James Poniewoznik is now our man in TVland, joining Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly (movies), Barbara Lippert of Adweek (advertising), and Joan Kron (plastic surgery). (Please feel free to nominate people.)
Poniewozik recently noted several TV shows he thinks we might have missed. And I have to say this sent a chill through me. TV I might have missed? It seems like only yesterday, I could take for granted that by this time of the year I would have seen all the new shows. But sure enough, Poniewozik names several shows I have not seen.
His list: Sons and Daughters (ABC), The Loop (FOX), Free Ride (FOX), Wonder Shozen (MTV2), Nighty Night (Oxygen), and Slings and Arrows (Sundance).
TV was for a long time our hearth, the focal point around which families and the nation could bathe together "in the glow." One measure of how customary (and obligatory) was this participation: everyone knew pretty much knew all the shows, even if they didn’t watch them. It was rare to speak of a show in conversation and discover that someone had no clue what it was about. This was a common ground.
Now there are several good shows in their second season, I don’t know. This is no doubt a measure of my addled condition and one of the many costs of living in Connecticut, but it is also a reflection of changes taking place in the TV producer and the TV consumer.
There are now many, many good channels carrying many good shows. I am astonished how high the standard of the comedic writing is. I was watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother recently, and there was a particular jewel about an American boyfriend driving off a French girlfriend that was fiendishly clever. It’s amazing how many people can write well for TV. The art of sit com acting is all about dropping the line in at exactly the right moment, delivery it with perfect economy and emphasis, and then giving way to the next joke. It’s amazing how many people can do this flawlessly. This tells us that as channels grow, so will the shows capable of supplying them. There is, apparently, no shortage of talent. The profusion of "must see" TV that I fail to see will continue to grow.
On the consumer end, there is an explosion of options. Lots of channels carried on lots of TVs in the home. There are DVDs (via purchase or Netflix) and pay per view movies. There is place shifting (Slingbox) and timeshifting (Tivo). At any given time, a family has thousands of options. The chances of them all sitting down to a single moment of "destination television" (aka "appointment television") are increasingly slender.
It’s almost as if TV is going to go the way of the family meal. A shared meal (sometimes, Sunday night, sometimes Friday) was once the center piece of American family life. It was the moment when people came together to remember, reenact and otherwise reassert that they were a family, and what it was to be a family. This institution has been under extraordinary pressure in recent years. Someone told me recently that Americans now eat something like 10% of their meals while driving in the car! ("Dashboard dining" they called it.) "Grazing" and individual preparation is also on the rise. The family meal is now longer a staple of family ritual, but increasingly an occasional and ad hoc accomplishment.
This wasn’t so bad because families were still sitting down to destination television. (In a perfect world, some academic would have worked out the precise differences between shared meals and shared television, but until our scholarly cousins awaken from their postmodernist slumber, this topic will remain unexamined.) But if destination TV is now for the high jump (as the English say), what can this mean for family life?
Now if this were 1972, we could rely on an academic to write a book about how TV is killing our culture. Happily, it is now 21st century and we are more inclined to wonder how this will change culture, not kill it. To some extent, the family has been a balwark against plenitude. Culture fragmented outside the family, and to be sure, some of this leaked in. But the family was still largely a world onto itself. What we are looking at with the end of destination TV might be the death of the family’s last ceremonial center. In this event, plenitude will have come home in earnest and not even a great room will be big enough to contain the explosion.
Poniewozik, James. 2006. 6 Totally Funny TV Series. Time Magazine. March 20, 2006, p. 118.