Once upon a time, watching television was for Philistines. The uncultured masses would tune in to watch the latest sitcom every night, blissfully ignorant, while the intellectuals would sit in their ivory towers reading books, or at the very least saving their money for a subscription to a network like HBO or Showtime, where all the "artsy" television supposedly dwelled.
That's how the joke goes, anyway. These days, though, a few shows have me questioning the old adage that television is just for dummies and couch potatoes.
"Breaking Bad" is the most obvious - and currently talked about - example. The phrase "best show on television" has been bandied about in its direction quite a bit lately, and for once, I can't say I disagree.
The series finale takes place tomorrow night, much to the mixed emotions of many.
The story of Walter White has fiercely captivated fans for five years due mainly, I think, to its superb character development and innovative storytelling. It's sad to see one of the most excellent shows on television reach its conclusion, but it's also refreshing to watch a well-planned show get tied up neatly (or, more likely, with a bang), rather than see yet another show milk a once devout audience's loyalty until all love is lost.
That's not a general statement - I'll now refer to exhibit B, Showtime's "Dexter." The serial killer antihero drama culminated on Sunday night with a mess of plot holes, nonsensical choices, and a broad feeling of dreary resignation.
Ironically, even Dexter looked exhausted and disgusted by the end of it all. It was sad to see a show limp along on creative fumes for three seasons, but even sadder that the flashbacks in the finale only served to remind us, ever so briefly, of how good the show was at one time. There are hushed talks of a spin-off show in the works, and all I can say is: no, Showtime. Take a step back.
But I think that "Dexter," while at one time innovative in its own right, will become more of a cautionary tale to show runners and writers than anything else.
Yes, the "Dexter" series finale had plenty of viewers, almost all of whom immediately took to the internet to loudly complain. The show's producers even agreed to an interview in which they attempted to explain their choices to fans.
"Dexter" seems to already be fading from public memory as something of a dinosaur, the product of over inflated egos and even more excessive salaries. Meanwhile, "Breaking Bad," despite airing on the less prestigious AMC, will set the bar for years to come.
Because the truth is that there are too many good shows out there right now to rely on fan loyalty alone. Fans will hate-watch your show and then take to their blogs to further tear it down, point by point, and they'll be referencing English lit and Greek mythology while they do it. Television is getting smarter, fans are getting sharper, and we're all demanding more from our entertainment. I, for one, am all for it.
Because heaven knows I did not pay an extra 20 bucks a month to watch the once deliciously devious Dexter become a gosh darn lumberjack.
I'm of the generation who remember FCC Chairman Newton Minnow's May 9, 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he labeled TV "a vast wasteland." That was never entirely true. When Newton made that remark, American TV news reporting was on the verge of a golden age of its own, for instance.
Notably, a half century ago next month, Walter Cronkite made his tearful announcement that JFK had been murdered in Dallas. In the following days, television brought the Kennedy funeral into all of our homes.
Then came LBJ and the escalation in Vietnam. A strong argument can be made that the antiwar movement of the late sixties and early seventies was directly related to television bringing the war into American living rooms every evening.
The power and potential of TV news was intelligently and wittily explored in "The Newsroom," the HBO series that finished its second season about a week ago. Jeff Daniels, who plays the anchor, won an Emmy the other night for best actor in a drama. He deserved it. His portrayal is poignant and powerful.
If you haven't seen the very first scene of the very first episode of the series' first season, get your butt and your browser over to YouTube and give a gander.
In that scene, responding to a student's query as to why America is the greatest nation in the world, Daniels' character explains why America isn't. We are number one in only three things anymore, he contends: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita; number of people who believe in angels; percentage of GNP spent on our military. Powerful stuff, penned by Aaron Sorkin of "West Wing" fame.
If TV ever was a vast wasteland - and don't try telling that to the late, great Edward R. Murrow, who took on Senator Joe McCarthy when the rest of America was quaking in its boots - Claire is correct that it is a mecca of top-flight entertainment today.