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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    My TV problem – and yours

    I thought I liked television. I watched it constantly as a kid, and followed a handful of shows fairly loyally as a teenager. I rolled my eyes when I heard lectures about how we all watched too much TV.

    Then I started to feel like the rest of the world did watch a little too much TV. Worse, we were taking it way too seriously.

    It started back in 1999, when “”The Sopranos”” debuted. There had been critically acclaimed shows before, but I can’t think of any that elicited quite the insane level of praise. Some people compared the hit HBO series to “”The Godfather,”” and other people thought it was even better than “”The Godfather.”” David Remnick called it “”the richest achievement in the history of television”” — no small praise coming from the editor of The New Yorker. It eventually racked up more Emmys than any cable show in history. Polls called it the greatest show ever.

    Somehow, the more encomiums for the series I ran across, the more irritated I felt. Couldn’t I just watch the damned show, without feeling like I had to take notes? Could anything really be that good? And even if it were that good, did everyone have to constantly remind us that it was?

    Here’s what Geoffrey O’Brien had to say in 2007, writing for the New York Review of Books: “”The mere sight of (Tony Soprano) padding yet again in white bathrobe toward the refrigerator evoked a disheveled Wotan worthy of a show whose capacity to extend and savor its transitions could seem Wagnerian.”” Oh, really?

    The ensuing decade brought an avalanche of shows that you just had to see. “”Arrested Development.”” “”The Wire.”” “”Mad Men.”” “”Deadwood.”” All of them discussed in the hushed, awestruck tones people usually reserve for Picasso exhibits — or, at the very least, really expensive food. (It didn’t hurt that most of them were on cable channels most of us don’t get.)

    “”Lost,”” the ABC series about a band of castaways on a desert island, has probably sparked more academic discussion than “”Robinson Crusoe.”” International academic conferences assembled to discuss the subtle narrative effects of “”Buffy the Vampire Slayer.””

    Most discussed of all, perhaps, has been “”24,”” a popular Fox thriller that basically stretches the familiar “”ticking time bomb”” scenario across season after season after season. When Americans came face to face with their own government’s capacity for sadism and torture, the series provided a useful reference point.

    I’ll never forget the bizarre spectacle, during a 2008 debate, of one Republican candidate after another sternly telling us that, when it came to terrorism, they’d do what Jack Bauer — Kiefer Sutherland’s ruthless agent on “”24″” — would do. The fact that the elaborate, far-fetched scenarios on “”24″” seemed highly unlikely ever to happen even in a post-9/11 world could have been raised — but it wasn’t. Everyone just took it for granted that a TV series had something important to tell us about the way we should conduct our anti-terrorism policy. In a way, that was scarier than anything on “”24.””

    It’s not that television shows can’t be legitimate art or social commentary. Judged as art, the first six or seven seasons of “”The Simpsons”” probably rank with any handful of Philip Roth novels. For that matter, “”30 Rock”” is sharper and funnier than any new novel I’ve read in years.

    The problem is that talking about these shows this way just makes them seem like no fun. I’m sure it’s a masterwork of some sort, but I’ve never been able to watch “”The Sopranos”” without feeling the way some English majors must feel when they try to crack open a book for pleasure.

    Nothing against the critically-acclaimed shows that most of us can’t afford to see, and nothing against anyone who likes them. But I need a break from hearing about how great they are.

    — Justyn Dillingham is the arts editor of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at

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