When I walk up the stairs to the third floor of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, I fall into a Mad Men lover’s paradise. I am instantly teleported into a world of mid-day cocktails, gravity-defying hair, and suburban housewife disillusionment. This stimulation is enough to send me into a fan coma: Don Draper’s mid-century modern office, Joan’s signature pen necklace, and Megan’s groovy thigh-baring frocks! Not only do the original props, costumes, and sets tickle my fancy, but I also pour over the dozens of scripts, character beats, interviews, and miscellaneous notes on display that offer a window into the mind of show runner Matthew Weiner, who curated the exhibit in anticipation of the second half of Mad Men’s final season. The national hysteria over shows like Mad Men, with it’s tightly-wound plotting, technical finesse, and complex characterization, makes it easy to forget that until recently, television was dismissed as the poor man’s cinema—a wasteland for works deemed too trashy for the silver screen.
While this obsession was once reserved for movie franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and James Bond, high-quality television series have since seized audiences’ attention. It’s not about whether you’re hooked on TV, but which show you’re hooked on right now.
We are living in an era critics refer to as the “Golden Age of Television,” which came about with the 1999 premiere of The Sopranos, inspiring a slew of anti-hero driven series, including Breaking Bad, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Dexter, True Blood, and of course, Mad Men.
“The ambition and achievement of these shows went beyond the simple notion of ‘television getting good,’” Brett Martin wrote in Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution. “The open-ended, twelve-or thirteen-episode serialized drama was maturing into its own, distinct art form. What’s more, it had become the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth, and Mailer had been to the 1960s.”
The unparalleled writing, acting, and cinematography of these shows gave new credibility to a medium defined by both the insipid feel-good comedy of domestic sitcoms (The Brady Bunch, Everybody Loves Raymond) and the brain-cell-dissolving, stereotype-inducing junk that is reality television (Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives, etc.) It’s no longer just the ABCs, CBSs, and NBCs of the cable-verse that are dominating viewing habits. With Mad Men, AMC, once a destination for classic movies, has established itself as the leading network for premium dramas like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and its spinoff Better Call Saul. This trend, like most of the modern era, is going digital. Netflix’s success with its original programming (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black) brought its number of subscribers up to 54.5 million from 2013 to 2014, a 31.5 percent jump, according to Kitara Media. The company continues to capitalize on its success with an original children’s series, All Hail King Julien, and Tina Fey’s comedy, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Amazon is joining the ranks, following the critical acclaim for its new show, Transparent. The show received the Golden Globe award for best new TV series, musical or comedy, recruiting Woody Allen to write and direct an original series.
Now, the label, “TV addict” doesn’t associate you with the Cat Ladies of yore, eyes glued to The Bachelor as you dig into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and down a bottle of white wine. Rather, being an active television watcher indicates cultural savvy and intellect—someone up-to-date with the zeitgeist.
Today’s media obsession is undoubtedly a product of the times. For a generation coming into adulthood with the unparalleled resources and expediency offered in the digital age, it seems only fitting that we control our own television experiences, setting our own schedules to watch the shows we enjoy. For millennial viewers, the binge lifestyle feeds our need for instant gratification at our utmost convenience. With viewers now able to remember plotlines that may get lost in someone’s week-to-week attention span, there is a sense of growing with the characters, being brought along on their tumultuous journeys and unable to get off the ride. For anti-hero driven television like Breaking Bad, this works especially well, as tantalizing moral corruption becomes too intimate to reject.
But because of this shift to cinematic TV, is there something lost in the great American tradition of television-viewing? Like all technological advancements, the convenience of the Netflix model means the sacrifice of the communal experience of TV—that warm fuzzy feeling you get when huddled around a television set with your family, bickering over the latest love triangle of your favorite drama. While film has tended to resonate more long-term with Rotten Tomatoes contributors and film majors than with audiences after they leave the theatres, TV has always been a favorite topic of dinner table discussion. The anticipation until next week was sometimes too much to bear, but good company helped keep us satisfied. After watching the latest episode, that interim period between episodes is a time to dissect the last episode with a community of fellow fans.
With message boards, think pieces, and countless TV recaps, that community is not hard to find. While once national obsessions coincided with mass appeal—140 million people watched the miniseries Roots and 35 million tuned into Twin Peaks— today’s cultural touchstones are more fragmented, yet are designated a disproportionate amount of relevance by the digital media. While HBO’s Girls drew fewer than 1 million viewers in its first season, The New York Times has published over 300 articles mentioning Lena Dunham since the show was released, from think pieces on Girls’ perpetuation of white privilege to the Fashion & Style section’s profiles of Dunham’s veganite Bushwick set, according to the American Prospect. TV commentary is better than ever, easily accessible for the hungriest fans to devour. But why waste time reading recaps that you could be spending on watching the next episode in your queue? The average fan is too busy glued to his or her laptop screen to bother adding two cents to the blogosphere.
While television entertainment was once an opportunity to kick back and tune out, we now treat shows as marathons, demanding endurance and intense focus. Just as we seek the most efficient route from point A to point B in nearly all aspects of life, we race through the most buzzed-about shows to achieve the “most relevant” title.
Each season of House of Cards, which takes about a year to fully produce and involved over 320 people per episode in the third season, only takes a weekend to finish for the determined viewer. In fact, 670,000 people, or a whole two percent of Netflix subscribers, watched the second season of House of Cards in the first weekend it was released, according to a report by Procera Networks. It seems as though the pressure to check the latest show off the list overshadows the cinematic quality of these shows—that the subtleties of a great script, tinged with Shakespearian character arcs and symbolism, fly over the heads of mindless bingers in their quests to keep up with the latest and greatest. There is no time to pause, let alone rewind and ruminate.
As I look around at the Mad Men exhibit, seeing parents with their children marveling at Pete Campbell’s tennis outfits and the original packaging of Bugles, I feel I have traveled back in time—when fans came together to watch, discuss, and anticipate shows, back before mass media became an individual experience.