A couple of years ago, I was reading a Pitchfork profile of Passion Pit’s brilliant frontman, Michael Angelakos. It was a compelling look at his ability to create in spite of mental illness, but I kept getting stuck on one throwaway detail about Angelakos’ domestic life: “The couple doesn’t own a television, because they’d rather encourage chatter between their guests; they use a projector to watch films and TV shows on DVD when they feel like it.”
It’s not really the sort of quote a person should be stewing over years later, but that doesn’t stop me from pointing out that, projector or not, a screen you use to watch television programs is a TV. I’m also still wondering what point the writer was trying to prove by specifically noting the absence of a television. Was he trying to prove Angelakos’ intelligence? His coolness?
Years ago, writer, frequent This American Life contributor and avowed curmudgeon David Rakoff did a scathing imitation of people who forgo television: “Well. I don’t watch TV. But I do enjoy NOVA.” By now, that’s evolved into something that sounds more like, “We don’t have a TV, but we use my parents’ HBO GO® login because we’re totally obsessed with Game of Thrones.”
I’ve written about television (not for it, although if you held me upside down and shook me long enough some Parks and Recreation fanfiction might fall out of my pockets) for several years, and it’s a peculiar line of work to describe. I watch a show. I write down what happened and what I thought about it and how it made me feel. And then, to answer the question I hear at parties, yeah, someone pays me. A few weeks ago, I had drinks with an ex-boyfriend I hadn’t seen in a few years (classic rookie mistake), and when the conversation turned to the work I do, he excitedly told me how into television he’s been these days. He listed the usual suspects: True Detective, Mad Men, Community, Breaking Bad.
“What I hate, though, are…you know the trashy shows? Stuff like American Idol. Or any of the reality shows, really. Or, God, Glee. That’s the sort of television that’s tearing apart the fabric of our culture.”
It is also precisely the sort of television I write about. I realized recently that I’ve written more about Glee than anything else in my career (with the possible exception of my own feelings). I’ve also extensively covered Project Runway and Keeping Up with the Kardashians—all sorts of shows that often get lumped under the umbrella of “guilty pleasures,” not prestige television. (The bulk of what gets called “prestige television” is actually just “television about how hard it is to be a white man,” but that’s a separate essay.)
The term gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but I do believe we’re living in a golden age of television, which is to say there’s more incredible television out there than ever before. Enlightened. Broadchurch. Parks and Recreation. But I don’t like hearing people claim that it’s now okay to watch TV—some TV—now that that golden age has dawned. More than any other art form, the lines we draw between good and bad when it comes to television feel completely arbitrary, although you wouldn’t know it from how passionately people argue for them.
The truth is, we can line up Breaking Bad and Keeping Up with the Kardashians and decide the former has more dramatic or artistic merit, but that doesn’t change the fact that decades from now, schoolchildren (or at least sociology majors) will intently study the Kimye Vogue cover. Put another way: Place the brow wherever you want, but it’s all your culture.
Television might reflect our culture more accurately (or maybe just more literally) than any other art form. It might also be the art form we shame the most. But why? It’s been decades since Newton Minow became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and pronounced the landscape of television he’d inherited “a vast wasteland.” The term “idiot box” hasn’t been en vogue for a long time. So why do we roll our eyes at some of what’s on TV, even as we’re gluing them to the rest?
I don’t think it’s intentional; it’s just easy to be reflexively superior about our own cultural choices. If we stopped long enough to realize we’re essentially saying, “Your TV program on network television where people sing is stupid, but my TV program on premium cable with dragons is sophisticated,” we’d probably dial it back a little.
There’s never been a better summer to stay inside with a Netflix subscription and I’m here to tell you that if you do, there’s nothing to feel guilty about, whether you choose Big Brother or The Leftovers or Orphan Black or Finding Carter. Live in a golden age of television that’s golden not because TV is better than it’s ever been, but because you’re able to find what you like and watch it, with all of the pleasure and none of the guilt.
And, seriously, Glee is destroying the fabric of our culture? Please. At worst, it’s auto-tuning it.