Is There Even Such A Thing As Good Or Bad TV Anymore?
As I sat through the second season premiere of Preacher Sunday night, something occurred to me. Though I love the show, and even experienced a slight amount of existential dread when it seemed like it might not be renewed last year, I honestly can’t tell you if it is a “good” show. Because in this so-called Golden Age of Television, I don’t know what good is anymore.
What actually marked the beginning of this Golden Age is fodder for a separate debate, but whether you’d set the start at network shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer or premium cable series like HBO’s Oz, I think we can all agree on where we’ve ended up. Today our media landscape is marked by diverse viewing platforms and a proliferation of content to support it all. “Television” doesn’t have to be viewed on a television. Shows can stream instead of air. Gone are the days when tens of millions of Americans gathered around their picture box to watch the finale of M*A*S*H* or Seinfeld, and a “good” show was whatever beat out the shows airing on the other three networks.
Instead, we have hundreds of options at any given time. And because of this, programming has become more “niche” —- it tries to appeal to a targeted audience because there is no more grand mass of viewership to attract. Sure, some shows rise above the rest to become water-cooler conversation topics, but the wider success of Lost or The Walking Dead feels like a happy accident these days. Even Nielsen, that faithful workhorse of ratings, is struggling to keep up with our viewing trends. I know, because I recently was randomly selected to fill out viewing diaries and surveys (it turns out I will literally do anything if people mail me envelopes of cash). What I noticed is that, though they have begun to ask more questions regarding how we consume content, they aren’t necessarily asking the right questions. Sure, maybe they don’t need to know if I sat in bed watching cartoons on the Adult Swim app on my iPad last night, because those don’t have ads attached. But shouldn’t they care if I used my Xfinity app to stream live TV on my iPad? Or how about that TV I own that isn’t hooked up to any cable box is instead hooked up to a game system with Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go?
(I will say, however, that Nielsen allowed me to mark down all of the TNT Supernatural reruns that I leave my TV set to during the day, and that brought me immense pleasure.)
So, what does all this have to do with good TV? Well, it’s clear that we can’t really use massive ratings as a metric anymore, and instead we need to look at how well a show appeals to its target — or, better, how it appeals beyond its target. But the very point of a niche audience is the acknowledgement that we all have varied tastes, which is pretty much the death of objectivity. How can anything transcend our biases when everything is designed to appeal to our biases?
Personally, I tend to look at two things: concept and execution. Does the show have an interesting concept? Does it execute the concept well? The best example of a show that I think succeeds in both concept and execution is The Wire. It is a unique story, told in a unique way. It’s clear that the creator had a vision for it, and made that vision a reality. And while we may be able to point to parts or seasons that we like better than others, the show truly stands as a whole. Personally, I didn’t discover The Wire when it aired. It was only after enough friends yelled at me that I finally gave it a shot — and was hooked. I know I am not alone in this. It seems the curse of The Wire is being the best show that not enough people watched. Sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine Nine or 30 Rock have mediocre concepts but are elevated by the execution (the casting, the speed of the jokes, etc.), whereas perennial punching bag Heroes had a wonderful concept that it never lived up to in execution.
In the case of Preacher, it has a concept that is tailor made for my tastes. It’s based on a weird and violent and philosophical series of comics that I read and loved. It has a drunken Irish vampire, and I’m sure the dude with the penis-head is just around the corner. Basically, it ticks all my boxes for must-watch entertainment. But it’s the question of execution that keeps hanging me up. Sure, the show has a zippy pace and no aversion to blood and guts (and in the case of the second season premiere, both “blood” and “guts” were VERY LITERAL). Though the actors who portray Jesse and Tulip are hardly southern fried folk, I enjoy Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga too much to hold it against them. Joseph Gilgun as Cassidy is spot on — and here, I’m evaluating the show against the comic, which means I’m evaluating it as an adaptation. Preacher is not a beat-for-beat interpretation of the original story, but I do think it captures the spirit of the original pretty faithfully. Sure, Tulip is a bit more feisty and Cassidy is a bit more genuine, and they added a whole lot of backstory (which I more or less appreciated), but I think my knowledge of the source material means I’m playing the long game with the series. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come to a conclusion on it until I’ve seen where the show is going with the story. Whereas with American Gods, a show that is also based on source material I love and which also has a season to its name, I feel more confident saying that it has nailed the concept and the execution. I can point to the changes they made to to the source material and explain how they elevate the adaptation (giving Laura Moon a backstory). I can point to the perfect casting and explain how they stayed faithful to the original story. I guess in the case of Preacher, I know the show is trying to be its own thing, but I’m not entirely clear on what that “thing” is yet so can’t tell if it is successful.
The revival of Twin Peaks, on the other hand, is a textbook case of execution over concept. And maybe that is just a Lynch thing in general — we can argue about what the “concept” of any of his work is, but we all experience the execution in the same way. We are approaching the halfway point for the new season, and I can’t really tell you what the hell is going on. Doppelgängers and in-between places, old friends and new faces, musical acts and traffic lights. But I can tell you that I think the show we are watching is exactly the show that David Lynch and Mark Frost wanted us to watch. When you spend three minutes watching a dude sweep a bar floor without interruption, that isn’t a mistake. That is a choice. When you are faced with an ongoing mystery involving Dr. Jacobi and his golden shovels only to have it add up to a throwaway punchline about bullshit, that is a choice. With Twin Peaks, I think we have to evaluate the vision and the style over the actual substance.
And in all of these cases, I tune in each week. Sure, maybe I don’t watch them when they air. Maybe I hold onto them in my queue, waiting to savor them. But they are the shows I most look forward to. Does that alone make them “good”? There are shows that I know are supposed to be amazing that I haven’t bothered watching (Breaking Bad), shows that I am slightly embarrassed to admit are appointment viewing for me (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and shows that I’ll put on a pedestal despite knowing they are loathsome to a good many people (Rick and Morty). Even if I hate a show, it can be perfectly tailored to someone else (example: anything on E! since The Soup ended).
I’d like to say that there is no such thing as good or bad TV, just TV that is either made for you or not. But apparently Netflix is making a third (THIRD!) season of Fuller House despite canceling Sense8 so fuck it — there totally is good TV, or at least good enough TV, and if you find it you better support it because shows are hanging on a razor wire of niche audiences and if you aren’t careful you’ll be surrounded by terrible reboots of mediocre sitcoms from twenty-odd years ago.
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