No, this essay is not a comparison of Breaking Bad and The Good Wife (both of which are examples of well-made television shows that are worth watching for the right kind of audiences). Rather, I want to address the new world of Netflix TV-binging that allows (and even encourages) people to watch an entire season of House of Cards (for example) in one sitting (House of Cards was actually designed with that in mind).
I have repeatedly mentioned, on this blog, that I have always been a fan of primetime serials, of TV shows that tell one long story. Even before such shows became common, my family would watch for what we called the ‘big-picture’ episodes in shows like The X-Files and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And I was a huge fan of the miniseries that began in the 1970’s with Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots (though the idea was technically introduced in the UK with The Forsyte Saga in 1967).
This is not to say that I don’t enjoy episodic TV. My all-time favourite TV show, The West Wing, is almost entirely episodic, and other favourites include episodic TV shows like Star Trek and Boston Legal. But I love the long story arcs that make me wait breathlessly for the next episode and sometimes even encourage me to sit through ten episodes back-to-back. Obviously, I am not unique in this. Decades ago, Dallas (introduced in 1978) and its spin-offs had the world in its grip and even episodic shows began teasing viewers with little pieces of longer stories, usually tossed in during the last few minutes so people would be eager to see the next episode. By the beginning of this century, you had shows like Alias, which tried to mix the long story arc with episodic stories in almost equal measure. The Good Wife, mentioned earlier, and the new Doctor Who are more recent examples, while The Blacklist (don’t waste your time) continues the tradition of episodic TV with a weekly hook at the end. And some of the very best primetime serials, like Mad Men, are able to incorporate unique themes into each episode while still telling one long story.
But the point of this essay is that (thanks in part to Netflix, which I don’t use) more and more people are spending their evenings and weekends immersed in TV serials. Since I’m a fan of TV serials, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. But life is too short to waste time on the lesser TV serials (or bad episodic TV shows), especially when (thanks especially to made-for-cable shows) there are an increasing number of excellent TV serials out there, some of which even contribute to making the world a better place by exposing injustices and dehumanization or by helping us to empathize with others or by helping us to reflect on our own lives and encouraging us to work at becoming more humane human beings.
People often ask me to recommend such good TV shows, which is why I started putting TV reviews on the blog. Over the next month or two I want to be more intentional in my TV recommendations, providing brief reviews of the TV serials (or semi-serials) that, for me, are worth watching, either because they are so well-made or because they tell such a compelling story or because they help me understand the lives of others and make me want to be a better person. I’m not going to provide a list of duds, because I try to stay away from them and so can’t review them (i.e. my life is definitely too short to watch bad TV just so I can condemn it). And my recommendations will by no means be exhaustive, because my life is also too short to watch all the good TV that’s out there. So stay tuned for the reviews and watch for a comprehensive list of good TV shows coming before Christmas (at which time I will invite readers to add to the list by sharing their own recommendations).