This week, I've embarked on a first viewing of half a dozen episodes of the 2009 Fox drama Lie to Me. When I ran out of those, I dipped into the first four episodes of NBC's long-cancelled Chuck. On a break from a deadline, I threw on an episode of Law and Order: SVU that I'd never seen, and when I had some more time to focus I caught up on some missed episodes of the new USA Network series Complications. I also binge-ingested Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp within days of its release.
By means of my vocation, I watch more television in a week than the average person, but even with that luxury I'm woefully behind. I have occasional pangs of shame that I (shock, horror) haven't watched Mad Men to completion. Somewhere along the line, too, I went adrift from Scandal and The Walking Dead. And I'm willing to publicly admit that Game of Thrones got so far away from me that I now rely on my husband to instruct me on dragons and blood feuds, instead of investing the necessary time to get back in.
Once a blessedly mindless, mostly frivolous way to unwind, TV has become a full-time job to keep up with, something that needs to be carefully scheduled to ensure we're engaged with the swiftly moving pop culture conversation it invokes. Spoiler alerts become meaningless when, like me, you're spending your weeknights catching up on shows from the end of the aughts.
According to a recent NPR essay by Linda Holmes, if on Jan. 1, 2016, you decided to binge-watch one 2015 prime-time TV series per day for the rest of the year, you would still be unable to finish them all by Dec. 31. You wouldn't even come close. (Say, for instance, that Jan. 1 was spent watching every episode of Mad Men that aired in 2015, and Jan. 2 was reserved for the second season of True Detective, etc.)
According to research by FX Networks, more than 400 original series will air on North American television before the year is up – and that doesn't count reality shows, game shows, documentaries, sports, news or talk shows. That's how terrifyingly bloated the current TV landscape is, and how consequently fickle and distracted our viewing habits have become.
Because TV is so ubiquitous – and because we're no longer limited to staring at a huge TV set adorning our living room – even the most devoted among us don't make a concerted effort to commit to certain shows. We float in and out of narratives, often ditching them for the next new shiny thing if they're not entirely enthralling us. (When The Good Wife's Will Gardner died last year, I wept and then totally bailed.) Gone is a simpler time, for both viewers and networks, where you just flicked through a handful of channels and sat through whatever the big four networks had on offer.
We're in the realm of peak television – so much so that producers are now even making new versions of new-ish shows (Heroes Reborn and Fear the Walking Dead). Is this endless choice damaging our ability to properly engage with and sustain the medium? Fear-of-missing-out panic aside, is too much TV really a bad thing?
There are obvious economic arguments here, specifically around the incapacity of ratings to prop up so many new efforts. Culling the excess is also a point I've heard applied to the world of books, with status quo literary critics arguing the modern ease of publishing (and self-publishing) has created a bloated mess of terrible tomes that should have never seen the light of day, and that are egregiously stripping revenue from the otherwise deserving.
But there is another more positive, nuanced angle to this onslaught: When the gatekeeping of a given medium is radically removed, we're able to see more perspectives, and inject a much-needed diversity of representation that a more stringent system may not allow. There's still a lot of white-male-establishment-dictated content (True Detective, anyone?) but new digital platforms have, as Holmes rightly points out, made room for diverse, boundary-pushing shows such as Orange Is the New Black and Transparent. There's no doubt television is in a period of immense change, and it's inevitable there will be some growing pains (and egregious cancellations) along the way.
Sure, there will be a lot of disposable dreck if there's nobody "working the door," but what is groundbreaking, progressive and good now has an opportunity to bob to the surface and get rightfully beloved. It's this new, frenzied climate that has brought us the likes of Hannibal, even if it hasn't brought in the viewership to sustain it. Does the show's almost inevitable end mean something so innovative, strange, slick and woman-friendly shouldn't have been made at all? Of course not. It simply means the system of the past has not yet evolved to sustain it.
Looking at the packed fall schedule – the returns of American Horror Story and Doctor Who, the premiere of Blindspot, a new season of Fargo, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, a small-screen version of Minority Report, a new Shonda Rhimes show and the (oh, my God) 11th season of Supernatural, to name just a few – I'm likely going to break out in an anxiety rash trying to figure out where all this viewing time is going to come from. But this spoiled-for-choice situation, even with its downfalls, is what is rightly shifting power structures in terms of who dictates the perspectives we watch and who is represented.
I might still be stressing about finishing those last few Friday Night Lights episodes from 2011, but I'm definitely looking forward to what's to come.