A report on the current state of the television medium

Is TV really getting better? With bigger budgets, better technology and HBO's successful branding of good television, one-hour drama seems to be the preeminent form of storytelling across all forms. With these barriers out of the way, TV dramas can finally reap the reward of their one major advantage over all other media: time.

July 24 th 2009

Is TV really getting better?

In more than a few places, I've come across the idea that television has gotten increasingly better in quality over the past few years. Maybe this is true, but I always become wary of ideas that require us to believe in a generically unintelligent past, or conversely, a "good ole days," or that kids "these days" are nothing but insensate violence- and sex-crazed pawns of some corporate hive mind. As if every newscast, every video game or award winning show is herald to a massive seismic shift in the human biological makeup. "We are becoming more violent!" "We are cleverer than ever before!" "No one has ever lived as we live now."

Hmm. Well. I guess so. I think, much as we'd like to believe it, we have not suddenly become wittier than those comedies our grandparents laugh at. In the same manner, we aren't any more depraved. I don't care that you've seen pornography online. It doesn't prove anything new.

As for the idea of television being better that ever, I am fairly certain it's going around, though you may call me out if I'm the only hearing about it. Aside from party conversations, blogs, tweets and various other dubious sources I could cite, I will present the book Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson as an example. From what I understand, the author claims that while we may consider reality television the very nadir of the cultural drain, the plots are considerably more complex than early TV shows like "I Love Lucy." (Quick aside: just noticed "nadir" and "drain" are anagrams. Hmmm.)

The point is that it takes brainpower to figure out which real Orange County housewife is currently disrespecting the other, and for what reason, and to what everlasting social consequence. And brainpower, no one would disagree, is a good thing.

The other case for TV getting better is that more and more high-profile content creators are leaving film opportunities to pursue TV. For example, Diablo Cody won the Academy Award for writing "Juno" and then went straight into "The United States of Tara" for Showtime. Glenn Close has been nominated for five Academy Awards and she's in "Damages". You could find lots more examples, but these two are plenty for caliber.

But is television really getting better? I think the accurate answer is the less-than-exhilarating "yes and no." First the "No." Let's take the sitcom. In the 1980s, the top rated sitcoms were "Three's Company" and "M*A*S*H." By 1990, the highest rated were "Cheers" and "Roseanne," and ten years after that we had "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." Of course, these days, we're riding high with "Two and a Half Men." The game gets subjective here, but I wouldn't bet on "Two And a Half Men" out of this list. My guess is that most people would go for "Friends," "Cheers," and maybe "M*A*S*H." But no matter what your preference, there certainly isn't a clear and undeniable upward trajectory.

The most likely possibility is that the trajectory of mass-market TV sitcoms is a straight line. They haven't gotten much better since John Ritter lucked out in the roommate department, and God rest him, they haven't gotten much worse. Would you take "The Office" or "The Cosby Show"? Who cares? They're both great. The fact that I could probably name more great recent sitcoms is moot, since there are more recent shows, period—more in production, anyhow. But with more of everything, the chances of you turning on your television and catching a decent program are about the same as before.

This is a moment when anyone listening would feel compelled to throw out "Arrested Development" with a mournful shake of the head. But for every brilliant series like "Arrested Development," I can name a half dozen like "King of Queens." Also, try and guess which one of those two was cancelled and which is in syndication. And more to the point, there have always been great TV shows unjustly cut short. "Sports Night" was cancelled nearly a decade ago, and barring the laugh track, it still holds up (so does "The Tick," by the way, and "Titus," the hick comedy before "My Name is Earl.")

The fact is television sitcoms of varying degrees of awesome get cancelled all the time. So do really bad ones. It's been this way forever, it seems. Maybe we can be contented that we are not in a heyday of situational comedy by the knowledge that there has also never been a Golden Age of Television, of any kind. The only exception here is "Weeds," with Mary-Louise Parker, which gets my vote for best half-hour you can spend in front of the television without a game console.

Going back to Diablo Cody and Glenn Close, the better argument may be that television dramas have become better. After all, who wouldn't prefer "Friday Night Lights," "Sons of Anarchy," "Mad Men" and "Firefly" (all outrageously beautiful, mind you) to "Dallas" or whatever else. This is the "Yes" portion of the answer: television has, in fact, gotten much better.

With bigger budgets, better technology and HBO's successful branding of good television, one-hour drama seems to be the preeminent form of storytelling across all forms. With these barriers out of the way, TV dramas can finally reap the reward of their one major advantage over all other media: time.

The reason Ian McShane's character in "Deadwood," Al Swearengen, is possibly the best character on film or television is that we spend 36 hours with him by the time the story is finished. That's more time than some people spend with their dads, much less Travis Bickle. I've already spent 28 hours watching the mute inevitable wreck of Don Draper's marriage in "Mad Men," and another 50 admiring Eric and Tami Taylor's in "Friday Night Lights." By that scale, a measly 90 minutes seems almost an insulting amount of time to get to know the characters in feature films. Andy Dufresne, I hardly knew ye. Maybe the theaters are better kept for Pixar and action spectacles.

So there you have it. Parts of television have gotten better over the years (one-hour drama). Parts have gotten worse (news). And parts have stayed the same (half-hour comedy). Sort of the "it's all a balance, take it case-by-case, a little from column A, a little from column B" approach that never seems to satisfy, but always seems to pertain. Maybe all the blogs and articles heralding the new age of television only serve to prove one thing: self-mythologizing is only getting better and better. We've never loved and hated ourselves as we do these days.

Topics: Arts Culture

Daniel Nayeri is a writer and freelance editor in New York City. He wrote and produced The Cult of Sincerity, the first feature film to be YouTube. He is currently working on a screenplay, as well as the next book in his Young Adult series. He loves pastry chefing and Street Fighter 2, hates the word "foodie," and is an award-winning stuntman.