I have fond memories of sitting in front of the boob tube, a lifeless expression on my kid face. I’m sure that you, Internet, have had such a face, but now the vacant expression is one shared by not only TV watchers, but Internet surfers as well. There’s so much media, and now that anyone with a camera and a dumb idea can produce garbage on YouTube, the majority of it is terrible. But television understands and has focused, somehow, on hooking our attention with story, characters, and, dare I say it, revolutionary surprises.
The Sopranos, I think, really started this tradition. David Chase, the creator of the Jersey crime drama, made us care about a murderous mobster, kind of like the writers of Dexter and Breaking Bad presented us with ambiguous, anti-hero jerkbags. Television (like 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell said) was a magical little place once upon a time, but as the amount of media made available as technology, commercialism, and budgets evolved it called for programs that would grip an audience and have them nervously waiting entire weeks (or seasons) for the conclusion to cliffhangers.
To make a series last, you either had to (and now have to) steal someone’s soul and get them to vacantly stare at your particular show, or get that same faceless dude emotionally invested.
The best television of the past ten years is memorable because of realistic tragedy, gut-busting, honest comedy, and characters that will stay in our heads forever. Walter White’s disturbing display of inhuman evil will darken television’s syndication for many years, and Liz Lemon will forever be the best caricature of a stressed-out, single lady lampooning the death of comedic integrity. Dexter Morgan even unfortunately inspired real killers (sure, the show probably didn’t make these folks murder anyone, but Dexter as a symbol was incredibly powerful). And Nancy Botwin re-invented the MILF.
Excellent television has even eclipsed film for the most part. Most single hours of Mad Men are more engaging and emotionally gripping than massive budget films. Sure, How I Met Your Mother is 500 times longer than any romantic comedy in existence, but most viewers care as much about Ted’s search for the perfect gal as much as they did about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s nerd in Ten Things I Hate About You.
The rift between television and film used to be a giant professional leap, but a lot of talented actors and writers are finding their homes back in television. There’s more time to tell stories, more time for a character to really change, and it can reach people right in their homes week by week (or anywhere smartphone’s reign). David Chase did say once that television sucks because it’s actually too much time (a film should be able to do everything in roughly two hours), but he left us hanging with Tony so we can let that go. Television now is in a ridiculously prosperous age, but that only means that creative types have to keep pushing the envelope, evolving with a desensitized audience, and giving that big group of couch potatoes something they’ve never seen before, and will watch endlessly until it peters out in the ninth season.