They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes. Thanks to Internet video streaming you can create a facsimile of that experience by watching whole TV series in a few day’s time that you once watched over a period of years. It won’t exactly be your life that flashes before your eyes, but it was your life that the show’s original broadcast punctuated.
I first experienced binge-watching TV shows when I came upon a complete stash of Rawhide episodes on YouTube. I went on to find and watch complete series of:
- The Dick Van Dyke Show
- The Mary Tyler Moore Show
- The Bob Newhart Show
- Hill Street Blues
- Law and Order
- The Practice
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- Blue Bloods
I found others that didn’t hold my interest, and others which weren’t available as complete series. A couple of observations seem worth sharing.
The first is that a lot of TV is just terrible. There are many shows like Thirty Something or The Odd Couple that I liked when they aired, but which today seem perfectly dreary.
The best TV shows have well-defined and essentially likable characters, just as 2,000 year old literary theory would predict. The best also feature plots that maintain a compelling tension between right and wrong. These two characteristics were especially true of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I hold to be the pinnacle of all TV production. But you can see the pattern just as well in the cheesy but entertaining Renegade (staring a long-haired Lorenzo Lamas who rides a fire-branded Harley up and down California solving crimes as an outlaw).
But given the prerequisites of character and plot there’s a huge playground in which to formulate good TV. Among the series I have binge-watched, Lost exemplifies this best. I would describe that series as a cross between Giligan’s Island, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess, if you can imagine such a thing.
Overall, I am struck by how few and far between good TV shows are. I suppose there is a sensible explanation. TV as we understand it today is about 100 years old. Assuming only one broadcast station, no re-runs, and complete archives, there should be at least 876,000 hours of TV show content on file, the same as the number of hours in 100 years. But then subtract out news, weather, public service announcements, game shows, off-air periods, rerun seasons and lost archives, and the available record for any one TV producer is probably only a small fraction of the potential whole. Make further adjustments for quality and changing public tastes, then even with multiple TV producers it becomes unlikely that the complete catalog of good TV show programming could ever be large.
Finally, I am struck, too, at how our culture has changed around TV. Rawhide (1959-1965) and Homeland (2011-2020) both were reflections of the period in which they were filmed, but those periods are so completely different. To cite just one example, insanity in Rawhide was a common cause of social conflict, with the possessed person usually depicted as the bad guy. In Homeland insanity is the main characteristic of the main character, a female CIA officer and ultimate good guy for whom bipolar disorder becomes a superpower.
My parents bought their first TV to keep me at home after catching me watching Poop Deck Pappy through a neighbor’s window. Thank goodness for and damn the Internet.