TWTV Commentary: The frustrating, never-ending onslaught of television

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? 

5 Responses to “TWTV Commentary: The frustrating, never-ending onslaught of television”

  1. Noel Kirkpatrick

    I’m going to one-up you here, Cory, as I am often want to do.

    All the examples you outline are American shows. Imagine how I feel as someone how watches both American and Japanese television shows (specifically anime). I have no time to do BOTH programming outputs, both in the historical and the present tense (the latter of which is confounded by the fact that Japanese TV runs new series all year round, with seasons overlapping).

    The new technologies you outline, the ability to stream content on the Web, still exists here as studios in Japan license their content for same-day (or week) simulcast on sites like Hulu, Crunchyroll, and FUNimation. So, in theory, I could watch the latest episode of the terrific Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine on Hulu while I continue to watch Cheers (almost done with season 8!) on Netflix. But “in theory” is the operative phrase there.

    Perhaps the issue is with the technology available to us. We have to actively seek out and organize our watching, where before it was a more passive approach where we’d watch whatever syndicated program was on during a regular time slot. It’s how I saw M*A*S*H, caught up on Buffy before season 6, and used to watch anime. Our agency has become our downfall.

    P.S. Really, dude, you need to watch Frasier.

  2. Rob

    I can definitely feel this — the endless desire for completionism, of being familiar with a canon that’s endlessly expansive. And this is a medium that’s less than a century old — I’m in English, and constantly feel a need to catch up with the previous 3000 years of books, let alone all of the hot new releases that come out each year. Eventually I suspect that one just has to lower their expectations, but it’s not easy with the obsessive currency of TV fandom. After all, if I watch an episode of Mad Men a few days after it aired the TV, all of the online conversation has dried up.

    I expect that, if TV ever becomes a Serious Critical Subject it’ll start breaking up into areas and disciplines, and everyone will be pressed to specialize in one tiny area instead of knowing everything. But that’s not really a better fate either.

    *sigh* First world problems are tough…

  3. breaking_bad (@tvd_luis)

    Totally agree with you. I have so many tv series, films, books, music, comics i want to check that is getting very frustating. I stopped watching films this year for that. I’ve seen maybe two or three films at most to concentrate in tv series.

    Right now i just want to see a few of the “important.” I have to see The Sopranos, X-files, Six Feet Under, The Good Wife, The West Wing, Southland and more, ugh. A few of these ones I only want to see them to participate in debates, otherwise i just wouldn’t watch them no matter how good they’re.

    Past year I’ve only watched a few of the new tv series in fear they would get cancelled or they would be awful. And even then i saw The Secret Circle for 11 episodes which was a totally waste of time and Luck. This year i’m listening more and more to tv critics, so i’m totally going to avoid certain series no matter the hype. It worked for me with Smash, they were totally in love with the pilot and when the first season ended they were all hating the series.

  4. blackholetraveller

    I know how you’re feeling, believe me, I am watching my tv shows daily and always at least a couple of them, but it never ends! I have the show I watch, I have a to-watch-list that gets smaller when I finish stuff, but longer when I put new seasons or even series on it, and then you watch new stuff and then you like it and then you think: Darn, another show with several seasons to put on your list. But so far I’m quite satisfied with what I have achieved, I’ve watched very close to 250 complete seasons of around 100 different shows and most of my top 40 favourite shows there are only like 10 seasons left – that also means I have to find new great shows). I also tried a lot shows that I stoped watching and have no interest in some but with all these new shows coming up it’s kind of frustrating at times. Like for example, this network season that started and is about to take off now with many shows now having started their latest season, and I’ll only watch a couple of new shows until end of 2012. But still there’s so much coming up when 2013 starts, Shameless US, Bunheads rest of season 1, Skins Season 7, Dallas continues, also 4 really interesting midseason shows, The Hour returns, also there’s stuff airing that I’m wating to for to end to watch in days instead of weeks (that’s what I like to do, I’m behind some seasons with some shows, so it works) – and I’m definitely done testing shows that get canceled, I wait what my forum mates say and then I’ll maybe watch.

    Another thing is that I have my difficulties finding good or let’s say decent comedies, so I’ll have to test all the ones that I think sound okay and have to take risks – it paid of with That ’70s Show, Spin City became funny end season 1 and so on, fortunately, most of the my favourite shows are from the 00s and 10s, not so many from the 90s and none below that date, so I “only” have to check like 20 years and mostly American TV, I didn’t dare to really get into UK series (besides Skins, Misfits, Inbetweeners, Life On Mars…) and only watched very, very few Animes, but I wouldn’t even know when to watch them and it would take me time to search for interesting ones anyway.

    It’s not easy, watching tv series kind of daily and one episode after another takes tons of your time, also I stopped watching movies, like tv series better anyway. Then you don’t always have a good package, you watch some good ones but the ones you liked fail you a bit and then you also have to push the not so good ones further because I don’t give up all the shows, yes, new shows of course, but the ones I already watched from the begining and liked over several seasons I finish until they’re dead. Also as mentioned with Spin City, I liked the characters form the beginning almost but the humour took me very long to be funny, so it’s not always the best idea to kick a show’s ass if it isn’t good from the very beginning.

    But in the end it’s also a good thing that you have access to tons of shows in these modern times of ours! Not only do we have the network shows, we have the great cable series and they always come up with exciting ideas when you think that networks are once again boring the crap out of me. And when I have a day when I think to myself that my to-watch-list is about to end or doesn’t contain too many exciting shows anymore, I am looking forward to exploring new shows, it’s never easy starting a new show for me and hope that I like it, but when you reach that point, it’s very exciting.


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