Critic's Notebook

How TV's age of exploration put viewers in control

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
The New TV: @marymacTV on how television became collectible and controllable, portable and permanent

Here are a few things that did not exist in American television 10 years ago:

Binge-watching; recapping; scripted series on networks devoted to old movies, science and history; zombies; streaming services; popular series that end just because the story is done; film-franchise adjacency; shows that begin as miniseries and then continue indefinitely; multiplatform viewing; two concurrent versions of Sherlock Holmes; A-list film directors; television shows devoted to talking about television shows; live tweeting; micro-audiences; immediate remakes of British series; any remakes of European series; European series; subtitles; cord-cutting; horrific violence; series in which the cast stays the same but the story changes; series in which the title stays the same but the story and cast change; really good computer graphics; comedies more dark than funny; amazing international locations; an overabundance of stories characterizing the many ways in which television has changed in the past 10 years.

Here's the most important thing that did not exist in the television universe 10 years ago: ownership.

Technically, the citizens of these United States have always been the proprietors of the airwaves over which television was broadcast, but it didn't feel that way. We watched what the network executives offered us when they offered it. Good television was like good weather, fleet and ephemeral; you enjoyed it while it lasted. Maybe you watched it again in reruns while you were sick or sad or trying to get ahead on the ironing.

Sure, PBS geeks and HBO fans might buy the boxed sets of "Pride and Prejudice" or "The Sopranos," but for most people, television was something you did, not something you possessed.

Now, of course, TV is controllable, portable and permanent.

Many factors catalyzed television's recent efflorescence. HBO set the template for television that was "not television," with scripted dramas and comedies so fine no one could deny their artistic importance. Female stars, unable to find work in film, began what would become a mass talent migration to television; the successful rebranding of AMC spurred other outlets to pursue scripted drama; the rise of geek culture revitalized comic-book franchises, sci-fi, fantasy and even costume drama, while refined digital technology made the special effects required by these stories easier to achieve.

All of which contributed to the single biggest change in television: Like books, movies, music and art, it's now collectible.

Any viewer with a DVR can build her own lineup while anyone with a digital device can create his own television catalog. After it airs, a show no longer fades into the ether or migrates into reruns; it accrues, it accumulates. So much so that many conversations about television now revolve around how much there is and how far behind we are — never mind reading Ian McEwan's latest or catching the current cast of "Wicked," we all need to sit down and get through last season's "Mad Men" or "Orange Is the New Black," finally watch "Enlightened" or all of "The Wire."

"Need to" because now, more than ever, our choices in television define us. Our relationship with television has always been intimate. It comes into our homes, our bedrooms even, and now it stays. Like sports fans and cable news devotees, we are what we watch: Gladiators ("Scandal"), Truebies ("True Blood"), Whovians ("Doctor Who"), Colbert Nation ("The Colbert Report"), gleeks ("Glee"), Cumberbitches ("Sherlock's" Benedict Cumberbatch), or Clone Club ("Orphan Black.")

"When television became archivable, everything changed."

That's what veteran television writer Glen Mazzara said to me a couple of years ago during a conversation about the "new golden age" everyone was talking about with wearisome regularity at the time.

The show runner for "The Walking Dead" at the time, Mazzara had called me to say in the nicest way possible that it would be really great if television critics would stop comparing television to film and novels as if the comparison in itself were some huge compliment. Television was an independent art form, he said, and should be judged on its own terms.

But those terms were changing. Technology had granted the medium both a flexibility and a permanence it had lacked before. The idea that people could now watch a show in its entirety, that they could take entire seasons with them when they traveled and collect their favorites for further viewing, offered television writers a shot at something historically reserved for an anointed few: legacy.

An unexpected turn of events when you consider the dire predictions of less than 10 years ago, when many people assumed that reality would soon control almost every time slot on every network and that the television set itself would vanish, replaced by a forest of laptops and mobile phones. The scripted drama was dead, the sitcom was dead, the family hour was dead. Despairing critics and viewers imagined a world in which the broadcast networks were overrun with singing competitions, "Two and a Half Men" and the increasingly brutalized victims of "NCIS" and "CSI" while the Young People watched webisodically told narratives and YouTube.

Which, of course, they do. But they also watch television, perhaps less than previous generations and certainly on their laptops and mobile devices, but also on their flat screens; they watch it whenever they want to but also in real live-tweeting time (hello, "Pretty Little Liars.")

The mathematics of replacement became simple addition and then exponential multiplication. Scripted dramas and comedies began appearing everywhere in every form; even Bravo, reality central, is getting into the game next month with "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce." Modern platforms such as Netflix and Hulu appeared, while the old became new again: PBS went viral with "Downton Abbey." The miniseries came back, NBC began experimenting with live performance, and Disney Channel turned the defunct "Boy Meets World" into "Girl Meets World," with the original child actors now playing the parents.

Even with the ability to build their own schedules and fast-forward through commercials, viewers can't keep up, at least not en masse. With so much competition every night, few shows can pull the enormous audiences that were once necessary for survival. Instead, the landscape is divided into smaller fiefdoms of fans who, aided by social media, comment on "their" shows with psych-student fervor; people who are not paid to do so now analyze television the way the women of "Sex and the City" analyzed their relationships.

And many shows are worthy of such analysis. Television, once the definition of popular entertainment, has subdivided like the bestsellers lists into literary and mainstream, into genre and targeted demographics.

These smaller audiences demand new revenue models from both the broadcast and cable sides, and once again many executives are in a panic, alarmed by the threat of saturation or a world of dim sum TV, in which viewers choose only what they want.

It's a rare moment in any industry when the creative developments outrun the financial constructs — a headache for those tasked with the bottom line but a joy for those of us who are not. In this moment, television feels more like "ours" than "theirs."

Viewers made a hit out of "Breaking Bad" and "Hatfields & McCoys," out of "The Walking Dead," "Game of Thrones" and "Scandal." We fueled this age of exploration. And if the electronic hearth has become more blazing firmament than home fire, well, the night sky may be vast and ever-changing, but it unites us all the same.

Twitter: @marymacTV

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