Americans have all the entertainment in the world at their fingertips for pennies of the dollar yet they are unsatisfied. As I find myself rewatching Mad Men instead of exploring one of the countless new series I have in my cue spread across far too many streaming services I found myself wondering why I went with a show that I have watched more than once in its entirety rather than trying something new? The answer is because 9 out of 10 times I try a new series on any one of the many platforms I pay for I find myself losing interest quickly. Even the seasons I watch in their entirety, like Altered Carbon season 1, tend to be so not memorable that I forget about them before a second season is released.
Sure there have been the occasional standout such as Mindhunter and Glow but those are few and far between. Even Ozark which I have thoroughly enjoyed is merely a riff on Breaking Bad and not nearly as emotionally powerful. In all honesty what has been the biggest cultural phenomenon of 2020? Tiger King. Not one of the seemingly endless scripted series that are thrown at us in an endless barrage but a reality series focusing on what would have made a great Jerry Springer episode in 1994. That is the cultural touchstone of 2020, an extended Jerry Springer episode.
Even something such as Stranger Things that so many seem to enjoy basically is what one would get if they programmed a computer to write Gen X nerd culture fan fiction. Seriously it is what happens if you throw Stand By Me, Eerie Indiana, and X-Files into a blender and add 80’s cultural references. My guess is that the next season of it will see lower viewership and Netflix will order one more shorter season to wrap it all up mostly because Netflix loves to spend money.
You may like these shows. I cannot blame you; they are a great way to distract you from the dullness of your existence. The ease with which modern humans can get entertainment has created what amounts to digital Prozac giving the view a much needed shot of serotonin as their daily life gives them so little. It gives humans something to look forward to when they get home from work or just get done working from home. But they really aren’t that good.
Why aren’t they that good? I would postulate that there are multiple reasons for this. First off is the intent of the programming. It is written and produced with the intent to make the viewer addicted. South Park hit it perfectly with the “Member Berries”. Give the viewer something that is familiar but just different enough to make them feel as if they are watching something new. Again I am not saying this is inherently bad. It isn’t something I particularly like but I don’t like feeling comfortable. To me comfort is death.
The problem is that it seems the human condition also hates comfort. The anger and frustration that is rampant in modern civilization likely has as much to do with the over abundance of comfort as it does with anything else. I mean really in a world where all of humanity’s needs are available at the touch of a button on an app, from food to entertainment to sex, why are so many who have so much so unhappy? Now here you might claim that it is the poor and those who have been discriminated against by “the system” who are upset but look at who is getting arrested in places like Portland or Seattle. It’s not the underclasses. It’s not minorities. It’s college educated white kids.
That however is a topic I have covered ad nauseam. It is permeating the world so it will continue to be on the edges of everything I talk about for the time being but this is about the decline in quality TV. Why is it a series like Mad Man still appeals to me even though I know how it ends. The truth is that even on what I believe to be my third viewing I am still experiencing new elements to it. Elements that speak to the human condition in a way that these new series just do not connect.
Think about the shared cultural experience that used to be derived from our TV shows. Boomers and Gen X will instantly be able to relate to phrases like “Who Shot JR?” and “Goodbye, Farewell, Amen”. Even golden age of TV series with finales that were disliked by a significant portion of fan base like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galatictica” were far more impactful than anything that is showing up on the streaming services. Also if we are being honest programs that are so important to their fan bases are never going to end in a way that makes all fans happy. For many they are just sad it ended and for others the ending just doesn’t live up to the ending they had in their head.
This is what makes these programs so powerful. Having such an impact on the viewer means that they take ownership of it. It is better to have a work that disappoints the viewer in the end to the point that they complain about it than to have a work that they just don’t care about.
I should note that I am not talking about the last two seasons of Game of Thrones that carried on in death throes well past its emotional high point with “The Door”. No I am talking about shows that were still putting out compelling drama up until the end. I honestly question if people will go back and rewatch Game of Thrones. The last two seasons ruined the previous six. Seriously the Night King at the end of “Hardhome” seemed like an unbeatable foe and then it turns out the only reason he even gets past the wall is because Jon Snow decides he needs to bring a Wight back to King's Landing. Seriously the last two seasons are some of the worst storytelling in history.
So here we are finding ourselves in reality where there are fewer and fewer shared cultural experiences and I really don’t see them coming back. As society becomes more and more comfortable with being shut in the ties that bind the nation together will become fewer and fewer. If the restrictions we are seeing stay in place much longer and the newly suggested enforcement mechanisms are enforced you will find a population that has become conditioned to being isolated and alone.
I am not one of those conspiracy theory guys who believe this is some grand plan to make humanity more docile and controllable. It is just the natural progression of a society that has put too much of a premium on safety at all costs. Yes we may keep a handful, relatively, of the sick and eldery alive a bit longer at the cost of dehumanizing the populus. It wasn’t a secret cabal sitting in the back room at Comet Ping Pong Pizza that decided to institute some grand scheme to control humanity. It was a society that decided to just go around patting itself on the back about how civilized it had become.
Without shared cultural experiences the gulf between urban and rural America will only widen. With our only outlet left being TV series that provide the instant gratification of the next episode right away and that have been designed to give you a serotonin hit from ‘memberin’ a time you had shared cultural experiences with friends the delicate fabric that holds society together with fray.
In all honesty the only thing that cave American society now is a non-woke NFL season. If they go ahead and politicize football causing half the country to tune out there will be nothing holding the nation together from a cultural perspective. Without a shared cultural identity what is to stop the two or more very different parts of the country from saying “see ya”? While a great portion of those in urban areas think they would be better off if the rural parts of America left I’d like to ask them where they think their food is going to come from?