How a Book Can Help You Sort Through the Vast TV Landscape

Suits Sixth Season USA Network
Ian Watson/USA Network

We are on pace to close out 2016 with more than 430 scripted primetime programs across cable, streaming, and broadcast. If you use the rule of thumb that 10% of any artistic endeavor is worthwhile, that means there are at least 40 outstanding TV shows on television.

Fortunately (or perhaps not fortunately, for those with time-management issues), that number is probably on the low side. All year long, I jot down the names of programs worthy of consideration for the multiple end-of-year Best of TV lists I publish annually. Before September even began, this year, that roster had 60 names on it. I’ll need to whittle that number down before those lists come out, but every year, the job gets more difficult.

That’s heartening, and a high-class “problem” to have. But amid all this plenty, it’s hard not to think about what’s getting lost in the shuffle. Most TV critics I know are haunted by a mental list of shows they want to write about but simply don’t have the time to get to.

The fact that the number of people covering TV hasn’t appreciably grown while the amount of TV has skyrocketed is not the biggest problem facing the industry, but it certainly presents an ongoing challenge. Even if a new program’s debut season gets noticed, and even if it receives a reasonable number of positive reviews, good luck getting a huge avalanche of press in Season Two.

It does occasionally happen, but outside a very narrow array buzzworthy programs, second-season coverage of any kind is harder and harder for most shows to procure. By the time a show’s third season rolls around, unless it has a very high media profile or extremely newsworthy stars, the chances of it getting in-depth coverage from a wide array of outlets are very small indeed. The note of mild panic in friendly emails from publicists these days is harder and harder to ignore. I feel their pain, and I wish I could do more for worthy shows that too often fly under the radar, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Case in point: The USA drama “Suits,” which concluded a strong 2016 run on Sept. 14. The majority of the sixth season depicted Mike (Patrick J. Adams) in prison, and that arc was particularly galvanizing for the core characters. Mike’s incarceration managed to activate conflicts and challenges for everyone, inside and outside the prison walls, and it also gave meaty guest arcs to fine actors like Erik Palladino, Neal McDonough, Malcolm Jamal Warner, and Paul Schulze.

The jail stint that arose from the investigation into Mike’s big secret — that despite working at a powerful New York law firm, he was not actually a lawyer — was the cataclysm that the show had long been building toward, and the public revelations about Mike’s fraud brought the firm, Pearson Specter Litt, to its knees. The payoffs to that key storyline may have been a tad overdue, but many of them were worth the wait. “Suits” continues to employ a series of pleasurable standbys — there’s nothing it loves better than showing powerful New Yorkers striding through sleek hallways or being framed against the night-time windows of expensive office suites— but these developments brought new energy and urgency to the show. “Suits” has always been underrated, and its sixth season is one of its best (though I will greatly miss the core cast member that exited at the end of the show’s most recent run). 

But isn’t saying nice things about “Suits” now a case of too little, too late? I haven’t written a word about it in a few years, even though — as was the case with another USA series, “Burn Notice” — I’ve never missed an episode.

Actually, ongoing assessments may be more relevant than ever — at least, that’s what I’d like to hope. We are all adding bits and pieces of information to the mosaic of coverage that clusters around the “long tail” of television. Ideally, many people (critics, feature writers and viewers themselves) who offer a modicum of support over time will help worthy shows gain traction in the popular culture and survive for as long as they should realistically survive (for “Supernatural,” that means forever; for “Penny Dreadful” and “Tyrant,” that meant three seasons).

Some of the most interesting presentations I heard at TCA this past summer revolved around the logic that networks are increasingly using to renew shows. Alan Wurtzel, NBC’s president of research and media development, explained in fascinating detail what went into the renewal of “Superstore,” a worthy show that many people discovered after its first season. As Wurtzel and others pointed out, these days the assessment of a program often revolves around how it performs over weeks, months, and years. As someone who has a lot of love for the overlooked gems of the past and present, the increasing faith put in the long tail is heartening, not to mention an ever more realistic business proposition.

My viewing habits, while a bit skewed toward the new and review-worthy, are not that different from those of most TV fans: I catch up with shows when I can, and I rely on social media and word-of-mouth to find out about cult gems. I feel guilty that it can take me a while to write about shows like “Suits,” but perhaps this little boost will add to the array of voices that will, over time, prompt a viewer to check it out.

Among the positive developments accompanying this flood of TV is the growing conviction that more executives view a larger number of low-profile, steady performers as long-term assets deserving of consideration and patience, even if they don’t have the buzz of USA’s “Mr. Robot” or Starz’s “Outlander.” A decade ago, “Survivor’s Remorse” probably would not have survived long, given the low profile of its first season. But thanks to the patience of Starz, it’s made it to season three, becoming ever more addictive along the way. (Yes, you should watch it).

This confluence of factors make “TV (The Book)” a useful endeavor. In the new tome, critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz pick the top 100 programs of all time. There have been books like this before, but not lately, and few have ever been written with the kind of care, stylistic panache, depth and energy that both authors bring to the book. Full disclosure: Both are friends, but I knew and admired their work well before I ever met either man. And we still vocally disagree sometimes, which is a state of affairs we actually enjoy, because for many small-screen obsessives, to love TV is to enjoy passionately arguing about it ad infinitum.

Of course, I would have come up with a different list, but part of the fun of surfing through these kinds of rosters is that you can take issue with certain choices, even as you celebrate the endeavor as a whole. But there are two main takeaways from “TV” — well, two that I can cite without going way over my word count.

First, the two “Star Trek” series to make it into Sepinwall and Seitz’s Top 100 roster are the original series and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” which is the correct assessment. (Don’t worry, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” still gets a very kind writeup elsewhere in the book).

Second, there’s no doubt that this book is more useful than ever. These days, we don’t have to rummage around in boxes of dusty VHS tapes or order expensive boxed sets to enjoy shows we love, or to sample programs we’ve heard good things about. Of the shows cited in “TV (The Book),” dozens are available right now on various streaming platforms. If folks are feeling inundated by the array of options, this book will help them make smart picks. 

Along those lines, some critics don’t like metacritic.com, but I think it’s a handy resource for the flummoxed TV aficionado. It contains links to reviews of shows coming out now, plus reasonably well-organized TV reviews going back years. It’s not infallible, but the numbers on the site may be able to help folks begin sorting the wheat from the chaff.

The thing is, if viewers feel inundated by the array of options before them, there are now more ways than ever to find out that — beyond the obvious choices — everything from current shows like “Suits” and “Rectify” to past gems like “Spartacus” and “Better Off Ted” are well worth their time.