“So, what do you do for a living?”
It’s a question you get on first dates, during lunch breaks, at the doctor’s office. I heard it earlier this week, while waiting in line for a drink. “I create #content” was too sarcastic of an answer, so I went with, “I write about television.” The response, especially lately, usually goes one of two ways: “Tell me a show I should be watching” (my current answer is You’re the Worst or BoJack Horseman, because I love making people laugh, then depressing the hell out of them), or, “I’ve been watching Game of Thrones, and…” It’s never “I’m watching The Big Bang Theory, and…” (I’d probably walk away), or “I’m watching House of Cards, and…” It’s almost always Game of Thrones, because Game of Thrones is the only show everyone watches.
Okay, that’s not literally true — “The Door” was “only” seen by 7.89 million people, although that’s the highest non-premiere or –finale episode in the show’s history — but it sure seems like it. Look at the way the Hodor reveal took over Twitter, and Facebook, and the whole internet. It even permeated into scary real life. I got the “What do you do for a living?” question from a bartender, who after I gave my answer, went down the “show I should be watching” route. I replied, and, completely unprompted, he asked me, “Do you watch Game of Thrones?” I do. “I don’t, not since season one. I don’t have the time. But I heard something big happened last night.” We then spent the next five minutes talking about a series he hadn’t seen in five years. (Don’t worry, there was no one waiting for a drink behind me.) There is no other show on right now that dominates small talk like Game of Thrones.
Back in the 1990s, this wasn’t the case. Friends, Seinfeld, E.R. — these were the water cooler shows, the ones that Gary from marketing and Linda from shipping and receiving, and a staggering 25 million other people, would come into the office the next day quoting. (It was even more dramatic in the 1970s. All in the Family averaged 34 million viewers in 1971-72 — there were only 207 million people living in the U.S.) Eventually, these conversations moved online, with some exceptions. Lost was a dream come true for your cubicle mate, and a nightmare for you, who had to listen to her insane theories. Breaking Bad was a critical darling that turned into a national sensation. Mad Men and The Sopranos inspired cocktail parties and raucous Italian dinners, thrown by people who misinterpreted Mad Men and The Sopranos. But all those shows are now gone, as is the idea of a “water cooler show.”
Here’s Boardwalk Empire‘s Terence Winter, speaking to the New York Times:
It always blows my mind when you think of the water cooler moments of our childhood, where everybody knows the same reference, say, in All In the Family or I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. Literally, you can count on every adult of that era understanding what, “Pow, right in the kisser,” means. Now, because of the niche quality viewing, you’ve got, at least on cable shows, a much smaller amount of people who don’t have that. It’s going to be interesting to see 40 years from now if there’s going to be little groups of people who know references to certain shows; whereas before, everyone knew the same songs, the same jokes, the same routines.
The one exception: Game of Thrones. It commands next-day conversations, it gives people who otherwise have nothing in common something to dissect, and it’s just about the only show most people watch the night it airs (largely for fear of spoilers). That’s an impressive feat, considering DVRs, streaming services, and DVDs and Blu-rays have effectively destroyed the communal experience of watching “live” TV. I don’t worry about having 10 episodes of New Girl on my DVR, because I know people have 12 episodes on theirs. Time slots barely matter anymore. This is not a bad thing. Do you want to go back to a time when you had to leave a party early to catch an all-new Friends? But it’s still nice that one “must get home” show exists.
Why Game of Thrones, though, and not, say, The Walking Dead? AMC’s zombie series is the biggest thing on television. It surely has to count. Well, yes and no. It’s extremely popular, but, based on conversations I’ve had with friends and strangers alike, it seems like a lot of people, including Alan Sepinwall, have quit The Walking Dead. And that was before the Negan cliffhanger. It’s too slow, it’s too boring, nothing ever happens. These are all common complaints, most of which I disagree with. But the reason The Walking Dead doesn’t count as a small talk show is because there’s really nothing to talk about. The fun of watching Game of Thrones is guessing where the show is going, wondering who’s going to end up on the Iron Throne, or debating whether the writers “should have done that.” (Okay, the extracurricular controversies aren’t exactly “fun,” but they do provide fodder for think pieces and podcast arguments.) It’s tougher to come up with Walking Dead theories, outside of, “I think [blank] was killed by Negan. Here’s why.” The whole point of the series is that there is no point — the characters aren’t looking for a cure; they’re just going to keep killing walkers until AMC says no more.
As for other potential small talk shows:
–House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Daredevil, while occasionally thrilling, are all on Netflix, meaning you can watch them at your pace. It could take months. Which reminds me, I need to finish Daredevil season two…
–Mr. Robot, The Americans, Rectify, and Fargo are four of the best shows on television. They’re also only watched by the small number of people who regularly tweet about how they’re four of the best shows on television.
–Better Call Saul is set in the same universe as Breaking Bad, but it doesn’t have the same sense of urgency. Plus, the tone’s more comedic, and unlike Walter White, who fans were torn on whether he should live or die in the finale, we know Saul Goodman, er, Jimmy McGill makes it.
–True Detective was a “small talk” show in season one. It was a disaster in season two. (Homeland also lost a lot of its cache since season one.)
–Fear the Walking Dead? Yeah, no.
Game of Thrones is really the only show that fits every criteria — it’s like No One/Arya’s list, when (not if, but when) she kills Cersei, Gregor, and Walder Frey. Is it popular? Check. Do viewers watch it live? Check. Do people have loud opinions about it? Check. Does it beg for theories? Check. Is there outside text for fans to annoyingly say, “Well, in the books…”? Check. Is it immediately quotable, so that the guy who still occasionally breaks out a “my wife” can update his material with “I drink, and I know things”? Check.
We’re more engaged with television than ever, but that engagement takes place on social media, or in comment sections, not in real life. There’s simply too much TV (#TooMuchTV) for everyone to keep up with everything worth keeping up on. But for 10 weeks of the year, on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. EST, millions of TVs and laptops are tuned to HBO or HBO Go. Game of Thrones is a show obsessed with death, but it’s keeping TV small talk alive.