I’d like to think I grow tired of saying this over and over again, but clearly I don’t if I keep coming back to this point: if any foreigner or future scholar wants to understand America in the post Cold War era, all they’d have to do is watch TV. It’s not like there’s much competition: I can and have named dozens of TV shows that have completely altered the landscape of our culture. Many people say that we’re living in a Golden Age of International Cinema, but are there even fifteen American movies since 1990 that have completely shaken up the way American culture views itself in the manner of which the best dozen-or-so episodes of The Simpsons did, or South Park, or The Wire, or Mad Men (The Truman Show, The Social Network, WALL-E, American Beauty; and if we’re being charitable maybe Juno, Forrest Gump, Minority Report, Pulp Fiction, There Will Be Blood, Fight Club… The Dark Knight is ultimately British…and after that I draw a blank)? Are there even half-a-dozen American plays since 1990 that have changed the country (Angels in America, Oleanna, Doubt, arguably Rent and The Book of Mormon if you count music theater…nothing but blanks after that…)? Think of how many ‘Great American Artists’ in today’s cultural world are clearly, unambiguously, unassailably at the very peak of their careers – artists whom most every critic and connoisseur in their field seems to agree will not ever, cannot ever get better than the work which they’re producing right now. Now think of how many of them are not television showrunners (Jonathan Franzen, David Fincher, Wynton Marsalis, Kanye West, Lady Gaga if that’s your kind of thing….blank…) With so few exceptions, the way which American artists use movies, theater, literature, art, and music seem to grow ever smaller and more insular with every passing year. But the manner in which television is used seems to grow ever larger, more diverse, more ambitious, more epic. Overall, I suppose I prefer watching a great movie to great television – great movies suggest the ‘unfathomable depths’ in a matter of a few hours. A two hour movie requires less time commitment but just as much artistic reward at the end as 100-hour TV show, and utterly without the longeurs it takes to reach the end of a series. Movies are simply more interesting.
In a country like ours, which redefined everything which the arts can be, movies have virtually supplanted the importance of theater – often providing a more visceral, more flexible experience than live theater was ever capable of suggesting. But if movies are to us what theater was to Elizabethan England (but who’s our Shakespeare?), then TV is to today’s America what The Novel was to Czarist Russia. We could even play a kind of parlor game in which we create equivalents for Russian novels with today’s TV shows. Perhaps The Sopranos could stand in for Dostoevsky’s whirlpoolish psychological immediacy – the show could easily be renamed Crime and Punishment. Or perhaps Mad Men could stand in as a spiritual replacement for Tolstoy’s slow, critically distant psychological burn - think of the first line of Anna Karenina and imagine applying it to the marriages of Don Draper and Roger Sterling.
Being a person with very few reasons to live, I grew up with NBC’s Thursday night lineup as the cornerstone of my week. Growing up, my weekends were inevitably disappointing: I didn’t much care for my friends, and the Baltimore Symphony was too expensive to go every weekend. Thursday night was the highlight of my week, because that was the night the new Seinfeld premiered, and that thought was enough to get me through one week of extended suburban ennui to the next.
With the omnipresent syndication and ubiquitous reruns (not that they don’t mean the same thing), it’s nearly impossible to remember how revolutionary Seinfeld seemed in the 1990’s. Seinfeld was more than a show about nothing, it was a show about taboos. Week after week, issues which none of us dare mention in polite company were discussed in barely concealed euphemisms: masturbation, public urination, breast implants, oral sex, faking orgasms, contraception, self-exposure, sexual techniques, fetishes, fears of responsibility, commitment, marriage, immigrants, the handicapped, social and sexual humiliation, dentistry, bullying, hygiene, the elderly, homeless people, blind dates, being perceived as racist or homophobic, social ‘inferiors’, and the truth. Seinfeld’s greatness came from constantly taking uncomfortable situations in which we’ve all found ourselves, yet none of us wants to admit we have. It then stretched those situations to the exact breaking point of believability.
If Seinfeld now seems like a completely different show than it did in the 90’s, it’s because all the greatest sitcoms were in fact a variation on that exact same trope. All In The Family made bigotry charming for white and black people alike. M*A*S*H showed people who never served in the armed forces that the experience of war is not all sacrifice and patriotism. Cheers allowed literate upper-middle class Yuppies to bond with loser alcoholics. The only difference between these shows and Seinfeld is that the latter broke taboos to an exponentially higher degree than any sitcom before it. Seinfeld seemed like a beginning, in which every issue could be discussed on television so long as there it’s done with sufficient cleverness; but 15 years after the show ended, we now see that Seinfeld was an end. After Seinfeld, all the taboos of what could be aired on television were broken, and we now live in a nearly taboo-free society of reality TV, pay cable series, and internet memes, where virtually any subject can be discussed openly and acceptably. Seinfeld still seems like a great show, but it seems almost quaint and prudish, as though it’s a show from another solar system where people have to talk in code. It seems downright weird to use terms like ‘master of your domain’ or ‘down there’ when today’s shows can discuss absolutely any issue with utter transparency.
There were great shows before Seinfeld. Must See TV (NBC’s term for its Thursday night lineup) is older than I am, and included fine shows as different as Cheers, Night Court, The Cosby Show (I include that begrudgingly), Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, A Different World, Frasier, Wings, Mad About You, Friends (REALLY begrudgingly), ER, Just Shoot Me, Will & Grace, Scrubs (SOOOOOO begrudgingly), My Name is Earl, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community (honorable mention to Andy Barker P.I., one of two Andy Richter shows that should have been picked up past a first season).
In an era of 300 channels, NBC might have more history than any channel save two others, but its best days are so clearly over. It’s difficult to forget that sight-gag on Family Guy in which NBC headquarters proclaims on its sign “We Used To Have Seinfeld, Remember?”
Like the other networks, only moreso, NBC has moved into the world of pay cable. NBCUniversal owns CNBC, MSNBC, USA, Bravo, Syfy, Cloo, Chiller, and Telemundo. It has large stakes in AMC, A&E, the History Channel, the Biography Channel, and National Geographic. This list doesn’t even include the overseas networks which NBC manages or the fact that NBC has a large share in TiVo.
NBC clearly understands that the name of today’s broadcasting is ‘niche’ – and there should be a niche for every taste and every demographic. But they still don’t understand well enough. Like any network, they are principally committed to preserving the dominance of their once ‘august’ brand – and will not preserve a show on their flagship network if it does not recoup a certain amount above the expenses it takes to make the show - how very 1985.
The rumors were abounding last week that NBC is cancelling its Thursday night lineup almost wholesale. For longer than I’ve been alive, Thursday night’s been the lynchpin of NBC television. But there’s something about the very idea of dominating a night of television that feels utterly old-fashioned. Nobody wants to dominate a TV night anymore, nobody who’s living in 2012 at least. At this point, sensible executives just want enough viewers to derive a reasonably large demographic against 300 other competitors. Anyone executive who sets out to make a TV show watched even by a quarter of those who watched Seinfeld every week is a guaranteed failure. The most watched non-reality TV show of the last year was NCIS, and it was watched by a weekly average of 11.6 million people.
Desperate Housewives, one of the highest rated shows of the last decade, will air its final episode this Sunday, and will be considered a stunning surprise if it rakes in anywhere near 15 million viewers. Let’s put that in a bit of context. Nearly ten years ago, the Friends series finale attracted more than 50 million viewers. Nearly fifteen years ago, the Seinfeld series finale attracted almost 75 million viewers (and was expected to attract a lot more than that). Nearly twenty years ago, the Cheers series finale attracted almost 85 million viewers. Nearly thirty years ago, the M*A*S*H series finale attracted more than 100 million viewers.
The age when any network or channel could coast on the strength of a single show is over and will never come back. In today’s TVcology, there is only competition – and even the highest rated shows can only appeal to a severely limited demographic. No two people watch all the same television shows anymore.