it sounding like a whine. This isn't a complaint about how much more potential work there is for me to do; it's a lament about all that I'm missing because there's realistically only so much I can do in any given day, week, month or TV season.
John Landgraf, the head of FX, has talked about this quite a bit in the last few years, particularly after the back-to-back failures of "Terriers" and "Lights Out." The explosion in scripted cable series that his channel helped start in the early '00s has spread so far and wide that it's become much harder for any one new show to get noticed. In a less densely-populated cable environment, maybe more people come to notice and love "Terriers," but there were simply too many other choices for viewers to bother sampling one that sounded like hundreds of shows that had come before it. (When FX had its next big hit, it was "American Horror Story," a show that was hard to ignore, and I worried that the channel would push further and further in the direction of the big and noisy; fortunately, the relative success of a quiet show like "The Americans" suggests otherwise.)
Because FX keeps track of this, I asked their research department for some hard numbers on how many shows we have now versus then. In 2002 — the year "The Shield" debuted on FX — there were actually 28 original scripted dramas on premium and basic cable (some of it famous stuff like "The Wire" and "Monk," some of it long-forgotten like "Falcon Beach" and "Breaking News") and 6 original comedies. In 2007, there were 42 original dramas and 17 comedies. By last year, that number had ballooned to 77 original dramas and 48 comedies. And in the first four months of 2013 alone, there have been 34 dramas and 19 comedies. And that's on top of everything that ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and the CW are doing. That pace will slow down somewhat as we shift into summer, but I'd still expect 2013 to top the 2012 numbers, and to keep rising. Netflix is making its own original shows now, and releasing all the episodes at once. Amazon has pilots in development. The amount of television expanding, but so is our definition of what counts as "television."
As a fan of scripted TV, I'm excited anytime a new player (say, History with "Vikings") enters the arena, since I've seen what's happened to the medium in general when the likes of HBO, FX and AMC have done it. But I'm really losing my ability to keep up with it all. There's always been a certain amount of triage that comes with this job (I've more or less stopped watching reality TV altogether, for instance, just for time management purposes), but I feel my cuts are becoming more ruthless than ever. There are new shows from this season that I haven't watched since their first or second episode, even though I keep wanting to check back in to see what they've become. That's always been an issue to some degree, but the list of shows I want to check back in on keeps getting longer, and now it's been joined by a new list of shows I already genuinely enjoy but have fallen weeks or months behind on because I have to prioritize other things.
You could argue that if I didn't review as many shows as I do on a weekly basis — another thing about my job that's changed enormously since I started — I'd have more time to watch things, but again, that's my job. People who are not professional TV critics have other things that occupy their time, and even if I were to somehow scale back the amount of writing I do to what I was doing in my Star-Ledger days (which was actually a whole lot, given the length and frequency of the column Matt Seitz and I wrote together in those days), I suspect I'd still be falling behind on my viewing.
I talked about this with James Poniewozik, who suggested the problem isn't with the top tier, but the tiers below it. Great shows may come and go, but there's a manageable number of them. I'm not going to miss an episode of "Mad Men" or "Justified" or "Game of Thrones," and new entries from FX, Showtime, etc., tend to stay at the top of the viewing priority list longer than, say, shows on CBS. And that's not a knock on the quality of CBS shows so much as it is the idea that crime procedurals (the bulk of their output) don't lend themselves as well to episode-by-episode dissection as the kinds of shows you find on cable.
But the tiers immediately below the top one are getting more and more populated, and therefore harder and harder to keep up with. And one of the things we know about TV shows is that they are evolving organisms. A strong pilot can lead to a frustrating show ("The Killing"), just as a show with a bad debut season can become one of the best things on TV ("Parks and Recreation"). Some shows present their greatness immediately, but with others you have to sit back and wait for it — if the time allows.
Last summer, Fienberg and I rewatched the first season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for the podcast, and were reminded of just how many growing pains that show went through in its first 13 episodes. I fear that if "Buffy" were to debut in 2013 with that exact first season, I'd have likely written it off after "I Robot, You Jane" and never come back, just as I stopped watching "The Vampire Diaries" (which Dan and other critics/viewers I trust swear by) after a couple of limp episodes at the start of the series. Even more recently, I think of a show like "Southland," which really took until midway through its third season to find itself, but of late has been one of the absolute best dramas you can find; slide that premiere date to today, and I don't know that I have the patience or time to wait for the metamorphosis.
I want to catch up on "Vampire Diaries." I want to check back in on "Elementary" to see if there's more there now than the Miller/Liu chemistry. I want to see the "NCIS: LA" two-parter launching the next spin-off, both to get a sense of the new show but also see what's become of "LA" since last I watched it. I want to see what "Legit" (which I haven't seen since episode 4 or 5) evolved into (or didn't), to see what "Arrow" is doing with my favorite obscure DC Comics villains, or to see if "Nashville" has more to offer me now beyond Mrs. Coach, Chip Esten and some great music. I want to be as conversant as I used to be, and be able to recommend more unlikely gems, and feel confident that I'm not missing much with other shows I don't watch regularly anymore. I want to be the best, most diverse critic I can be,(*) on top of simply wanting to find time to catch up on things I watch mostly for pleasure like "Bob's Burgers" or "Archer." (For some reason, H. Jon Benjamin shows have fallen way down in the stack.) I'm just struggling to find the time to do all of that, and based on conversations I've had lately with a lot of other critics, I'm not alone.
(*) Beyond the sheer amount of scripted programming, the other big change between 1996 and now is the nature of it. Fewer shows were serialized (both dramas and sitcoms), which made it easier to decide you were going to skip an episode of one show to check in on another. There are still plenty of shows to pop in and out on (especially, again, on CBS), but more and more shows encourage viewing completism in a way they didn't used to, back in the days when research suggested even the most devout fans of shows watched, on average, 1 out of every 4 episodes.
I'm sure some of you can and will tell me that I'm doing it wrong — that the time spent watching and writing about, say, "How I Met Your Mother" could be better devoted elsewhere — but it's not one of those problems that need one or two isolated fixes to go away. It's a systemic issue, and one I expect to get more complicated, not less.
Again, I'm saying this not to complain about a job I deeply love, but simply to pull back the curtain on some of the challenges that go into doing it. It's also a sentiment I've heard from many of you about your own non-professional viewing. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I tweeted that I quite liked what I'd seen so far of "Hannibal," which led one person to respond that, given the sheer tonnage of quality TV to keep up with right now, "quite like" wasn't enough praise for him to sample something new. You guys tell me all the time about your reluctance to engage with new shows that might be canceled, and some of that sentiment comes with an undercurrent of not having enough time for that, given how many safe and secure shows you could choose from.
So I'm wondering how everyone else feels right now. Do you feel overwhelmed with choice, or is your pop culture focus narrow enough that it's still a non-issue for you? With all these shows, what does it take to get you to start something new, or to stick with something new if you're not instantly in love? Has anyone reached the point where they hear about a promising new show and immediately recoil at the thought of trying to fit it into their already busy lives? Can too much good TV really be a bad thing?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org