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Binge Worthy

Binge Worthy
Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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TV is no longer the ‘boob tube’ (unless you count the copious nudity in the shows on premium cable and streaming services). It is a fully realized medium with much of the highest quality programming in its existence airing as we speak. There is almost literally something for everyone now. You almost have to go out of your way to have your intelligence insulted these days (PROTIP: Avoid the low-numbered channels and anything that fancies itself ‘news’).
If you are, like me, a card-carrying member of Generation X, we probably have more than a few things in common. We went through our slacker phase and our grunge phase, likely both at the same time. We probably still crush on Winona Ryder in Stranger Things as much as we did back in her Heathers days. And we likely were raised sitting in front of the TV.

It's okay to admit it. We're past the days when the boast of "I don't even own a TV" was considered an intellectual badge of honor. TV was our Baby Boomer parents' preferred babysitter. We grew up parked in front of the tube, watching Saturday morning cartoons and ABC after school specials. We were weened on Beverly Hillbillies reruns and, in the South at least, Dukes of Hazard. I became a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan because they were always on TV back in the Seventies in Clifton Forge, Virginia.

TV nowadays is no longer just three channels of the same dumbed-down nonsense. With the advent of cable, there are now hundreds of channels of dumbed-down nonsense. But there's also a treasure trove of quality programming to be found, if only you know where to look for it (hint: rhymes with 'bet fix').

We live in a new golden age of television. There is more worthwhile stuff on the flat screen (you can't rightly call it 'the tube' any more) now than at any other time in the history of the medium, and I'm more than prepared to fight the man who says different. Between cable, HBO, Showtime, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix, if you can't find anything good to watch, it's your own damned fault.

I will admit to you, before we get too far into this diatribe, that I don't really watch all the much TV. When I discover a new show, most likely on Netflix, I binge watch it and/or collect it on DVD. My all-time favorite shows, like HBO's The Sopranos and BBC America's Orphan Black, I discovered on DVD and collected every episode. Other GeniusDome favorites, like BBC America's Ripper Street and the Canadian police drama Flashpoint, I discovered on Netflix and went on a bender. Most of the time, though, the 'Dome is silent but for the click of keys on my computer keyboard, where I sit doing Genius-y stuff.

Outside of football season and a couple of guilty pleasures (Criminal Minds and Bones, both of which I binge on Netflix), I don't watch broadcast TV. I gave up on network TV a long time ago, when the sitcoms stopped being funny and the dramas became formulaic and unintentionally hilarious. Or rather, when I noticed those things about network shows. The final nail in the primetime coffin, for me, was the discovery of The Sopranos.

For the first time, I saw a TV show that was good as a movie. Never mind the taboo thrill of R-rated violence, nudity and profanity, the quality of the acting and the writing was far beyond anything I'd ever seen on the small screen. It was like discovering Coltrane after a lifetime of listening to Kenny G.

George Foreman once said that "Boxing is like Jazz, the better it is, the fewer people appreciate it." It would be just as true if you were to substitute 'television' for 'boxing.' And 'mouth-breathing cretins' for 'people.' Network TV, with few exceptions, has always played to the lowest common denominator in the interest of drawing the largest possible audience. I grew up in an era when there were three channels (not counting PBS, and let's not get me started on them), and we were at the mercy of whatever disposable fluff the programmers dished out. We watched such mind-numbing tripe as Gilligan's Island and The Love Boat because we had few other choices for entertainment.

Of course, we could always have turned off the TV and read a book or listened to a Jazz album. But it has been proved that television incites the startle reflex, the same thing we experience when our senses our momentarily heightened by something unexpected. It's the same feeling as when I first heard that 'Dome crush Heather Lind was momentarily nude in the show Boardwalk Empire. Except TV keeps us suspended in that state, instead of eventually getting back to work because as alluring as the comely Ms. Lind may be, these articles don't write themselves.

TV, by this time, had become our default entertainment choice because radio had devolved into nothing but music and talk, and our movie choices were limited by the single screen at the Stonewall Theater. But this is not another article about me growing up in Clifton Forge, Virginia, it's about the current state of television which requires some knowledge of the former state of TV so quiet down and don't make Daddy have to stop the car again.

Moving forward.

There was a time when, if you missed an episode of your favorite show, you had to wait until summer reruns for a chance to see it again. Miss it then, and you may never see it. There were no VCRs or DVRs, no On Demand or DVD. I've waited 44 years to see one single episode of the original Hawaii Five-0, to no avail. Yet, I've missed the entire fourth, and last, season of 'Dome fave Turn: Washington's Spies knowing that I will collect it on DVD soon enough. If only they will get off their asses and release it on home video. I'm talking to you, AMC, and I don't mean American Motor Company, makers of the legendarily hideous Pacer.

There was also a time when, if you missed a movie in the theater, your only hope was to wait a few years and catch in on network TV. This was, of course, if it was rated G or PG, and PG movies were usually heavily edited to make them G-rated. R-rated movies just disappeared into the ether. Before the Eighties, a movie like The Godfather might have never seen the light of day after its initial theatrical run. Forget Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now. The Wizard of Oz was only a minor box office success in its initial run; it took theatrical re-release and TV replays to make it the indispensable classic it is today. Imagine a world where Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane were not to be seen again.

There was also a time when the networks made their own movies, just like today. Except that the words "made for TV" were virtually a guarantee that the product would be lame, and there's a reason why it wasn't good enough to charge people to see it. A lot of made-for-TV movies have ended up fodder for the great Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which I caught on SyFy and then collected on DVD). MST3K took horrible movies and celebrated their awfulness, making chicken salad from chicken sh*t.

The first top flight made-for-cable movie I saw was HBO's Citizen X, about the serial killer Andrei Chikatilo and the quest to catch him. It was so good, the DVD is now in the 'Dome's permanent collection. Stephen Rea, Imelda Staunton, Jeffrey (no relation) DeMunn and Donald Sutherland starred in this 1995 thriller, which I would have gladly paid to see in the theater even though I make better popcorn at home (the secret is in the butter. That's all I'm saying).

I wasn't around for the early days of TV. I saw such seminal shows as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners in reruns, and wasn't impressed. I grew up on reruns from the Sixties (I Dream of Jeannie, The Andy Griffith Show) and contemporary shows from the Seventies (Three's Company, Fantasy Island). I loved the show Mork and Mindy, even inviting ridicule by wearing rainbow suspenders in middle school. But none of those shows have traveled well. Mork and Mindy is downright embarrassing to watch now. Of course, to be fair, very few things that were funny when I was twelve have stood the test of time.

I can't be accused of not having a sense of humor, but my experience with TV sitcoms is that they are mostly hackneyed and unfunny. The last sitcom I watched when it initially aired was That 70s Show, and even that, only the first two or three seasons because of my fixation on redheaded temptress Laura Prepon. Recently, I compared current hit Big Bang Theory with cult favorite Arrested Development. I wish I could remember who said it, but I read somewhere that BBT was "dumb jokes about smart people" while AD was "smart jokes about dumb people." True to form, though, I discovered Arrested Development on Netflix, where cult TV shows go to live a little longer.

For this article, I watched episodes of Mom, Modern Family, Two and A Half Men, and Mike and Molly, and found them all to be staggeringly unamusing. The last network TV show that made me laugh was Arrested Development, and even then, binged from Netflix and not watched in first run on Fox (which is probably why it failed on broadcast TV). There used to be a saying that a show didn't make it because it was "too good for TV." While that mostly doesn't apply any more, now that high quality programming exists all across the metaphorical dial, I believe it's still true of the major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, the Fishing Channel).

But I digress. There is still a lowest common denominator, despite how far things have come in today's society. Though we are less of a homogenized culture than we were, say, thirty years ago, there is still that part of us that wants to be popular. There are still office water coolers around which shows like Big Bang Theory are discussed, just like I used to discuss The Sopranos the day after each new episode with my manager at Circuit City (there remains something surreal about standing on the sales floor discussing the disposition of Big Pussy). And there will always be a contingent of the potential audience that prefers free TV to the stuff you have to pay for. Some people will never experience Game of Thrones, for example, not because of the adult subject matter, but because they don't want to have to pony up the dough to watch it.

We live in an era now where we no longer have to compromise to get along with the people around us. We can go online and find 'friends' from all over the globe who share our preferences. The Internet allows us to select the people we want to socialize with, rather than having to make due with whomever is nearest us. I watched certain shows back in the day because I knew everyone else did, and I had to fit in at school. Everyone watched certain things in order to fit in. Now, I can seek out people who like the show Orphan Black and form virtual friendships with them without ever having to meet in real life. It is both one of the marvels of our age, and the corrosive cause of dissolution in today's society. I no longer have to go along with to get along, I can just go find people who agree with me and never risk running across a contrary opinion. Like if someone were to insist that Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany is not one of the most beautiful and talented women on the planet, I can simply block that obvious dullard from my social media feeds and go back to quietly stalking Ms. Maslany in peace. [Editor's note: For legal purposes, please pay no attention to that last sentence]

Rambling back on around to the point.

Free TV is better now than it used to be. It had to get better in order to compete with the myriad of other options out there. Take a show like Miami Vice and compare it to a modern show like Criminal Minds, and there's no comparison. The Eighties gem seems silly and hopelessly dated compared to the contemporary network stalwart. The acting and writing are significantly better now than they were in a day when there were only two main competitors. And Sheldon on Big Bang Theory is significantly less cartoonish and cloyingly unfunny than was Urkel from the inexplicably long-running '90s sitcom Family Matters.

I said before that I don't watch a lot of television. That's not entirely true. I watch quite a few TV shows, I just watch them on alternative media (DVD, Netflix, etc.). I like the show Criminal Minds, but I couldn't tell you what night or what time (or even what channel) the show is currently on. And I am invested in a lot of shows I don't actually watch; I catch the best nude scenes from Game of Thrones on the Internet (thank you, Rose Leslie).

The point being.

TV is no longer the 'boob tube' (unless you count the copious nudity in the shows on premium cable and streaming services). It is a fully realized medium with much of the highest quality programming in its existence airing as we speak. There is almost literally something for everyone now. You almost have to go out of your way to have your intelligence insulted these days (PROTIP: Avoid the low-numbered channels and anything that fancies itself 'news').

Till next time, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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