If Great TV Is Everywhere, Why Do We Talk About It Less?

It doesn’t take much for one to get lost in the illusion of a Miami winter, its promises, its hopes. In mid-January, I fled bone-frigid New York, spending a handful of days on South Beach, willfully prey to its neon revelry. Miami is similar to NYC in its lust for lavish, intemperate promotion. Among the most raucous advertisements I came across during my trip—which included an aerial banner touting “Migos Tonight” at nightclub LIV—were the ones for the TV show American Crime Story, the Ryan Murphy-produced, FX anthology miniseries that seized the nation’s attention with its first season, 2016’s The People vs. OJ Simpson.

Its just-debuted new season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, centers on the rise and industry-rattling death of the Italian-born fashion maven who spent much of his adult life in Miami, before his murder there in 1997. Analogous to The People vs. OJ Simpson, which garnered unanimous praise for the depth of its character nuance and thematic layering, the Versace cast is rich with veteran and rookie talent; there’s Penelope Cruz as the heartbroken and hell-bent Donatella, Darren Criss as boyish killer Andrew Cunanan, and Edgar Ramirez as the venerated, genius designer.

But recreating a TV sensation is not an exact science, especially in the face of drastically shifting media consumption. Two years ago, American Crime Story premiered with polarizing force and sustained momentum through its 10-episode run, but even that precedent couldn’t guarantee Versace’s cultural dominance. Despite its overindulgent promotion in Miami and elsewhere, the season’s first episode brought in less than half of People vs. OJ’s 2016 debut. More than ratings, though, it’s the noticeable absence of conversation around the show that stands in starkest contrast to its predecessor. Though only three episodes into the season, Versace has failed to captivate and stun the viewing public in ways that once characterized the TV watching experience.

The reason is a striking example of what happens when what’s old must be made new: TV has cracked. A symmetry of consumption has given way to a minefield of choice. In the past decade the medium experienced a wolfish expansion. The universalization of streaming platforms brought with it an overabundance of content. The response was near berserk: major networks and cable channels infused respective programming, stuffing screens fat with competing shows, some of top-tier quality—but many more, as critcs have pointed out, that were merely good. The Era of Prestige TV evolved into the Era of Too-Much TV.

TV has cracked. A symmetry of consumption has given way to a minefield of choice.

Naturally, this cultural thickening helped to feed the pulse of social media, accelerating our appetites for everything pop culture. (Twitter fattened as a result, ample proof of how we yearned for issues to discuss and argue over.) Anything we talked about, everything we talked about, felt explosive and urgent—until the next explosive, urgent thing happened.

Our current landscape has undergone an irreversible remaking: content-delivery services and social media have capsized not just how we watch TV, but how we talk about it, too. In an era overflowing with shock and misery and moments of optimism that tug at one’s heart, how we collectively process TV itself can often feel momentless.

Consider The Deuce, HBO’s sleek porn-and-disco-era period piece about sex work and power disruption in 1970s New York City. It’s likely one of the best shows of the last decade. Yet, when it debuted last fall, there was little chatter about David Simon’s latest dramatic feat. It arrived and ended with a whisper. The organizing logic of modern TV consumption simply doesn’t allow for cultural sustenance. That’s not to say there was no critical engagement around The Deuce, or shows of its caliber—ABC’s recently-cancelled American Crime (no relation to American Crime Story) suffered an equivalent fate during its incisive three-season run—only that the genre’s inflation has made it easier to overlook what’s directly in front of you, and sometimes not even hear about a show at all. The noise can be deafening.

On the opposite end is a show like This Is Us, the wildly popular NBC family drama that became the rare pop phenomenon (it averages around 9 million viewers per episode, a triumph in a ratings-starved climate). Online, talk of This Is Us carries with it the semblance of Olympian significance—without fail, I’m told, its import is immediate and special. This occurs each week, one after the other, again and again. It’s not that This Is Us isn’t especially relevant; it’s just that, according to friends or co-workers or online associates, so is Legion and Better Things and Alias Grace and American Vandal and Insecure and Riverdale and Big Little Lies and The Good Place. We believe everything is immediate and special, which means nothing is immediate and special.

When everything carries with it an air of singularity, it can be hard to discern what is of real substance and what is hollow bluster. We’re either talking about so many things we completely miss one, or we’re talking about so many things at once, nothing feels special since we’ve deemed everything special. If everything feels like a moment, worthy of dissection on your favorite website or across your timeline, then its true impact is lost.

TV’s crack hasn’t just been foisted on us—it’s a direct consequence of our own demonstrated wants. One Pew study found that internet TV consumption habits were on the rise among young adults (18-29), and that a majority of them (61%) customarily watch TV via streaming services. The Consumer Technology Association also found that people don’t watch live TV as much as they used to (20% of US households are cable free). People aged 18-34 spend a greater portion (55%) of their video-watching time consuming content after it’s aired on TV, according to the study.

The catch: In exchange for personal convenience, TV providers are beginning to ask for single-brand loyalty. Disney’s internet-distributed streaming service launches next year. With Facebook’s Watch platform, the social behemoth is determined to make TV a centerpiece of its universe. Amazon, Hulu, and Apple TV are expanding their original-programming efforts. Netflix will spend $8 billion on content in 2018, a number that dwarfs most cable networks. We are moving toward a future of Experience Centers—the feed is available to you at all times, the options endless and constant.

How TV is delivered to us is being remade, so how we understand it must be too. For now, it’s a complicated solace. A glut of streaming providers equals a glut of content equals heightened disconnect. Fortunately, TV’s crack has also allowed for more ambitious and true representation. We’re moving in a direction where soon there will be a vision every person can identify with on TV. Perhaps The Deuce didn’t feel as impactful as it should’ve because we’re processing (or not processing) too many things at once, stuck in a perpetual overload of pop culture.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it wasn’t that it lacked punch, maybe there was no need to collectively champion or salivate over The Deuce because we simply don’t need to anymore. It could be that TV’s in the best state it’s ever been. There’s something for everybody—bona fide character depictions, empathetic storylines, relatable themes. The moments have become so normalized that they too have become unrecognizable.


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