It is said that we are currently living in the era of ‘Peak TV’ – as in ‘peak oil’, a concept developed in the 1950’s by industry experts who predicted that the production of petroleum would peak around 1970, after which the world economy would suffer due to lack of cheap energy.
As we all know, the day of peak oil never arrived, partly because the threat of climate change prompted the world to develop renewable resources and use energy more efficiently, and partly because new technologies such as fracking made it possible to keep producing more oil economically.
We may not have reached the age of peak oil, but we are definitely past Peak TV. For me, the age of peak TV began with the airing of HBO’s Sopranos, reached its apex with HBO’s Wire, and ended with the final episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men on AMC.
PBS (Masterpiece) took a stab at boob-tube eternity, but it is not clear if, in the annals of the small screen, Downton Abbey will have lasting power.
What disturbs me about today’s television offerings is not just their mediocre quality but also the fact that so many of them cater to mindless violence. Take HBO’s West World for example. The show has been hailed for its production values. But the story makes no sense. You have a dude ranch where tourists go to experience the American West. The twist is that employees at the ranch are robots who can withstand all kinds of abuse, torture, and killing perpetrated by the visitors. Sick, right? But wait, this is not the worst part. The worst part is that not one guest at the ranch wants to do anything other than commit violence. The robots rebel in the end but instead of spreading the message of peace, they perpetrate more violence.
The much hailed show, Game of Thrones, also suffered from the same problem of gratuitous violence and rape.
Not only are the current television offerings violent, they are also dystopian.Take the acclaimed show Handmaid’s Tale. Based on a Margaret Atwood novel, it depicts the takeover of the United States by a totalitarian theocracy in the wake of an environmental disaster rendering a majority of women infertile.The cinematography, acting, and direction are outstanding. But the trouble lies with the story itself, which is so exaggerated and dark that I could not watch it beyond the first season.
HBO was once the standard bearer of quality television but to watch its ambitious production, Succession, one has to hold one’s nose. At the center of the story is a media mogul modeled on Rupert Murdoch and his brood of conniving children, who, following his illness, jockey to control his empire. Critics have applauded the show for its realistic portrayal of greed and ambition, but the show does not have a single sympathetic character a viewer can root for.
The Deuce on HBO, created by David Simon who also created the Wire, is a realistic, gut-wrenching, and artistic show. But although I revere David Simon, who was once a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, and who modeled the Wire on real news stories, I found the first season of the Deuce so bleak that I had to stop watching it. The show evokes the beginning of the porn industry in the 1970’s when prostitutes and pimps roamed Times Square and New York was as gritty as sin. In the social science context, it may be important to tell the story of porn, which, with the rise of the Internet, has only grown exponentially larger. And no creator can tell this story as authentically as Simon, who has based the show on real life characters and events. But when I watched the episode in which a young woman from a small Midwestern town arrives on the bus dreaming of stardom, only to be ensnared by a pimp who offers her love and devotion, I was torn to pieces. A viewer can bear only so much sadness.
Ozark, a Netflix show about an accountant who inadvertently gets caught up in a money-laundering scheme for a Mexican drug cartel, is gripping. But it is the rule of natural selection on television that subsequent seasons have to ratchet up the violence, to a point where viewers can only flinch. The Sopranos started the television trend of justifying murder for the sake of one’s family and Breaking Bad perpetuated it. But Ozark carries it to such a level that one wonders where it will end.
The problem lies as much with the critics as with the creators. The former are so invested in the idea of peak TV that they praise anything to high heavens. Take the Good Fight on CBS, for example. Critics glorified it so much that I paid to watch it, only to discover that it was nothing but a rehash of the Good Wife, with the same characters, story lines, and gimmicks.
Adding to my disenchantment is the fact that currently there is not a single comedy show on the air with the caliber of Seinfeld or Frasier or Cheers.
Ironically, Better Call Saul, the one quality show currently on television, was delayed for a year and is rumored to end soon.
Critics laud the current competition in the TV marketplace. But notwithstanding economic theory, competition has not produced higher quality television, it has just produced more of it. In fact, competitive pressures on streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO have resulted in new shows being rushed to the screen regardless of quality and then being cancelled with equal alacrity. Also, some offerings which were not cancelled should have been. A case in point is the show Room 104 on HBO and the movie Wine Country starring Amy Poehler on Netflix.
So what’s next? What is the future of television? I suspect the usual mergers and acquisitions will ensue, with the result that, soon, we will be forced to pay more money for lower quality television. And we will nostalgically watch the reruns of Mad Men ad infinitum.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.