Over the last couple of days, it began to strike me just how much good television there is out there. Too much, really, for me to follow all that I would like. There are a dozen channels putting out original scripted content in the United States (plus BBC), including all of the various cable services. While there is a lot of crap, to be sure, most of the networks have multiple shows I am interested in, and that's not even getting into programs that have finished their run. It's too much.
In a lot of ways, we are living in a golden age of television. While the age of shows that are watched by everyone in America is over ('Seinfeld' and 'Friends' were probably the last of that breed), the rise of cable has compensated many times over. Cable shows have a number of competitive advantages over their network brethren, not the least of which is expanded potential content. Even the basic cable channels can have more mature and sophisticated material then the broadcast networks, to say nothing of the premium channels. A show that twenty years ago seemed edgy (like 'Miami Vice') now seems quaint compared to 'True Blood' or 'Dexter'.
The rise of what I'll call quality tv began in the late 90s, when HBO (previously a network that ran sports, especially boxing, and movies) decided to try a radical new idea: original, serialized content. So was born two smash hits, 'The Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City'. Their success created the industry that we see today.
Of course, all of this choice means just that for anyone who isn't a professional critic. We have to choose. There is just not enough time to watch all of it. Even a series that lasts only two or three seasons will have several dozen hours of content.
I write this now because currently, for the first time in a while, I am not in the middle of a drama season. So now is the ideal time to map out my gameplan for the future, which involves making some tough cuts. So here goes:
First, there are two completed drama series that I intend to finish. I have one more season of 'Deadwood' and five of 'The Sopranos', but both shows are good enough to be well worth my time. I liked the first season of 'Big Love', and I'll probably pursue that one again at some point. 'Doctor Who' is safe for a while, and I'll probably watch 'Spartacus' again whenever it reappears. I'll also continue to watch a few of the quality shorter comedies that I'm already invested in. So '30 Rock', 'South Park', 'Modern Family', and 'Futurama' are in.
I'm making a few cuts to shows I've already started, however. I'm done with 'Friday Night Lights' as of the end of season three, and 'Scrubs' after season 8. Both are great shows, but I also think they've completed the story they set out to tell. I also think it's time for me to let go of the U.S. 'Office' (although I'll probably watch the last episode or two of Michael Scott's tenure) and 'Dexter', both of which were brilliant for a while but have started to get stale. I watched the whole first season of 'The Tudors' but didn't think it was particularly good, so that's out.
More broadly, I think I'm done with broadcast serialized shows in general. Other than 'The West Wing' and 'FNL', there haven't been any I was interested in all decade (not counting 'Firefly', which only lasted 13 episodes). I'll still watch those guilty pleasure police procedurals from time to time (especially 'SVU', which is simply delightful) and probably add a comedy now and then.
Cable is where the hardest cuts are. I'd love to watch almost all of these shows, but there just isn't enough time in the day. Unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to jettison all of FX's material. I've heard great things about several of their show past and present, especially 'The Shield' and 'Sons of Anarchy'. But I've never watched one of their shows before, which makes it relatively easy to ignore them. Similarly, I think I'll probably be forced to avoid Bravo, USA, and TNT.
For the premium cable, Starz is probably out. They're new and haven't had a particularly acclaimed series yet. Honestly, even 'Spartacus' wasn't that good, I just got hooked because they streamed on Netflix. I'm also done with Showtime, at least for a while. I was disappointed by both 'The Tudors' and 'United States of Tara', am tired of 'Dexter', and none of their other programming looks very interesting.
So what am I going to watch? Well, HBO has proven time and time again that they are the best in the business. I mentioned above 'Deadwood', 'The Sopranos', and 'Big Love', all of which I'm committed to continuing. I'll also get around to 'Treme' at some point. It's by David Simon, how could I not? I haven't decided yet about 'Oz' or 'Six Feet Under', both of which intrigue me but also have substantial material to get through. The pilot of 'Boardwalk Empire' was very good and the series looks promising, so I'll watch that when I can. And, of course, 'A Game of Thrones' is less then six months away now...
Finally, AMC attracts me for a few reason. They have two extremely acclaimed shows currently going ('Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad'), another ('Rubicon') that looks good, several promising shows in the pipeline, and no real back catalog to get through. 'Breaking Bad' will probably be the next series I start, and 'Men' is not far off.
Why am I grouping my decision by network and not show? Well, mostly because it's easier. A network with which I am not familiar is easier to ignore, and I have developed a sort of brand loyalty towards HBO in particular. I just trust their products. Also, it's been my experience that (especially with cable) there tend to be some similarities, thematic and stylistic, between shows on a particular network. It probably has something to do with the executives and producers who work for the company, and make decisions about what to make and how. So it's not quite as much of a dumb and arbitrary shortcut as it seems at first.
So that's the state of my television viewing, for what it's worth. We'll see if I follow through.