Many think of television as the bastardized, less-charming younger sibling of film. Prestigious college cinema studies programs like Wesleyan University’s, refused to include courses pertaining to television until something like 2009. Old Hollywood folks frequently intimate that TV is the death of movies. And it is television, not film, that is associated with “vedging,” “couch potatoes,” and the general dumbing down and mind-melting of American society at large.
Television is the equivalent of millenials. We can’t get enough of talking shit and belaboring the same tired subjects. And yet, somehow we avoid talking about the merits of serialized art forms. Obviously there’s a reason that this medium is proliferated to such a degree that the bemoaning maintains relevance. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” that, “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression – for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed.”
One could extrapolate and modernize this sentiment to include television. Essentially meaning: if you can watch something in one setting, the intended emotional effect is possible, whereas with every return to the narrative, your own trajectory has become fragmented and impossible to cohere. I heard recently that This American Life is starting a serialized podcast. It seems like such a novelty, harkening back to this old form of dissemination. This holding off of outcome. But that’s what television does. In this way, television has the potential to be great. It has the capacity to evolve in impressive ways (socially, politically, artistically) because that end of the night binge session leaves you vulnerable to absorb art in a practically unconscious way. Characters have arcs because it’s inevitable. The writing has variance because a team has been carefully selected to unify as well as expand the plot. Boundaries are pushed because there is constant, imminent, competition to bounce off of. And it’s cheap enough that daring contributors are accepted rather than seen as risks.
But this also makes us wonder, why is passive-exposure so guilt-inducing? Why do we feel bad about our nights ending in front of the tube? Aren’t we just prioritizing our mental health and allowing ourselves time to decompress? Is this less valuable than art? Just as we see television’s capacity to be better than its connotations, perhaps it’s worthwhile to also reflect on the ease and comfort of TV. The diagesis of your favorite shows seeps into your home, your day-to-day life, and thought process in a way that film simply can’t. As the stakes are low (see above), television maintains an advantage in its ability to surprise. Due to the episodic nature of the medium, you are able to have expectations, and more importantly, you are able to see these expectations subverted.
All in all, I think it’s important to cut television some slack. On the one hand, it’s egotistical and archaic to discount it as an art form. On the other, if there are times when it isn’t, that’s okay too. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a family that ended nights watching movies, not television. And now, I work a full-time job, a part-time internship, I have two writing jobs, play in a band, I’m writing a script, and I have a pet and a boyfriend. In short, I’m human. If after all that, I want to come home and allow myself to be swept away by something frivolous, there’s no shame for anyone to do that.