Monday 13 May 2013

Devouring TV: The United States of Television- America in Primetime

I definitely don't write about it enough here, but the amount that I love TV is ridiculous. I love really bad TV, but if you can believe it, even more than that, I love really really good TV. And, apparently now, I like really good TV shows about really good TV, and this is getting really meta and I'm getting confused about my own sentences.

Let me start again. British friends! On iPlayer right now, there are 4 1-hour documentaries about American TV from the fifties to now, and they are SPECTACULAR (American friends, you already got these in 2011. But if I'm really convincing about how good they are, you can buy them on DVD.) More or less my entire purpose for writing this post is to MAKE YOU WATCH THEM, because the whole series is on the internet until the 18th May (that's Saturday, guys) and it's kind of the best thing I've ever seen, or at least the best thing about American TV that I've seen.

The documentaries break American TV down into 4 separate themes, or sets of characters- The Man of the House, The Misfits, The Independent Woman and The Crusaders, and then explores how each of these things have developed from the beginning of TV right up to the present (ish- it was originally broadcast in 2011...) day, and the answer in basically all cases is that They Have Changed A Lot and That Is A Very Good Thing. I feel like it's a fairly established viewpoint now that we're living in 'a golden age of television' and for me, Breaking Bad ALONE confirms that. But these documentaries don't take the view that all old TV was terrible and everything new is wonderful, more that previous programmes were groundbreaking at the time, and because of that they've influenced new and wonderful things (like Breaking Bad. How many times can I bring it up? You don't even KNOW.)

 So. I don't really know how to talk about the series, so... I'm just going to talk about each episode and talk about things I liked about them and stuff? Yes. That.

The Man of the House: This episode basically talked about the shifting role of the father in American TV, and how it's evolved from him being this fairly perfect, idealised man who came home at seven on the dot every night to his loving family or wife, to becoming much more complex (this is a common theme...). Possibly the most interesting of the shows featured in this part was Mad Men, in that it's set in the same time as a lot of these idealised sitcoms, but the father figure (i.e. Don Draper) is a highly conflicted figure who seems to be living the American Dream, but is actually always looking for a way out of the family life that he's supposed to want.
Since this episode also featured The Sopranos (ostensibly a family driven show, in both senses of the word) and Breaking Bad, I was obviously hooked RIGHT in. And then, we had

The Misfits: Going from The Addams Family in... whenever that was on, through Twin Peaks and right up to 30 Rock and Glee, this episode looked at the outsider in American TV, and how the role of the outsider has evolved and changed, and that things have shifted so much that now everyone is almost an outsider, which of course means that no one is. I think this was the episode that had the most TV shows I coveted (Taxi, Six Feet Under, Seinfeld, Freaks and Geeks- and now I even want to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm) maybe because it also featured so many TV shows I like- True Blood, Arrested Development (!!), United States of Tara, and MY GOD, Twin Peaks...
I doubt it will come as a shock to anyone at all that I'm a fan of the outsider, but as a character thing, it's really come a long way (baby). But just... Yeah, it was so good. SO. GOOD.

The Independent Woman: There wasn't even a chance I wasn't going to like this episode, but it did make me want to watch a lot more of the older shows featured than any of the others, basically because... The Woman's Movement, man. That was awesome. So basically I now need to watch all of I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but I was also SO interested by the route women have taken through the TV world- from perfect wives and mothers, to women who are still probably wives and mothers, but who have a lot more going on with them too, and even if those things turn out to be self-destructive then, well, why aren't women allowed to do those things, too? (I'm pretty much thinking of Nurse Jackie and Weeds here, just so you know.)

The Crusader: I was actually a little bit disappointed by this one, and I'm not sure if it's because I've seen hardly any of the shows featured (just The Wire and M*A*S*H) or because it genuinely wasn't as good as the others. My main problem with it was that, whilst there was a tiny section about women crusaders, involving Diablo Cody (who I ADORE, by the way) saying 'I guess there aren't as many female crusaders because people assume that these are characters that only men are interested in' in a clearly sceptical-of-this-view way, and then for their female crusader to focus on, they picked Scully from X-Files. Which, don't get me wrong, I'm sure she's an excellent crusader to look at in all her own ways, BUT she does work alongside a man so... You couldn't have looked at Buffy The Vampire Slayer? REALLY? (Basically this is all I'm bitter about. But it just seems like SUCH an important show to miss out!)
Anyway- Bitterness aside, I really did enjoy the The Wire segment of the show, because it gave a really compelling argument as to why I love Omar SO much. I think I understand it better now. I will bring this up again when I finally write about The Wire...

So. Clearly this is the best thing that's been on TV for AGES, and the shows it talks about are basically the best things that have been on TV EVER. It has its limits- each programme was only talked about in one of the documentaries, so things like the female characters in Mad Men weren't discussed in the Independent Women one, and I feel like Breaking Bad could easily have been talked about in ALL the shows, AND I felt like there were a few notable omissions, like Buffy, and also The West Wing, which really didn't fit into any of the themes but WAS kind of an important programme (or maybe that was just for me.) I also wouldn't have minded a 5th programme where people talked about cartoons.

BUT. They were still awesome, especially for someone who watches as much TV as me. Having watched the last one and not totally loved it, I'm not sure how interesting people who haven't seen a LOT of the programmes would find them, but I feel like, if you've seen at least some of the shows, you're going to enjoy it when they talk about those, and you're going to add most of the rest to your 'MUST. WATCH.' list (because I know we all have those. Or is that just me, AGAIN?) So basically you have to watch this, so you can watch everything else, and then we can talk about TV together forevermore.


  1. As one who watches way too much TV, this documentary series sounds excellent. Not like "I'm going to go ahead and just buy it" excellent, but "man I hope they air this on some channel I get so I may watch it" excellent. (This has more to do with me being cheap than the quality of the documentaries.)

    1. No, that's totally a fair amount to be intrigued by this! It was originally on PBS, so... that is the channel you should probably look out for it on. But yeah, it really was SO GOOD. I totally thought that you and also Australian Kayleigh would be allllll over it :)