Notes on a Young Television Season

Let’s start with this: Breaking Bad is over. It was much watched and has been much discussed. I will not add to that discussion – not because I feel too much has been said, but because I have nothing to say. I didn’t watch it and have avoided everything that has been said about it like it bears a contagious and outrageously deadly disease. I plan on watching Breaking Bad one day, I swear! I just haven’t yet, and until I do, I want to know nothing more than what little I know right now. Which is something something cancer, something something crystal meth.

This makes me immensely unqualified to talk to you about television, in the sense that the most buzzed-about television event of 2013 (or maybe of ever), as well as the entire run of the consensus GOAT television show, are completely unknown to me. But what is qualified really?

Let’s get deep for a moment. I haven’t watched Breaking Bad in part because I’m an idiot, conceded; but also in part because the right time for me to watch Breaking Bad has not come yet. Now I could say I “haven’t had enough time” to watch Breaking Bad, which might be true; but anyone who observes my television watching habits could make any number of easy calls based on popular aesthetic taste and open up plenty of BB time: “Stop watching Glee you fool! You waste four hours a week on The Voice? You’re still watching Survivor? NO!

And there you go, plenty of time just opened up to follow Walt and Jesse on their magical adventure to methland, where they ultimately acquire inner peace and hard-won contentment. (This is what happens, right?)

But I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t give those shows up. Here’s why:

I long ago made the potentially unwise call to see Glee through to its probably-ignoble end because I still enjoy so many of the pieces of Glee that I can get past the oft-shoddiness of the whole. I can rant about Glee with the best of them: five seasons in, Glee has never improved even a smidge on its exposition delivery method, which still involves everyone sitting down in a room and listening as one person introduces the week’s theme or artist in the most trivial manner possible while everyone else chips in by spouting excited and completely worthless factoids about that week’s theme or artist, as if they’d all read the same “Did You Know? Pop Stars Edition” pamphlet as kids. (Representative exchange from the premiere: Schu – “This week is all about the early years of The Beatles, when all they had was a belief in eachother and a belief that together they could do anything!” Marley – “When George Harrison was a kid, he was made fun of because his dad was a bus driver…” Thanks Glee!) I worry that this is ashow, as it reaches its finale, that his no real questions left to answer now that Rachel and Kurt have found phenomenal New York success, Schue has become the most irrelevantly martyred adult teacher ever, and the show’s one remaing lost soul and question mark, Finn Huson, was neccesarily memorialized on a brilliant episode (the show’s last one?) after the sudden and shocking death of the man who played him with so much relateable befuddlement, Cory Monteith. With so many loose ends tied up, what does Glee have left to offer us? I still believe the answer is “a lot” because Glee has also, in five seasons, never lost its ability to deliver an emotional gut-punch. The show’s gift and its curse: it has never once during its run met a setpiece or plot point it couldn’t make less subtle. Glee is allergic to subtlety, and that means its emotions, delivered through glorious popular music (speak not of Glee’s attempts to pen original songs), can be like a shot of adrenaline to the heart no other show (preoccupied as other shows are with occasionally portraying human emotion in a subtle and restrained manner) could dream of offering.

Then there is The Voice, which is, like anything associated with one of the foulest phrases in all of television and also the world (“results show”), a massive time commitment. If I didn’t get invested in the show’s off-beat singers and bantering coaches and team-against-team narratives so much, it would be a time drain, a time suck. And though I don’t consider it that at all, I have to admit that, even if the best reason to watch is the coaches’ interactions with starry-eyed hopefuls and of course with each other (particularly when it comes to Blake Shelton and Adam Levine’s immensely ship-worthy bromance), even I sometimes fast-forward past the fluff, which is most often coach-related and of which there is an extensive, ungodly amount. (And we haven’t even gotten to the part of the season where the show punishes us for some unknown but obviously horrible crime with a social media correspondent, oh Lord above, why, please make it stop…) But the incredible thing about The Voice is that, encased in all the fluff is a reality competition which has transformed in two years from scrappy upstart to clear heir-apparent to the singing show throne, and in doing so, has vastly improved on its early but uneven success. The biggest improvement: in its first three seasons, The Voice felt like a fantasy football league in which only two of the four participants (Blake/Adam) had any idea what they were doing, a scenario so suffocatingly uneven that, as anyone who’s played in one these leagues knows, it becomes no fun for anyone. Cee-Lo, while always a dazzling presence, has always seemed largely to be promoting his own cat-and-cockatoo-filled version of reality, and Christina Aguilera was that guy who drafts only his hometown players (young, unpolished women who sing like Christina Aguilera!) regardless of their ability to actually win, forcing everyone else to go “Seriously?” But now Christina, who I have despised with a special and powerful passion in other seasons, is returning after a fun Shakira/Usher experiment that ended up being monopolized by Blake’s country music empire, and the show has become important enough/she is being paid enough that the queen diva has given up her aging Liz Taylor act (heavy mascara, catty glances, unnecessary feuding, skimpy clothing, excessive fanning, overwhelming disinterest) and has put together a diverse and dazzling assortment of talent while also being funny, invested and occasionally (I can’t believe I’m saying this) adorable. It’s heartening to see her care about winning this show with an artist who might not be her little clone. And Cee-Lo is deferring to neither a cat nor a bird, which is an improvement.

And then there’s Survivor, whose name at this point is as much a testament to its ability to persist unceasingly at an unbelievably advanced age as it is to any sort of “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” motto. Yes, Survivor has had more seasons than I have years of living, but it is, depending on its cast and premise, frequently brilliant, a fact that the non-Survivor watching populace (which grows larger every year and which at one point, yes, also included yours truly during a seven or eight year hiatus during which even I gave up on the show for not doing anything extraordinarily interesting) struggles mightily to grasp. This month, NPR blogger Linda Holmes, a longtime Survivor fan and advocate, thoughtfully voiced her displeasure with the growing sexism ingrained in the show’s bikini-clad, man-club-celebrating premise, a point I’m not sure I completely agreed with and which I also think deserves a big, important discussion. So imagine my distress when more comments looked like this (“Who still watches that show, you losers? Why would you talk about this show amidst these hallowed blogs of NPR?” which is rather uncivil considering these are the NPR comment boards) than this (“I intelligently disagree/agree with you because…”) So let’s tackle it from this angle: it is inarguable that Survivor broke ground by combining The Real World with Castaway. Its early seasons were a stop-the-presses event, its big names were reality rock stars, all of which makes it easy to overlook a blatant fact: the first season of Survivor is an adorably appealing mess. No one but Richard Hatch and his few alliance mates had any clue what they were doing, with many players actually spurning alliances. As a game of strategy, early Survivor is a desert with the occasional blessed oasis of smart gameplay. There is an argument to be made that Survivor’s currently favored combination of seasoned veterans and savvy fans far outpaces those early seasons’ pioneers both in gameplay acumen and in the “actually engrossing on television” department. Arguing the show never surpassed in overall quality its buzzy but messy first season is, from a competition perspective, like arguing football was never better than the days immediately after Knute Rockne popularized the forward pass. Yeah, late-season Survivor relies too much on gambits and rule-enforced twists (One World, Redemption Island) that erode the game’s inherent simplicity, but when those gambits work to manufacture drama in a way that doesn’t feel overly-controlled, the results can reclaim the “never-before-seen social experiment” spirit that so captivated America at the turn of the millennium. Such a season is picking up steam now; in a move that destroys all previous strategic certainties, the show has sent previous competitors to the island to compete against/with their loved ones. What started out contrived and confusing is turning into a masterful story engine/harsh competition the likes of which we’ve never seen before. I’ve watched many seasons of this show, and Linda Holmes has watched many more, and, totally-merited complaints about sexism aside, neither of us have any idea how family ties will affect this brilliant game.
Point being, if I didn’t want to be watching any of these admittedly uneven shows, well… I wouldn’t be watching them. I’m a grown-man who made evaluative grown-man decisions to watch sometimes qualitatively-challenged television which, in spite of my fandom, I have no problem admitting likely pales in comparison to Breaking Bad in the grand scheme of things. And I don’t regret it. I do this because, when the planets align (about two or three times a season) these shows hum on exactly the frequency I need them to and they do as much for me as, if not more than, Breaking Bad could do. I’m a guy that likes musicals, the singing of classic rock covers, the drama of competition shows. I adore Tribal Council. And Breaking Bad contains suspiciously few of these elements, whatever its other merits may be.

No television watcher’s DVR Season Pass should read like a sterile best-of list is what I’m saying. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make a little room in my diet for some Breaking Bad… But keep this in mind: if every show on the air was as oppressively quality-conscious, heavily serialized, morally complex, and cloudy-day gray as Breaking Bad, the television landscape would depress us all. Fast.

With that in mind, it falls to us to decide every fall what new visions we might adopt into the strange little menagerie of television shows with which we choose to maintain an “involved” relationship. Because we can’t keep up with them all. It’s just not possible. There are too many. If I watched every show I’d ever heard was phenomenal, I’d be watching, in addition to Breaking Bad: Scandal, Rectify, Justified, The Good Wife, The Vampire Diaries, Arrested Development, and Pretty Little Liars. And so many other shows. I would also be really tired and a less productive human being. Maybe dead.

But staying within a box of previous tastes and favored creators and performers also reduces gratification. There was nothing about 2008 Charles (who, based on his Lost and Heroes obsessions, should be stuck in Syfy purgatory right now) that suggested my favorite shows of 2013 would count amongst their ranks Downton Abbey, Girls, Orange Is the New Black, and Bunheads. Bunheads is an especially obvious outlier to my typical T. I have never seen creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls, knew nothing about ballet, and thought of ABC Family as the television equivalent of a hormonal pre-teen writing a catty slam letter. My only entry point into the show was Sutton Foster, a Broadway entity of which I was only vaguely aware. Explain to me how Bunheads, in its sole season, became one of my most adored darlings of all time? You can’t. And yet, from the moment I laid eyes on it, I fell deeply, madly in love. I will light a candle mourning its passing every year.

So, in addition to approaching the fall with an understanding that we will end up buying little of what the networks are selling (the past two years, I’ve watched about 80% of pilots and, by the next fall, only one show has still been on my slate: New Girl and Elementary respectively), we must also cast a wide, adventurous net. We must put ourselves out there and be ready to embrace the unexpected. And nothing in 2013 was more unexpected than:

Next Page: Fall’s Most Unexpected Success