All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live. As the finale, here’s a discussion between Uproxx TV editor Brian Grubb and Uproxx cultural critic Steven Hyden.
Brian: According to the research department at FX, there were 409 scripted television shows in 2015. This figure represents a significant jump from the 2014 total (376), and a really significant jump from the 2009 total (211). It’s a development that is both great and exciting (more new shows on more new outlets from more new creators) and, at times, totally overwhelming (“Aaahhhh slow down, I still haven’t finished Orange Is the New Black, I don’t have time for new shows”). Whether you call it “Peak TV” or “Too Much TV,” the reality is that there is, well, a lot of TV right now.
So, let’s talk about it and see if we can’t make a little sense of it all, or at least get in some good jokes. I’m wide open. Where do you want to start?
Steven: Hey, Brian. Let’s talk about Imaginary Mary. Have you heard about this show? It’s the one where Jenna Elfman interacts with a CGI dirty hand towel. It looks incredible.
Sorry, I’m already off-topic. To me, the core issue with Peak TV isn’t necessarily the abundance of TV, because when you have more TV, you are bound to end up with more good TV. However, I’m not sure how much great TV there is right now. There are several, perhaps even dozens, of really good shows right now. At the moment, I’m watching Halt & Catch Fire, Atlanta, Narcos, Vice Principals, Better Things, Mr. Robot, and the recently concluded The Night Of. But are any of them great? I don’t think so.
Lately, I’ve been re-watching The Sopranos, and while that show isn’t perfect —apologies to all you Massive Genius fans out there — it seems so much richer and original than many of present-day prestige shows. For one thing, The Sopranos exists before “Prestige TV” became codified with a certain set of conventions that we can all probably recognize without thinking about it. The Sopranos, in part, helped to establish those conventions — single camera, no studio audience, depressed protagonist, “down” plotlines. But The Sopranos also existed in a less crowded TV universe. It had space to stretch out and be different, because the middle was more clearly defined and provided a distinct standard to react against.
Now, the TV landscape is so vast and packed with content that it’s difficult to find the center. Which means that no show, save maybe Game of Thrones, feels all that culturally significant. Even the good shows feel sort of mundane and inessential. Stranger Things demonstrated this summer that a TV show can still organically capture the public’s imagination, but memes don’t equal artistic importance. Stranger Things is a lot of fun, but it feels ephemeral.
Here’s my question: Is this just a matter of perception? Is it possible that the sheer abundance of good shows has made “good” seem “okay” or even “mediocre”? Has TV gotten worse or is the TV audience (people like you and me) just getting bored?