After many decades of complaining that TV is rotting our brains, and many (many) seasons of sitcoms, adult cartoons, and trashy reality TV, we’ve finally seemed to turn a corner when it comes to our beloved home screens. However you like your TV (live, DVR-ed, streamed, on-the-go), the fact remains that what we’re watching today is significantly different, and I’d argue improved, than what we were watching 10, 5, even 2 years ago.
Of late, many TV series and broadcast dramas that premier on syndicated channels are offering a more selective, dare we say, more intelligent array of content. We’ve heard TV is the new cinema, and if we surveyed the landscape ample examples arise. Mad Men, Newsroom, House of Cards, True Detective… to name a few on specialty channels. Suits, How to Get Away with Murder, White Collar, House – more mainstream but still steps away from the usual couch-friendly sitcoms that flooded prime time slots in the 90s and early 2000s.
Part of this widespread popularity and repeated success seems to be derived from their common theme: a plot line centered around an intelligence-driven skill set. Law & Order, CSI, and others like them were initial attempts at this genre – but held on to a slow, long-form, soap-opera feel that is thankfully missing in popular content today. Let’s look at a team of doctors who diagnose illnesses and identify the not-so-medical cause, lawyers who find brilliant and often less-than ethical solutions in airtight cases, and ex-criminals that piece together forensic clues and decode the cryptic psyche of the fraudulent, to name a few. All these complex skills distilled down into pithy language and quick plot twists that are just-difficult-enough so that you end the show feeling part of an elite, discerning audience, with a nose slightly turned up. Whether you then switch back to Family Guy or Keeping Up with The Kardashians, is irrelevant. In that moment as the credits roll to some wonderfully apt indie tune, you’re reeling in the deliberate and stimulating triumphs of Don Draper, Annalise Keating or Frank Underwood.
Let’s have a round of applause for shows that make you feel intelligent, entertained in a way that requires your participation, and disallows you from sitting there, trance-like, staring into an alternate universe. In reflecting on these strides in TV content, it becomes clear that the mass audience’s interests are evolving; we are shaping ourselves into a more discerning group with standards we want, no demand, to be met. Granted, we’re not there yet, but we’re moving towards a new, intelligent consumer of TV.