As the Variety TV team gathered to discuss the 2012-13 television season, the conversation became as much about how we watch as what we watch. Here’s what Cynthia Littleton, Brian Lowry, AJ Marechal, Brian Steinberg and Jon Weisman had to say in their reflections:
Weisman: For me, 2012-13 was the season where I truly despaired over how there was much more good television than I had time to keep up with. Episodes of shows that I was genuinely interested in kept piling up on my DVR. I think that’s indicative of the contradictory pressure facing TV today in this crowded market: Great shows generally need time to develop, but they also need to hook viewers instantly and demand that they watch. Still, it can happen — Sundance’s Rectify is quite slow-paced but has had me glued from the outset, and BBC America’s Orphan Black also broke through for me late in the season.
Lowry: It’s certainly true good shows are coming from a wider variety of sources now. What I’ve also been struck by through the upfronts is just how relentless the flow is. There was a time not that long ago when you could catch a breath and absorb new pilots after the May sweeps. Now, you have to wade into those while keeping up with dozens of new (or returning) things that are worthy of attention premiering during the summer.
Littleton: As is often the case, I agree with Lowry. I’ve had many situations this year where the DVR was pulled in too many directions to record all that everyone in the house wanted. I’m in big trouble if my husband misses Storage Wars or Chopped because I’m recording a new series. Pleasant surprises for me this year included The Americans, which grew on me over time, and Veep, which I’m finding much better in season two. I’d expected to really like Family Tree but no such luck.
Steinberg: There’s more of a sense of “if I can’t watch this now, I’ll catch up with it later” at an unspecified time via VOD, Netflix or whatever. Even so, there were some shows I just didn’t want to watch days later — especially TNT’s Southland, which broke any rule I can think of about how a show ought to behave when it’s on the bubble. The penultimate episode in which two cops are kidnapped by meth-heads and undergo horrific things was, simply put, jaw dropping.
Marechal: When people ask me, “So what are you watching these days?” I realize I have created a “binge-watching” category that I include in all conversations. There’s always a series that I am slowly getting through, on top of my normal linear TV viewing. Sure, I watch Catfish, Girls, Homeland and The Bachelorette, but I’m also binge-watching the entire series of The Wire “on the side,” as I say. There’s no real urgency, but it’s something I’m doing nonetheless over time. Once I finish The Wire, I’ll pick out a new series to watch from beginning to end. Binge-watching isn’t an isolated incident or behavior anymore — it’s now consistent, and becoming engrained in how I consume content. Plus, with so many new shows cropping up on Netflix and other digital platforms, the options are beginning to feel endless.
Steinberg: I have to confess, I remain skeptical about the whole binge-watching trend. Yes, it’s definitely happening, and Netflix would love for us to believe it’s a national phenomenon. But I have to ask how many people in these post-recession days have the time and the coin to pony up for subscription services that make the binge a reality? I don’t doubt it’s an emerging behavior, but I’m not sure it will ever be a mass one, no matter how many new seasons of Arrested Development or projects like House of Cards come to the fore.
Marechal: Actually, in terms of expenses, I find that twentysomethings of my generation — post-grads, especially — turn to binge-watching as a cheap weekend form of entertainment. Instead of coughing up money to go out or see movies, those without cable will watch seasons upon seasons of TV on Netflix on their Saturday nights. Of course, one thing that many of us in major metropolitan areas forget about is that high-speed Internet isn’t the way of all of the country — plenty of people don’t have the technological capabilities to stream television the way those living in big cities can. I guess it’s a wait-and-see game when it comes to binge-watching, as it is with mostly everything in TV these days!
Weisman: Money is an issue, but for many of us, time is an even bigger one. Like I said at the start, it’s just hard to keep up with what’s right in front of you, let alone seeking out things to binge upon.
Littleton: It’s hard to keep up with everything, and yet if you don’t, there’s so much online/office chatter about the shows that they lose some of their sizzle when you finally get around to watching. I knew I was hooked on Americans when I made a point of catching up with it every week, unlike other shows (sorry Justified, House of Cards). Your priorities are telling. Southland would have me up till 1 a.m. on Wednesdays just because I couldn’t wait — it was so incredibly good this past season.
Lowry: I still see a fairly wide disparity, qualitatively speaking, between comedy and drama. The dramatic menu right now is so diverse and plentiful it almost depends on your particular tastes and even mood. For comedy, the number of really laudable selections is much shorter, although that might be true in part because some of the more acclaimed half-hours (and Girls comes to mind) can’t neatly be qualified as “comedy,” per se.
Weisman: Agreed, Brian. I think the current crunch — so much content, so little time — explains the potential for a resurgence in half-hour comedy or even dramedy, because for those who are completists, you can knock off an entire series in a shorter timeframe. That being said, in my mind drama is still the dominant art form in TV. I have my favorite comedies — The Big Bang Theory, Louie, Parks and Recreation and so on, but I don’t feel like I’m missing any great comedies. Whereas with drama, I feel like I’m running out of time.
Marechal: Bouncing off that, over the past year we saw the further decline of the broadcast comedy — frosh ones just couldn’t seem to stick very well — and the surge in the docu-sitcom, with Duck Dynasty pulling insane ratings over on A&E and Honey Boo Boo becoming a phenomenon on TLC. Auds used to turn to ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox for their laughs, but with YouTube and brandable reality stars bringing strong comedy samples these days, the tides are definitely turning.
Lowry: To me, though, that reality-sitcom model exists in part because of the networks’ financial concerns, but also because comedy hasn’t creatively kept pace with drama. And while it’s harder for sitcoms to be quite as daring or provocative conceptually, there’s still a lot to be said simply for great execution — and its ability to attract an audience. The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family prove that.
Marechal: It also was the year of broadcast trying to mimic the cable grit … and conservative advertisers not digging it much at all. With The Following and Hannibal, the question really became: just how far can they push it when it comes to gore and disturbing content on broadcast? Kevin Reilly has openly admitted that he feels his net (Fox) has to put programming out there that can compete with the likes of The Walking Dead.
Lowry: I don’t think the problem is being edgy so much as pushing too hard to try to be edgy. Walking Dead is a good example: There were episodes without a lot of gore, but the threat’s always there. And with something like Game of Thrones, the sex and violence is organic. It’s when it feels forced or lazy (see The Following) where it becomes objectionable.
Littleton: Boardwalk Empire pushed the line a few times this past season for me — I’ve seen all that I ever care to see of Bobby Cannavale, thank you — but Game of Thrones lost me early on.
Weisman: Boardwalk has become something of an underrated show in my mind, along with the perennially underrated (at least as far as Emmy series nominations) Justified. Those, plus Breaking Bad and Mad Men always keep me riveted. Downton Abbey took some heat this year, but I still thought the show had a strong season overall, as did the overlooked Call the Midwife. Homeland is going to have a heck of a time defending its 2012 Emmy. But it seems appropriate to end the conversation here without mentioning all the shows I could, because that’s the way the year was in TV: more quality than you could ever properly give attention to.