Am I the only one who can’t keep “Orphan Black” and “Orange is the New Black” straight? What I know about both shows is that they’re critically acclaimed — and available only on platforms that I need to pay extra for. Oh, and also that I don’t have the time to watch either of them right now.
I’m already pretty busy, TV-wise. I’m watching “Mad Men,” “Silicon Valley” and “Veep,” while still slowly making my way through season one of “The Americans” and season four of “Friday Night Lights.” I’m trying, but failing, to stay current on “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” while keeping up with “The Mindy Project” and “Modern Family.” And that’s before I try to watch my beloved Red Sox on MLB.TV.
As recently as 10 years ago it was possible for a cultured television consumer to follow all the prestige shows. There were plenty of good shows but not so many that you couldn’t keep track. And you didn’t need to spend an arm and a leg to watch everything either. If you had basic cable package and HBO, you were set.
Now there’s a new must-see show every week and you’ve got to have Showtime, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and God knows what else just to watch them all. And sometimes even that’s not enough. At the end of last year the critics collectively decided that the best TV show currently broadcasting is a political drama about Danish politics. Unfortunately for the ordinary viewer, it’s not available in the U.S.; I suppose we’re supposed to fly to Denmark to watch it.
I guess I shouldn’t complain, since it’s better to have too much quality TV than not enough, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. And it’s not just the time required to watch all the great shows, it’s the emotional exertion. Because some of these shows are intense! I’ve heard there are people who watch “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” back-to-back on Sunday. Wow. They must have blood in their veins,because one hour with either of those shows would wipe me out for the rest of the night.
Maybe I’m thinking about this wrong. I’m still clinging to the idea that television can be a unifying feature of American life, providing a common experience that we all share. There was a time when you’d go into work, talk about the TV shows you’d watched the night before, and everyone would be on the same page. Today the only time we all gather around the communal TV is to watch the Super Bowl — and, to a much lesser extent, the Academy Awards.
A better model for thinking about television is the book world. Back in the 1940s and 1950s sophisticated Americans were all aware of the full range of recent prestige books and if they didn’t actually read them, they could at least fake it. Television helped to kill serious reading, but, as in the case of television, what really did in the shared literary experience was the fragmentation of publishing.
The number of books published in the U.S. continues to soar and no one even pretends to keep current on all the serious literary fiction or important nonfiction titles. Every once in a while a book like “The Goldfinch” will come along that everyone seems to be reading, just like everyone seemed to be watching “Breaking Bad” last year. But that’s rare. If you’re like me, when someone tells you about a great book they’ve just read, the title will slip out of your head before you get around to buying it.
Another complicating factor for keeping up with important new television shows is that, like the book industry, TV is developing a huge “backlist.” One of these days I’ll watch “The Wire,” just like one of these days I’ll read “Catch 22.” In other words, new TV shows are not just competing against other new TV shows, but against shows that came out years ago.
In the overall scheme of things, having too many TV shows to watch is the classic “first-world problem.” But I do sometimes feel that the stress of trying to keep up is killing me softly. I guess it’s time to let it go. I need to convince myself that if I never get around to watching “Agent Orange,” I will survive.