In the beginning, television was shit.
This was okay, because as far as these things go, pretty much everything is shit, as Saint Sturgeon wrote in his brief but colorful Gospel of Shit.
There are still terrifying channels that broadcast the ancient and decaying series from this time period, be it Bonanza, Adam-12, Gilligan’s Island, or a hundred other shows that have their adherents still, those who were touched at too young an age by their corruption and remain still enthralled by the siren song of nostalgic memory.
A few pieces hinted at brilliance to come. Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits. That’s really all I’ve got because I’m a sci-fi junkie and a child of the eighties who is reasonably certain that pop culture older than 1986 was just invented and retroactively buried the way that the right strain of Biblical literalists insist that God buried dinosaur bones out of spite for scientists.
Time passed and if only by dint of old people dying and young people maturing but not losing touch with the things they loved as children, television became slightly less than shit. People that saw the glimmer of something brilliant in the cardboard sets and actors who couldn’t make it in movies grew up and became producers and writers themselves. Technology made shoestring budgets go further, cable opened up wider audiences for niche entertainment, big crisp screens became the norm in living rooms. And suddenly in the nineties television tiptoed up on a tipping point, after which the quality of art that was synonymous with film gave way suddenly before the small screen.
Back before the Internet, movies lived in theaters for what seemed like forever, before disappearing into the ether of maybe eventually catching it on heavily edited television runs over the holidays. And missing a particular show pretty much meant that you missed it forever. Television couldn’t be serial in any meaningful way precisely because with an audience unable to timeshift or catch up on old episodes, they’d just be lost if they happened to go on vacation.
Eventually, VCRs existed, but let’s be frank, the guy who recorded everything and catalogued it on hundreds of VHS tapes was sort of the crazy one, not the cool guy who had all the shows at his fingertips. Television shows were disposable because they could only be watched once anyway. The medium dictated the structure, and the structure dictated the low quality.
But the shift begun with those VHS hoarders, and accelerated into high gear once DVD box sets made television something that truly could be timeshifted years instead of just until your tapes ran out. And in the early 2000s, DVRs ended the conversation entirely, making television something that was always on demand, and thus able to fully be serialized, with the overarching plots and big stories that were never friendly before to the medium.
But it was still time sensitive in the sense that there were physical items and that they were a new thing. In life before ordering anything in existence on Amazon with free shipping, you had to actually purchase the things you wanted when you wanted them. If you waited to buy those DVDs of Friends in 1999? Well, who knew if Best Buy would have them next week, let alone next decade.
Netflix and streaming, the instant gratification of Amazon, the irony is that these things made watching television less pressing, even as they made it instantaneous. Without any of the pressures of time, we suddenly had all the time in the world to watch these shows.
I’ve never watched The Wire. I will, someday. Just like someday I’m going to read War and Peace, which has been sitting on my shelf, staring at me for years. But now I have infinite time.
Time sped up enough that it wrapped back around to slow time.