Here we are, supposedly living in the new Golden Age of Television, and yet we're still whining all over the Internet about what we're watching.
Just look at this past week. People whined about NBC's live "Peter Pan." Some whined because it wasn't that great, while those who were determined to hate-watch it whined because it wasn't that terrible.
Viewers also whined about this week's "Sons of Anarchy" series finale –- did Jax's final act make sense? Did it provide a satisfying catharsis after seven long seasons? Or was it alternately gripping and frustrating, like the rest of the series had been?
People complained about the campus-rape episode on "Newsroom," the one that showrunner Aaron Sorkin called his finest episode yet. Given this week's controversy over the now in-dispute Rolling Stone article about an alleged rape victim at the University of Virginia, Sunday's "Newsroom" couldn't have been timelier, but a lot of viewers thought it endorsed newscast producer Don Keefer's skepticism about reports of campus rape, as if Sorkin were endorsing a blame-the-victim mentality.
Oh, and people also complained about the Discovery Channel's much-hyped "Eaten Alive," since, after having all-but-promised viewers they'd see a man swallowed by a giant snake, the man was not, in fact, eaten alive.
Really, how jaded have we become when we gripe that we didn't get to see TV sink to its most pandering nadir and show us a man being eaten alive by a snake?
Have we become spoiled? Do we expect too much from TV?
All these complaints suggest that, on some level, we actually want TV to pander to us. Whether it's to our desire for vulgar spectacle, our schadenfreude-driven fascination with the failures of others, our fanboy-like eagerness to see characters behave as they would if we were the writers, or our yearning to see our cherished biases and ideological leanings reassuringly confirmed by TV's talking heads, we often just want to be spoon-fed.
Of course, this is the impulse most TV shows count on and cater to. TV is all too often about reassurance, comfort, and familiarity because that's the atmosphere in which sponsors like to place their commercials.
The rise of quality dramas and taboo-breaking comedies – first on premium cable (and not dependent on advertisers), but then on basic cable and broadcast networks – was supposed to change all that. Not only did we get shows that challenged our preconceptions and often made us uncomfortable with the behavior of their anti-heroic protagonists, but we seemed to welcome them, making shows from "The Sopranos" to "The Walking Dead" wildly popular.
And yet, those shows bred their own kind of familiarity. Soon, we expected to see mob whackings on "The Sopranos," or artfully gruesome murders on "Hannibal," or baroque bloodletting on "Game of Thrones," or tongues bitten off on "Sons of Anarchy." (Or the comedy equivalent: cringe-worthy, embarrassingly personal monologues on "Girls," or prison violence on "Orange Is the New Black.") In fact, we became cranky when the shows didn't provide us with those things.
The elements we claim to admire in the new breed of shows are writing and character development. But if that were true, we'd respect the writers for allowing the characters to grow and change in unpredictable ways, as real people do. And we'd recognize that no episode of a show can please all the diverse (and sometimes antagonistic) groups of fans, and certainly not the series finale. We've come to demand series finales that somehow satisfy all constituencies, tie up all loose ends, sum up the experience of watching the series in a representative episode, and justify our years-long investment in watching the series. Few shows, however, can pull this off – "The Sopranos" didn't, and neither did "Lost," "Dexter," "How I Met Your Mother," and now, "Sons of Anarchy" –- and we shouldn't expect them to.
This isn't an argument for a lowering of standards, but rather for a more reasonable set of expectations. We celebrate shows that challenge us, and then we get upset when they actually, you know, challenge us. They may not cater to our hankerings to see characters behave in certain ways or to hear them mouth certain platitudes, but then, we shouldn't expect them to. In the case of "Newsroom," it seems pretty clear that Sorkin could have handled the hot-button topic less clumsily (even among his own staff writers), and yet, it's a mistake to assume that any one character's opinion – especially on a Sorkin show where people argue like humanities majors in a 3 a.m. bull session –- equals an endorsement of a position by the writers or the show overall. Don isn't the most enlightened male (though he's far from a troglodyte), but even if he buys too much into the skepticism shown toward female students who come forward with accounts of rape, he's right to recognize that such accounts are bound to face skepticism. Sorkin isn't saying that such reluctance to believe the accounts of alleged rape victims is warranted, only that it's real, especially among the once-burned, twice-shy reporters at the fictional ACN cable news channel.
Maybe the best TV writers are like the best TV characters –- flawed and human and occasionally (maybe even frequently) capable of breaking our hearts. Or maybe they're like pro athletes, getting paid enormous sums to do what we all think we could do but that very few of us actually can, and occasionally stumbling on the job in front of the whole world. Not even Peyton Manning can throw a touchdown pass in every game, as Denver Broncos fans were disappointed to learn this week.
But then, disappointment is part of being a TV fan. We complain about our favorite shows when they let us down because, most of the time, they don't. But we should recognize that not every failure of a show to conform to our preconceptions is the show's failure. Sometimes the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. And sometimes, we should be relieved that we didn't get to see a snake swallow a guy.
categories Tv News