I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Last week, I said I quit watching Battlestar Galactica, and some of you got all up in my face like we were back on the block in Fargo, playin’ the dozens. Probably I should have been more clear: I didn’t stop watching just because I thought the plot was fakey. Indolence played a large part, too. See, I have mad respect for anyone who sticks by a TV show these days, especially a science-fiction show, the same way I have mad respect for people who work in factories, or for bookbinders. ’Cause these days, television is a lot of work.When I was a boy, you could start watching a TV show at any time. I mean, you wanted to see an individual episode from the beginning, but as long as you managed that, you could expect to understand what was going on, whether the episode in question was the series premiere or the fifth installment of season four. Two-parters happened, but they were usually reserved for Special Events, like a season finale. Shows that required a lot of backstory were called soap operas. This is no longer so much the case, especially with science-fiction programming. It didn’t even occur to me just to wait around and catch an episode of BSG as it was broadcast in real time. I knew I had to get the DVDs, and it’s probably a good thing I did. I’m sure I’d have puzzled things out eventually, but it would have been awhile before I figured out who, say, Tom Zarek was or why President Roslin was seeing snakes on the lectern. (And yes, I would like someone to make a movie called Snakes on a Lectern, although I would not actually see it.) Same thing with Lost, Heroes, Sarah Connor, the ill-fated Bionic Woman reboot, and even Smallville. The phenomenon extends well beyond the SF realm, too—I could name The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under, and that would be just the tip of the iceberg. It obtains in the case of less serious fare, like The Office and Arrested Development, as well, but at least those shows are only half an hour long. You can watch a whole episode on your subway commute (or your morning drive, if you enjoy endangering the lives of yourself and everyone around you—and I know some of you do). None of this is to say that I think the abundance of ongoing stories on television is a bad thing, just to note that it’s new. Most of us can remember when TV, like comic books, was considered mindless trash. Books, and perhaps films—these were the diversions of thinking folk. Now comics and TV are considered art forms in their own right, and as with books and films, their most respected works tend to be long-form and written with the expectation that you will get into them at the beginning.
Make no mistake, this is not coincidence. Part of the reason comics and TV have matured is simply because they’ve, well, matured—the people who enjoyed them in their earliest incarnations grew up and created their own, more sophisticated works. But another part of it is that comics, with the graphic novel format, and later TV, first in the form of series DVDs and then thanks to DVR, became more like books and movies: packaged for convenient mass consumption in a linear format. You just couldn’t do a show like the new BSG twenty years ago. Except for a handful of people like my mom, who taped every single episode of Magnum, P.I., watchers had no way of easily finding out what had happened in a previous season without having seen it themselves. You could have some elements of an ongoing arc, of course, but that narrative was never the driving force. And since that changed, TV has turned into work. Not actual drudgery, but presumably for some people an activity on par with reading Proust, or watching Birth of a Nation (or at least reading John Irving or watching The Seventh Seal). My old roommates frantically raced through the first five seasons of The Sopranos to finish before the sixth began. And then they did it again with Lost and The Wire. I’m sure they had fun, but they also had to keep a tight schedule, to cut out social obligations, and to press on when they were tired and wanted to stop. Sounds like a job, no? Me, I don’t have time for it. I gotta save myself for the office, or I’d never have the energy to leave blog comments all day. Commenter Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found at scribblescribblescribble.com/blog. Top image courtesy Susan Thye/chocolatesuze.com