(These are just some unformed, probably unoriginal thoughts prompted by recent readings of Sepinwall’s The Revolution was Televised, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, a Guardian article by Joe Moran, a blog post by David Hepworth and what Kevin Spacey said at Edinburgh, plus everyone going on and on about the last series of Breaking Bad and a Facebook conversation about Siouxsie and the Banshees on Top of the Pops that soon developed into an uncontested assertion that 1979 was the best year for telly ever.)
We are apparently in a golden age of TV with [insert any two or three from Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, all those fake trailers for the Doctor Who anniversary show] representing the Citizen Kane, the Hamlet, the Ring Cycle of the medium. But I do wonder whether this is more about the way we consume the product than how good the product is. Way back when I first saw I, Claudius or The Singing Detective, Twin Peaks or Blackadder, I was inescapably aware of the bad stuff before and after, the now-forgotten failed sitcoms and self-indulgent chat shows that don’t get BFI retrospectives dedicated to them. Even if you were terribly organised and taped these landmark shows on your clunky old VHS behemoth, you’d get unwanted slivers of drivel on either side; this also explains the morbid fascination some of us have for old copies of the Radio Times, enabling us to recall the failures that bookended these triumphs in the schedules. And the failures are still with us. Sturgeon’s revelation still applies, and 90 per cent of everything is still abject crud; The Sopranos and its ilk have been bestowed upon us at the same time as innumerable talent shows, reality shows, home improvement shows and variations on Jeremy bloody Kyle. Golden age? Seen as a high-definition whole, it’s barely tinfoil, as it’s always been. As everything’s always been.
But now box sets and Netflix and dodgy downloads mean that it’s possible to isolate oneself from that crud, creating a gated community for one’s viewing, away from the riff-raff. Nobody watching the original House of Cards when it first came out would have been able to ignore the presence of other, rather less sublime manifestations of the form; today, you can mainline the Kevin Spacey remake without being aware that Simon Cowell even exists. Indeed, there may grow to be a (class-based?) distinction regarding the ways in which we describe our televisual habits. The connoisseurs proudly announce that they spent their weekend watching something specific, season five of whatever innovative retooling of American sociopathy is fashionable with Guardian critics; while the uncritical, passive state of simply “watching television” is left to the proles.