Listen, there are only three kinds of TV shows.
First, there’s the show that connects you to the world. Second there’s the show that’s your comfort blanket in the world. And third there’s the show that is the wall between you and the rest of the dumb, mundane world.
The first category is still often and rather unimaginatively called the “water-cooler” show. As if everybody worked in an office and it was a fact of life that, in every office, everybody gathered around the water dispenser daily to discuss TV shows. Really, it’s the show that you have been manipulated into watching on the basis that everybody else is supposed to be watching it and you can make in-person or online comments about it.
It can also be one of those shows that commands audience response, such as American Idol. Or just the show that’s new, original and provocative. And much written about. At one time Desperate Housewives was the definitive show in this category. Two and a Half Men was it for a while, The Simpsons, once upon a time. Right now there is no such show. The closest equivalents are The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family.
The second category is what most people watch – shows that are predictable, reassuring in their conscientious adherence to a format. Some people will watch Criminal Minds several times a week because the evil villain is always caught and the person in jeopardy is always saved before the credits roll. The characters are well defined and respond in the same manner in every episode. It’s a show that sends you off to bed consoled.
There are other, newer shows that fit into this category and whose seemingly inexplicable popularity is easily explained by their predictable format. Castle (ABC, CFTO, 10 p.m.) is a sterling example. It’s preposterous, unimaginative TV, and it’s like watching Murder, She Wrote over and over. There’s a murder, and while solving the case, author Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) and NYPD Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) flirt, josh and banter. NCIS (CBS, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) follows the same pattern. It’s a huge ratings hit that nobody ever talks about because it’s always the same darn thing. These shows are antidepressants.
Personally, I have What Not to Wear and Say Yes to the Dress in this category. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to watch families gather to choose a wedding dress for an excited young miss, and make entirely the wrong choice. There’s that and Fox Soccer Report, which also connects to the world that matters to me.
It’s the third category that’s truly interesting and has flourished in a splintered TV landscape of hundreds of channels of niche TV. Just as many teenagers gravitate toward some from of superficially rebellious rock music as a barrier against conformity, grown-ups will religiously watch a TV show they believe sets them apart in attitude and taste. These shows aren’t necessarily brilliant or original. Often they’re smug but offer a heightened sense of superiority.
An example is Portlandia, an obscure series that airs on the IFC channel in the United States and on SuperChannel in Canada (the second season starts Feb. 13). A slight satire of life among the hipsters who apparently comprise the entire population of Portland, Ore., it is really a one-joke show. The characters are glumly, pretentiously hip. You have to be hip to get the mocking jokes about the hip.
And yet Portlandia recently merited a long feature story in New York Magazine. It was treated like an offbeat but important novel, something that transcends television to be a vital comic statement. It is no such thing, but watching it makes viewers feel very smart and enjoying it creates a barrier between the viewer and the vast world that is too dumb to understand the ironic humour.
American Horror Story is another show in the same category. The pilot episode was visually sumptuous and striking, and then the rest of it didn’t make a blind bit of sense. But, as it turned and twisted, spraying mordant humour about sex and death, some viewers whiled away an hour watching it in the belief that it separated them from the lumpen proles watching Castle.
Californication (TMN, Movie Central, 10:30 p.m.) has the same cachet. It is simultaneously a show about a jerk, Hank Moody, who wants to have a real father-daughter relationship with his child, and a show about a jerk who has an uncanny ability to make women swoon even as he behaves outrageously. Finding Hank lovable lets the viewer feel superior to uptight people who would condemn his awful behaviour.
I put it to you that this is television genres defined. There are only three categories. Everything you watch falls into one of them, doesn’t it?
Also airing tonight
In the “airing tonight” category, we turn to sports. I draw your attention to Women's Soccer: CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying, Canada vs. Costa Rica (Sportsnet, 10:30 p.m.). See, at the airport in L.A., on my way back from the TV critics’ press tour, I arrived in the Air Canada lounge to find the entire Canadian Women’s Soccer team present. It was a breathtaking sight. A sea of strong and comely women in red hoodies, the charisma emanating from them like nobody’s business. And the hair. My goodness, the tresses! They left after five minutes, heading to Vancouver for these Olympic qualifying games. I didn’t get a chance to wish them good luck. So I will, here.
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