We’re a little over a month into 2018, and the show that’s given me more pleasure than almost any other so far this year premiered in 1994, and last aired a new episode almost a decade ago.
When Hulu abruptly announced last month that it had bagged one of the great white whales of the streaming era by adding all 331 episodes of ER, I skipped around just long enough to come up with a list of 10 essential episodes newbies could sample to understand why the show was such a big deal back in the day. I planned for that to be the end of it, what with my having seen virtually the entire series (and every episode from its first decade), me being way behind on the 500-plus scripted shows airing each year, etc. Instead, a funny thing happened on the way back to Peak TV: I kept watching ER. And watching. And watching.
At first, I intended to follow my own advice, watch the 10 from that list, and get back to 2018. But when I finished the devastating two-parter where Carter and Lucy get attacked, I wanted to see what happened next, not just with that story, but with all the other subplots featured in those episodes. Didn’t matter that I knew what happened, even if the subject of, say, Mark’s father having a fling with Elizabeth’s mother hadn’t taken a high position of priority in my memory; the storytelling was so engaging and so fluid that it felt disappointing that I couldn’t keep going. After bouncing around the middle seasons for a bit, I finally decided to just loop back to the beginning, and I’m currently midway through season two. (Right before I began writing this paragraph, Benton and Carter met Dr. Vucelich for the first time.)
This is on top of the fact that I spent a good chunk of 2017 rewatching The Sopranos in its entirety, that I slid from a Parks and Recreation rewatch with my daughter straight into One Day at a Time season one with her, and that my wife and I often stream a Frasier episode or two these days after we get the kids to sleep.
At the top of my current list of job priorities is to serve as your machete, clearing a path through the overgrown jungle of Peak TV to help people figure out which of those 500-plus shows are worth the bother, and which will just fill them with angst that they’re wasting time on them when there are so many better options. Every time I think I’m close to cutting my way through to the other side, Netflix will announce the surprise release of 12 new shows, or HBO will send me full season screener links to their next prestige drama, and it begins to feel like I’ll never see daylight again. So there are when I’ve had one old show or another on, and I can’t help feeling guilty that this time isn’t being spent on something more current.
But you know what? To hell with that.
I can defend some of this to myself as simple matters of circumstance. We’re in the middle, for instance, of an unusually fallow period for TV at the moment, where thanks to both the Winter Olympics and the new trend of saving the big Emmy contenders to debut in March or April (so their seasons will end as close as possible to when the Academy sends out its ballots), a lot of the best current series won’t be back for another few months. There have been a handful of exciting debuts (Counterpart on Starz, The End of the F***ing World on Netflix) and strong turns from veteran series (The Good Place), but there’s not an overwhelming volume of urgent series the way I expect from late February on into the summer.
Sopranos was research for a book, Frasier is a truce between two happily married people with wildly different taste in TV, and Parks and One Day are me sharing great entertainment with my daughter now that she’s old enough for it. (Eventually, I’ll have to go back through both for a third time with my son.) And ER is often not so much a show I’m watching as a show I have on in the background as comforting white noise, particularly when I have my own version of Dr. Carter’s scut work to get done. Have to download photos? ER. Need to format a story into our publishing system? ER. Answering reader emails? ER. It’s more useful than doing the same with a new show, even one I don’t care about much: because I’ve seen these episodes and know what’s happening, I don’t really have to pay attention through some of the limper subplots (Mark trying to save his marriage, or Chloe and baby Susie) and can just look up when the good stuff comes.
And that’s the thing with all of these shows that keeps me from feeling particularly guilty: there is a lot of good stuff.
Yes, I used the upcoming book as an excuse to rewatch The Sopranos, but the hour or two I dedicated each day to catching up with Tony, Paulie Walnuts, and the crew were inevitably the viewing highlight of that day. Even before this week’s sad news about John Mahoney, those early Frasier episodes were potent reminders of what a perfect comic ensemble that show had. I derive nearly as much pleasure from seeing my daughter experience Leslie Knope’s superhuman energy and the glorious cartoonishness of Rita Moreno’s One Day performance as I did when I discovered them myself. And where ER is primarily background music, every time one of the nurses crashes through the doors from one trauma room to the other, or Dr. Benton barks for a peritoneal lavage, I feel a little rush of adrenaline that, for a few wonderful moments, reminds me of what it was like to watch this stuff when I was in my 20s.
Television has given me a career, but it also gives all of us entertainment. And if the thing that’s entertaining us is something we’ve seen before, what’s wrong with that? Nobody apologizes if they listen to the same album many times rather than trying to experience all of contemporary music. Nobody needs an excuse if they stumble on Shawshank, or Rudy, or The Martian on cable and keep watching until the end, even though they can recite all the dialogue by heart. Nobody looks at you funny if you mention that you recently took a favorite book off the shelf to read it again.
Rerun guilt didn’t really exist until very recently. For most of TV’s history, both the economics of the business and the behavior of viewers were built on the concept of syndicated repeats. It’s really only been in this strange programming glut — which could be a bubble, or could be our new normal, because the numbers Just. Keep. Rising. — that I’ve heard regular people who do not watch TV for a living express regret over all the shows they’re not current on, or who describe catching a Friends repeat on TBS in the same ashamed tone someone on a diet uses when they admit they ate a sleeve of Pringles when nobody was looking.
Trying to keep up with everything, whether you’re a critic or just a TV fan, is a noble but impossible cause. I’ve also been using this relative downtime to catch up on some shows on my To-Do list (look for pieces on one or two of those over the next couple of weeks), but even if new television ceased to be made for a year, I wouldn’t be able to fully catch up. It’s just too much. The best we can do is to pick and choose what seems interesting, and to accept that sometimes what’s most interesting — or what’s most emotionally nourishing at this particular dark and angry moment in time — is to go back and rewatch something that offered pleasure in the past. (There’s also more cost certainty: I know what I’m about to spend an hour watching will be good, because I’ve already seen it.)
If a show is genuinely great — and I’m still being a snob with most of these old favorites — then there’s always going to be something new to notice each time through. With Frasier, it’s been fun seeing the show evolve, figuring out which parts to eventually downplay (Daphne’s psychic abilities) and which to devote more time to (the Crane brothers out on the town together), or how serious the material can become. (When I got to the eighth episode, “Beloved Infidel,” where Frasier and Niles suspect Martin cheated on their mother, I thought, “Oh, that’s the show right there. They just found it.”) With Sopranos, I have a whole new set of theories about a lot of things, and have gained newfound appreciation for both things I didn’t like back in the day (much of season four) and things I did (“Long Term Parking” really holds up). I’m seeing certain ER characters like Kerry Weaver with much more nuance the second time through, where back in the day my response was simply, “Why won’t she stop being so mean to Susan and Doug?”
It’s also fascinating to view older shows through the lens of the TV universe they helped create. We like to put Cranston and Hamm and others on an anti-hero performance continuum with James Gandolfini, for instance, but with all due respect to those guys and many others, it was clear rewatching him as Tony Soprano that there’s Gandolfini and then there’s everyone else. ER now seems much slower than it did back in the ’90s, if only because other shows like The Shield and Grey’s Anatomy have taken its rapid-fire pace and somehow pushed it to even faster speeds, yet there’s also a fundamental level of craft that many modern dramas don’t bother with. (It’s recency bias talking, but I’ve spent a lot of this background binge wondering if Matt and I were too hard on it in our TV (The Book) rankings.) Whenever I use the phrase “Peak TV,” some people mistakenly believe it’s meant to suggest that this is a time when the best shows ever are making new episodes, when it’s always been intended as a descriptor of quantity more than quality — or, rather, to note that while some other eras (say, the 2000s) may have had more perfect overall shows, no era has had a larger collection of shows ranging from very good to great. Watching ER‘s “Exodus,” or Parks and Rec‘s “Flu Season,” or Frasier‘s “Look Before You Leap,” can be potent reminders that the current depth of the quality TV ecosystem doesn’t always match the best that shallower days could produce.
I can’t wait to see new seasons of The Americans and Handmaid’s Tale, and Brockmire, to be dazzled by some new show I didn’t see coming. (I spent one day this week just watching screeners of an upcoming rookie with a huge smile on my face.) But this is a wonderful era for television not just because of the abundance of good to great new shows, but the fact that we have such easy access to most of the best shows ever made. If I want to see Sam Malone slide a beer mug around the corner of the bar, or McNulty and The Bunk drop F-bombs as they study a crime scene, or Lindsay Weir having a bad reaction to marijuana, I can do that just as easily as I can cue up a new episode of Atlanta. It’s all out there. And sometimes going back can be just as thrilling as going forward, if not more.