For most of the past two decades I haven’t been much of a TV watcher. Until 1994 the only show I watched with regularity was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and after it went off the air in that year, I didn’t really watch anything else. I couldn’t be bothered with Bundys, Simpsons or Family Guy. I’ve never seen an episode of Friends in my life. To me Grey’s Anatomy is an antique medical textbook, Law and Order is a Nixon-era campaign slogan and CSI sounds like a discount grocery chain.
In fact, throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s I thought TV as an institution was dying. Netflix, having finally killed off the fulsome “video store” experience of the 1990s, made movies-on-demand a practical reality for nearly everyone. The era of network shows pitched at a mass audience was pretty much over, and cable stations have such atomized niche markets that made-for-cable series couldn’t really command a significant audience share, at least not like network shows used to do.
Now we live in a different world. About 2006 I had friends continually recommending The Sopranos to me. Although I never really got into the show, the few episodes I’ve seen were clearly very well-written and well-produced. I was a latecomer to made-for-cable TV series, but in 2009 my best friend insisted I watch a show called True Blood with him. (That was the first season, which really was excellent). I was surprised at how engaging it was, and also how the writers and directors were really making use of the series format to show long-form stories with a lot of interesting backgrounds and developments.
True Blood season 1 trailer.
In the meantime, movies–at least “mainstream” movies that Hollywood wants to give us–have gotten worse. Much worse. Most of the “big” movies you hear about now, that get a lot of hype, tend to be comic book superhero movies, or bad remakes of old classic horror films. Don’t even get me started on what Michael Bay has done to modern cinema.
Even films that don’t fit the comic book/horror remake paradigm are remarkably uneven in quality. During 2012 I went to a movie theater three times. I saw Prometheus (which was terrible), Looper (which was mediocre) and Lincoln (which was very good). The only theater film I’ve seen so far in 2013 was Star Trek: Into Darkness. Twenty-five years ago I probably went to the movie theater at least once a month, sometimes twice. Now, going to the movies is as rare as taking a vacation.
Official trailer for the fulsome Michael Bay disaster “Transformers 3.”
In the meantime, high-quality, long-form dramatic fiction has been flourishing in the format of cable series. I got hooked on Mad Men in 2010 and my husband and I are now on our second complete watch-through of the series. Earlier in the year we were riveted by the Netflix original series House of Cards. I personally don’t watch Breaking Bad, but I’m aware of how good a show it is, and most of the people I follow on Twitter talk of little else. I credit the success of the series The Walking Dead with creating the conditions that have made my recent book Zombies of Byzantium successful. This is clearly where visual storytelling is going these days.
Trailer for the Netflix series “House of Cards.”
I don’t count movies completely out. Two films made in 2010, The King’s Speech and Inception, I think both have the potential to be classics with very long shelf lives. But I also believe that something like Mad Men will as well, and that’s something you couldn’t say of very many TV series even ten years ago. So while Michael Bay is giving us more kinetic goulash of 1/16-of-a-second-long shots of CGI robots bashing away at each other, Don Draper pauses mournfully over a glass of vodka in a Manhattan office in 1966. You can guess from this blog which of those I’d rather see.