By Cory Barker
During last week’s TWTV Book Club, I admitted that I have only seen a handful of episodes of Fraiser. Of course, the rest of the crew lovingly (at least I think) prodded me about that particular hole in my television viewing history. The friendly (seriously, I’m pretty sure everyone is kidding with they play #ShunCoryBarker [We totally are. Totally. -NK]) trolling continued on Twitter as well. Obviously, I didn’t take these ribbings personally because hey, I’m the one who has chosen not to watch Fraiser, right?
Well, maybe. Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about those events and how I want to attack various ideas I have for pieces here at TWTV and the prevailing emotion behind all those thoughts is frustration. Television’s past is vast, and its present just keeps coming. The number of shows I want to watch and write about here, or random ideas I have for this space are honestly too long.
You likely know that I wanted to start this website because I want to dedicate more of my time to older television and general history of the medium. But it’s more than that. I’m consistently compelled, annoyed even, at the shows I haven’t watched, the books I haven’t read and the people I don’t know. These blank spots in my knowledge drive me crazy, they anger me.
The worst part about it? This a completely hopeless venture. I can never, ever catch up. I will never be able to watch all the shows or episodes I want to watch, nor will I be able read all the books I want to read.
Listen, I understand that this is the quite possibly one of the whiniest things ever written on the internet, and that there are people starving, dying, and more out there. I have the privilege and luxury of being able to watch television at all, let alone being able to complain about not getting to watch more of it. It’s stupid.
Nevertheless, I’ve chosen a professional track that is based on me knowing a good amount about television and, at some point, hopefully being able to share that knowledge with students. Even as a barely-professional critic writing about television online, there’s some expectation that I know what I am talking about and that my references or historical notes aren’t just pulled directly from Wikipedia. I feel like that I cannot completely grasp what is happening “now” or what happened “then” without a solid knowledge of both periods and how they relate to one another. With that in mind, I feel like my complaining is more rational (I won’t say more valid, because again, I’m whining about not being able to watch more TV).
But even if I can stop fretting over whether or not I’m just a whiny asshole, I’m not sure where that leaves me—or anyone. I’d imagine that the other TWTV guys feel the same way about certain television shows they’ve missed, just as you probably wish you had just a little more time to watch that one thing. I think most people would say that the current media distribution landscape makes this era a glorious one for those of us who want to catch up or learn about television (or anything else, really). Want to watch Cheers? It’s available on Netflix streaming. Want to check out Miami Vice? It’s on Hulu. Want something not on either platform? Torrent it [But don't really do it. It's illegal. -NK]. Or check YouTube. Obviously, not everything is out there, but SO MANY things are.
Weirdly though, the seemingly never-ending accessibility options make trying to become a better television scholar/critic/viewer even more frustrating. That’s because now I know that if I just found the time, I could catch up on almost any show that I wanted, likely for a small fee at most. Instead of being unable to get something I want, now everything I want is right there, mocking me. I had to get rid of Netflix for an extended period of time because there were so many shows on there I wanted to check out, but couldn’t due to time restraints, and it just pissed me off. Again, I understand how ridiculous this sounds—and yet, I imagine that some of you can relate, at least on some level.
One of the other big positives about today’s television-watching environment, the online community of critics and fans, also stokes our frustrating relationship with television history. There is obviously an expectation to be aware of what’s happening Right Now, something that is important but also takes away from trying to catch up on what happened before. Moreover, there also exists this expectation that to truly understand a show, you have to have seen it all. You can’t fully appreciate The Shield by just watching two seasons, nor can you really hate Smash unless you saw the whole first season.
The easy answer to avoiding these problems is to not be beholden by any sort of critic- or scholar-defined canon and to just sack up and do what I want. If I want to watch a few episodes of Adam-12 and make a judgment, I should be able to. If I don’t want to watch The Sopranos at all, no one is forcing me. I agree with those assertions, in theory. But in practice? I fold. Those cultural or subcultural expectations align perfectly with my own desires to see everything of everything. And even if I decided to avoid the big, tent-pole shows the Important People deem Important and chose to watch shows off the beaten path, I’d still have to watch those shows. The fact that I want watch shows from both categories makes this all the more daunting.
Maybe I’m just insane and maybe you folks can help me. Or maybe you’re just as confused and frustrated as I am. How do you personally manage the shows (or films) you want to watch with the actual time you have in your life? Should we move away from such a rigid expectation of what shows, from either the past or present, matter? Does television history, as a larger concept, even really matter to you or is it just certain shows?