Category Archives: Week 2

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Streaming Pam Beesly

Dear Television,

It is the strangest thing to have a long-term fictional love interest. It’s a type of relationship that is very intimate, and very powerful, but it’s fictional. I mean, there is a part of me that is Pam, and a part of him that is Jim, and that part of me is in love with that part of him.

— Jenna Fischer (Pam) on John Krasinski (Jim)

I’VE BEEN WAITING for this for a while. Of course, I love watching new episodes of Girls and cracking the spine on a fresh Word document to talk about last night’s bottle episode or money shot or video art installation. But, especially recently, what I really want to talk about is old TV. Annie, your argument about Netflix as the new canon is so right. And Netflix doesn’t just re-shift the Golden Age canon retroactively — in terms of de-throning HBO — it also influences what I watch on live TV. (The costliness and difficulty of catching up on FX’s Justified, for instance, means that I simply don’t watch Justified.) But Lili, it’s your point about re-watching that has my brain-strings all atwitter. I am no stranger to waking up at 6 AM realizing that Parks and Recreation has been auto-playing on my laptop for four hours as I lay dreaming. But as interested as I am in the dynamics of narrative comfort, in how Netflix puts us to sleep, as you put it, I’m even more interested in how Netflix keeps us awake.

Streaming may have artificially limited the canon, it may have provided an apparatus that fully realizes TV’s potential as background music, but it’s also made more astute, attentive viewers of a larger swath of the viewing audience. To dip back into the My-Students-These-Days data pool, I’ve found that while my students may not yet know what auteur theory is, while I may need to walk them through how editing works and what deep focus is, they have learned a kind of aesthetic intelligence about film and television that’s evolved out of their own viewing practices.  Despite their lack of technical vocabulary, many of them can immediately tell the difference between a Michelle MacLaren episode of Breaking Bad and a Rian Johnson one. They are aware of texture, in other words, the results of aesthetic decisions if not necessarily the mechanics of those decisions, and they are aware of it because their shows exist in infinitely watchable, infinitely re-watchable, infinitely controllable time. This, as much as the palliative or escapist quality, is one that is changing viewership. Viewers are becoming more attuned—because they are now in control of the archive—to the small ways through which shows are built.

This is, of course, not new either. Rerun culture has a long and storied history, cult films like The Big Lebowski and Rocky Horror Picture Show have generated intense fan bases, and the amazingly revelatory sociological/ethnographic work of Francesca Coppa on the history of “vidding” and video remix culture shows that, as long as VHS has been available, communities of fans have been watching their favorite series close enough to transform them into living, breathing, interactive things. But streaming now enables even casual viewers to behave like obsessed fans. It mainstreams, to some extent, the kind of compulsive, detail-oriented mode of spectatorship we have historically associated with the cult or, heaven forbid, the nerd. Streaming removes the material obstacles to this kind of fandom — the tape decks, the splicing, the dubbing — and lets us watch with the eye of a vidder. It makes Trekkies of us all.

For me, this is less remarkable for the way it allows us to engage with streamable series like Lost or Breaking Bad — series loaded with easter eggs and guns on mantles that were built anticipating and soliciting this kind of fannish attention to detail — than the way it allows us to engage with series that are not built like magic boxes. Combing through the Netflix archive, it quickly becomes apparent that there are shows that thrive in the streaming world, and those that don’t. Lili writes, “The pleasure lives partly in the repetition and partly in watching things we know are coming be skillfully worked out — in watching the universe the show creates survive the minute scrutiny a fan loves to give it.”  And as is often the case, series that may have had somewhat tortured lives on television have emerged as standard-bearers of this new mode of watching.

Friday Night Lights is perhaps the best example of this. Like QB1 Matt Saracen, FNL held on long enough to achieve some initial attention, get cut, get re-instated, switch positions (networks), and then go out with a glorious, if bittersweet, ending. FNL was never what NBC wanted it to be. It was too sad, too quiet, not footbally enough, not sexy enough, too good for this world. But it always had a small legion of fans, and now that the series is on Netflix, its audience builds by conversion like the early church. It feels like it’s always belonged online. FNL — like Freaks and Geeks or Parenthood — is an observational realist show about the practice of living, and that’s an aspect of the show that’s only easily accessible if it gets the kind of intimate, prolonged, attention streaming allows. We re-watch Friday Night Lights because of the texture it offers, the depth of field, the intense desire to see these deeply drawn, inarticulate people find a way to express themselves.

So the patience and ritual and intimacy of Netflix gives FNL a chance to succeed. But this close attention also rewards and transfigures a genre that’s been largely overlooked in all the recent press about the Golden Age: the single-camera sitcom. Freed from the stagey artifice of the multi-cam yukfest, the single-cams took off in the early century, popularizing a mockumentary, comic realist aesthetic, but, with a few exceptions, failing to achieve the kind of vulgar ratings success of their multi-cam, laugh-track cousins. The characteristics that define these shows — heavy serialization, familiar direct address to the viewer, lived-in spaces, mundane detail, painstakingly composed mise-en-scene, almost aggressive sincerity — made them popular but always somewhat awkwardly fitted to network TV. They demanded an intimacy from the audience that the audience was not always willing to give. But on Netflix, these shows — Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, even Louie and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to different extents — gain an almost sublime depth. Like FNL, these shows feel almost impossible now outside of the context of their streaming.

My personal addiction is The Office. I’ve watched the series beginning to end, in and out of chronological order, more times than I can count. It’s a series that survived on TV by anchoring itself to Steve Carrell’s star performance and John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer’s years-long will-they-won’t-they. These were the flashy heart and the broad arc of the series, but it’s only really in streaming that the textures of these performances become available.   Like any relationship, the viewer’s bond with the show is not necessarily based in broad arcs or large questions. Often, we find ourselves most tied to small, off-hand details, elements of mise-en-scene or observed quirks over and above grand gestures and A-plot points. The small flirtations and missed conversations between Jim and Pam through the second and third seasons far outweigh the emotional weight of even great event episodes like “Niagara” or “The Delivery.” And grace notes strewn throughout provide alternate ways to explore and imagine the series. (Try watching the first three seasons as a narrative about Pam and Dwight — trust me.) The thrill, for a show as invested in naturalism and the aesthetic of documentary realism, is not in riding along with a will-they-or-won’t-they arc, but in the feeling of knowing a character.

And knowing a character this way is a function of knowing that character over time. In her 2008 interview with Terry Gross, Jenna Fischer, who played Pam Halpert nee Beesley for nine seasons on The Office, revealed to whom the characters on the show are talking when they talk to the camera.  According to Fischer, when an actor enters into one of The Office’s “talking head” scenes — a convention adopted from the original British series and known in Reality TV documentary aesthetics as “The Confessional” — that actor is not simply reading lines. Instead, every talking head is a conversation, sometimes scripted, sometimes improvised, between the actor and the director of the particular episode. When an actor cries in a talking head, as Fischer has done on multiple occasions throughout the show’s run, it is often a reaction to similar emotion from one of the show’s corps of directors. When an actor seems caught off guard, it is because they often are. When the actor gives the impression of speaking to an old, trusted friend, it is because they, more often than not, are.

It’s not just that streaming and re-watching allows us to achieve a greater intimacy with series that we watch. It’s that streaming and re-watching help us realize that there’s an intimacy built into many of these contemporary series that only partially survives from week to week. The Office ended its run this year by focusing — in a meta-narrative twist — on the profound effect that seeing the full run of “The Office” (the PBS documentary that is the diegetic reason for the show itself) has on Jim and Pam and the whole cast. It’s a fitting end to the series, inasmuch as it recognizes the difference between checking in on the exploits of Dunder Mifflin week-to-week and seeing those exploits as part of a longer, larger fabric of time. It recognizes and validates how the series now exists to us.

It’s hokey to say that talking head scenes make You a Part of The Action, as if the whole series were Star Tours. But we are hailed, in a way, by this show and others like it. We can watch it as a more melancholy version of Friends or as collection of non sequiturs. But we are also asked by this show to revel in its detail, to catch moments we might not have seen before, to notice, for instance, that Dwight has a large, framed picture of a Predator drone above his desk in the later seasons. If, as Lili says, Netflix enables us to take comfort in architecture, it also allows us to enter these interior spaces and feel what it’s like to live inside them. It may seem like too much to make this kind of claim on behalf of this sitcom or any other, but, watching it over and over, it’s unavoidably true that this is how this series addresses us. There’s a goofy banality to re-watching that belies exactly how profound an experience it can be. But that’s what we like about TV, right?

I feel God in this Chili’s tonight,

Phil.

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Why We Watch Netflix In The Middle of the Night

Dear TV,

I WENT TO a puppet show last night. It was the story of the little mechanic who runs the human brain (pictured here as a moldy-looking engine room), zipping around adjusting dopamine and pressure levels trying to regulate his human’s behavior. There was one scene when the beleaguered homunculus was trying to get his insomniac to go back to sleep. How? He made him turn on the computer. “Season one, episode six,” he whispered, and the person’s rhythms relaxed back into REM.

I leaned forward to try to catch which show he was watching, but the title never came. It didn’t have to, I eventually realized, because the scene wasn’t developing a character by revealing his tastes in TV so much as it was appealing to a universal self-soothing mechanism; the experience of flipping around in the dark on a computer for something to watch has become that familiar. Netflix isn’t just The Way We Watch Now, the way Annie said, it’s The Way We Go Back To Sleep Now too. These days we can choose the perfect mood to chase away the nightmare, or the anxiety, or — less successfully — the sad. TV has gotten a lot more intimate, more entwined with our subconscious, closer. In this sense, shows have come to function as music, more symphonic poem than story, more repeating theme than plot.

(I, for instance, have recently medicated my anxious nights with Arrested Development, Peep Show, or Frasier. I turn to the first for its shadowless orange irresponsible cheer*, the second for the comforting bleakness of repeatedly hitting bottom again. As for Frasier, let’s just say its crises are underwritten by psychic safety.)

This isn’t that new, but as we think about how the Netflix and Hulu archives have changed our TV-watching habits, I think this tendency to watch television for reasons that have nothing to do with spoilers (or plot) has gotten stronger. TV has always been something we could have on in the background; it was a casual medium whose built-in inanity let us relax — this is the dubious charm of the late-night show. Over time, scripted stories got better and made more and bigger claims on our attention. Now, thanks to Netflix and other kinds of archival watching, there’s a funny middle ground. We might have Netflix on in the background not because we’re inattentive (or because it’s only mildly compelling) but because we watch TV now the way people watch movies: we rewatch. The shows that become classics are technically reruns, as AHP said, but even more so because they don’t flow from that place of happenstance that gives traditional TV its aleatory quality (“oh, it’s this one!”). Now we choose particular shows and we might — like the mechanic in the puppet show — even say “Season 1, Episode 6.” We rewatch, memorize entire sections, quote. The pleasure lives partly in the repetition and partly in watching things we know are coming be skillfully worked out — in watching the universe the show creates survive the minute scrutiny a fan loves to give it. In the really good shows those worlds are robust, and we can still find something new on a twelfth (or 48th) viewing.

Point being, as we talk about how Netflix technology affects the TV canon, one of the most interesting new contributing factors to a show’s long-term reputation is its resistance to repeat-watching. Spoilers, long the bane of the TV viewing public, are totally irrelevant in Netflix-world, and plotty shows that thrive on cliffhangers may not age as well. The real classics (in this sense, anyway) are the shows that reward rewatchers. Arrested Development is famously one of those shows. Across the pond, Peep Show and The Office are too. As Netflix has started to experiment with producing its own shows, it’s been interesting to see how different the results have been. I wish they’d release the numbers on how many people rewatch their shows. My guess: whatever the actual viewing numbers, Orange is the New Black has many more repeat-viewings than House of Cards.

I think it has to do with a show’s ability to keep its contract with its audience. House of Cards worked (for me) because it was gorgeously shot and seemed conscious of Spacey’s absurdity, his smallness relative to those epic sweeping shots of DC in the opening credits. He was a low-level Macbeth convinced he was Macbeth, and as he delivered his charming but pompous monologues, the bigger stories (to which he was oblivious) were swirling all around him. We weren’t supposed to take his sense of his own centrality at face value; his tragedy was that he thought he was a tragic hero. But a season’s aim is clarified by its ending, and the end of the first season was way too Francis-centric to sustain that reading. Francis is the center after all, and that makes the whole series, in retrospect, much less interesting. The universe is thinner than it seemed, and the show’s return to form (and Francis) betrayed our growing investment in a truly amazing ensemble cast and their stories, which revert to second-string. (This is my frustration with Mad Men too.)

Orange is the New Black does exactly the opposite: it begins, a little unpromisingly, as Piper’s fish-out-of-water story. To Piper’s credit, she keeps trying to call herself out on her own myopia, selfishness, and arrogance, and the show does too, by shuffling her to the side and expanding outward, investing more and more in the ensemble and less and less in Piper. More characters end up drawn as fish out of water than fish in it. It’s a magnificent, promiscuously sympathetic exercise. Yes, it falters sometimes: Pennsatucky is too monstrous by half (both shiftless meth-and-abortion-addict and murderous-fundamentalist-Christian), and Vicky Jeudy’s Janae Watson deserves a better story than the after-school special she got, but to these I say Sophia! Taystee! Red! Poussey — my favorite character in the show who steals every single scene she’s in even though we haven’t gotten her back story yet. The show is stunningly good at acknowledging the complexity and subjectivity of almost everyone involved. (Even the overdrawn Pornstache gets some dollops of sympathy.)

OITNB’s fishbowl ends up being a place from which you can see the world more clearly: the Maury Kind subplot was a brilliant sendup of the smaller fishbowl in which “This American Life” (the concept as well as the show) tends to take place. The show is a fugue of nested motivations, impulses, and stories that works hard not to sacrifice anyone, and — when that sacrifice is necessary — ruthlessly shows its effects. I will never get over Suzanne (“Crazy Eyes”) crying, and we will never get to feel better about that.

Do I need a Spoiler Alert to talk about the finale? Here’s one just in case.

It might be argued (and some have) that the show, like Piper, tries to call itself out on its own myopia and ultimately fails, but I’ll defend that finale as exactly the opposite. I think it’s a pretty incredible piece of television.

It’s always arresting when the ”good” woman goes dark, but to do so in a Christmas special is an unprecedented escalation in the Interesting TV Wars. I have never seen a Christmas special so lovingly executed, so gorgeously peppered with small moments of grace, in order to show both the effects of grace and what everyone outside it feels: isolated, misanthropic, partly dead. The Christmas pageant wasn’t mocked, its triumphs were fully earned, and yet Piper’s exclusion from them was just as fully warranted. The modulation in contrasts there was insane, it was filigree, it was totally amazing. If we worried that this show would devolve into Piper’s self-help story, that worry’s over. And if she isn’t a murderer, it’s on a technicality. That last shot of Piper smashing Pennsatucky’s face over and over, long after there was any sign of life, was an incredible piece of character assassination. I suppose one could argue that it’s still a Piper-centric ending in that it ends with her, but the heart of the finale is inside the auditorium, where Norma is singing. It’s Piper vs. the ensemble, and Piper loses. That’s a long way of saying that OITNB respects its own experiments and, in so doing, makes its world more real.

It’s been said that OITNB is a hard show to watch. Or rewatch. And yet, almost everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it has already watched it two or three times — unlike, for example, Season 4 of Arrested Development**. To quote one of the most rewatched shows on television: what’s the deal with rewatching?

There obviously isn’t a perfect correlation between the shows we rewatch for comfort and the shows we rewatch for quality; there’s too much bad TV, and too many bad reruns, for any right-thinking person to defend that thesis. But canon formation is a slow and sloppy thing. I do think that — for those of us built like the puppet in the play — when we reach for our computers in the middle of the night, it’s for a meditative kind of reassurance. It’s hard to square reassurance with footage of Chapman beating Pennsatucky, but maybe narrative safety isn’t the same as anodyne content. It’s more a matter of good building codes.

When we decide we want to walk down a well-worn televisual path again in the middle of the night, it’s for the mood or world that show creates. The impulse is almost more musical than narrative, but that world can only exist (that is, we can only trust it) if the show’s endings respect their arcs and its risky journeys are done well. When we’re riddled with anxieties in the middle of the night, maybe what we want is less a happy story than a good architect. Then, safe in the knowledge that there’s a god — or at least a decent mechanic — we can listen to the turning gears and go quietly to sleep.

Season one, episode six,

Lili

*Talking about the first three seasons only. Season 4 feels — psychically speaking — like a nightmare version of AD to me.

** It was fine, I don’t want to get into it, but it needed to trump all its prior victories and tie its million threads together into an amazing whole. It didn’t. That ending was a mess.

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The New Canon

This week, Dear Television — Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new addition Anne Helen Petersen — will be addressing Netflix. We have little interest in rehashing the arguments that the trade papers have done before, and better — “Is Netflix a network? Is Netflix paying too much? Why does Netflix persist in torturing us with refusal to release ratings numbers? Is Netflix taking over the world? What are they keeping in that hatch?!” — and more about what we’re calling “the Netflix effect,” or how Netflix (and other streaming services) have not only changed the way we watch television, but what we watch. These are questions, in other words, of accessibility…and also of laziness. Keep posted as we confess just how Netflix has facilitated our best and worst habits.

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Dear Netflix,

WHEN I WAS AN UNDERGRAD, my professor would talk about stars and directors by showing us actual slides of them, all loaded up into the Don Draper “Carousel.” Clips were on actual film, with actual projectionists, or an assortment of badly edited VHS tapes. When a professor recommended a film, I’d go to the video store and rent it for 99 cents, the standard fee for classic movies. I never missed a screening, because it would be nearly impossible to find many of the films on my own, let alone someone with a VHS that wasn’t the common room at the end of my dorm floor. It was the good old analog days, when film and media studies was still nascent, the internet only barely past dial-up, and internet media culture as we know it limited to a healthy growth of BBS, listservs, and AOL chat rooms. It was also less than 15 years ago.

My four years in college coincided with dramatic changes in digital technology, specifically the rise of the (cheap) DVD and the personal computer DVD player. Before, cinephilia meant access to art house theaters or a VHS/television combination in addition to whatever computer you had. . . . by the time I graduated, most computers came standard with a DVD player and ethernet, if not wireless, connectivity. That Fall, I signed up for Netflix. I envied those with TiVo. Two years later, the growing size of hard drives and bandwidths facilitated the piracy culture that had theretofore mostly been limited to music. Then YouTube. Then streaming Netflix. Then Hulu. Then AppleTV. Then HBOGO. Or something like that.

Today, we live in a television culture characterized by cord-cutters and time-shifters. Sure, many, many people still appointment view or surf channels old school style. I know this. I also know people watch the local news. Yet as a 30-something member of the middle class, I catch myself thinking that my consumption habits — I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Full Cable; I still appointment view several shows — are somewhat typical.

I’m so wrong, but not in the way I might have expected. My students taught me that. They watch Netflix, and they watch it hard. They watch it at the end of the night to wind down from studying, they watch it when they come home tipsy, they binge it on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Most use their family’s subscription; others filch passwords from friends. It’s so widely used that when I told my Mad Men class that their only text for the class was a streaming subscription, only one student had to acquire one. (I realize we’re talking about students at a liberal arts college, but I encountered the same levels of access at state universities. As for other populations, I really don’t know, because Netflix won’t tell me (or anyone) who’s using it.

Some students use Hulu, but never Hulu Plus — when it comes to network shows and keeping current, they just don’t care. For some super buzzy shows, like Game of Thrones and Girls, they pirate or find illegal streams. But as far as I can tell, the general sentiment goes something like this: if it’s not on Netflix, why bother?

It’s a sentiment dictated by economics (a season of a TV show on iTunes = at least 48 beers) and time. Let’s say you want to watch a season of Pretty Little Liars. You have three options:

1) BitTorrent it and risk receiving a very stern cease-and-desist letter from either the school or your cable provider. Unless you can find a torrent of the entire season, you’ll have to wait for each episode to download. What do you do when it’s 1:30 am and you want a new episode now?

2) Find sketchy, poor quality online streams that may or may not infect your computer with a porn virus (plus you have to find individual stable streams for 22 episodes)

or

3) Watch it on Netflix in beautiful, legal HD, with each episode leading seamlessly into the next. You can watch it on your phone, your tablet, your computer (or your television, if it’s equipped); even if you move from device to device, it picks up right where you stopped.

It’s everything an overstressed yet media-hungry millennial could desire. And it’s not just millennials: I know more and more adults and parents who’ve cut the cable cord and acquired similar practices, mostly because they have no idea how to pirate and they only really want to watch about a dozen hours of (non-sports) television a month (who are these people, and what do they do after 8 pm every day?)

Through this reliance on Netflix, I’ve seen a new television pantheon begin to take form: there’s what’s streaming on Netflix, and then there’s everything else.

When I ask a student what they’re watching, the answers are varied: Friday Night Lights, Scandal, It’s Always Sunny, The League, Breaking Bad, Luther, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Weeds, Freaks & Geeks, The L Word, Twin Peaks, Archer, Louie, Portlandia. What all these shows have in common, however, is that they’re all available, in full, on Netflix.

Things that they haven’t watched? The Wire. Deadwood. Veronica Mars, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Even Sex in the City.

It’s not that they don’t want to watch these shows — it’s that with so much out there, including so much so-called “quality” programs, such as Twin Peaks and Freaks & Geeks, to catch up on, why watch something that’s not on Netflix? Why work that hard when there’s something this easy — and arguably just as good or important — right in front of you?

The split between Netflix and non-Netflix shows also dictates which shows can/still function as points of collective meaning. Talk to a group of 30-somethings today, and you can reference Tony Soprano and his various life decisions all day — in no small part because the viewing of The Sopranos was facilitated by DVD culture. Today, my students know the name and little else. I can’t make “cocksucker” Deadwood jokes (maybe I shouldn’t anyway?); I can’t use Veronica Mars as an example of neo-noir; I can’t reference the effectiveness of montage at finishing a series (Six Feet Under). These shows, arguably some of the most influential of the last decade, can’t be teaching tools unless I screen seasons of them for my students myself.

The networks have long depended on a concept that scholar Raymond Williams dubbed “flow” — the seamless shift from show to commercial to show that creates a televisual flow so natural it’s painful to get out. Netflix does this as well, creating what one of my students has called “inertia problems.” One episode ends, and the countdown to the next begins in the corner. One season ends, and the next one pops before you. One series ends, and it’s ready with fairly accurate suggestions as to the type of programming you’d like to try next. The more you consume Netflix, the more you’ll consume Netflix.

And it’s not like they’re going to run out of content. As the Hollywood studios have tried to play hardball with what films they will and won’t lease, Netflix has turned its focus to television. And it’s not just quality and quasi-quality television: they’re flush with children’s, reality, and British television, with more seasons — and shows — added every month.

So maybe the HBO shows of the golden age fade into the distance, referenced but mostly unwatched, the 2000s equivalent of Hill Street Blues or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So what? As I wrote last week, I have little interest in fetishing “quality” television, especially as a means of reifying gendered, classist divides between “our” television and that television.

And HBO loves that division — they’re the ones, after all, who pioneered the slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” They’ve also stubbornly resisted any technology that makes its shows broadly available. You can’t get them on iTunes for months; you can’t use HBOGO unless you’re a service subscriber, and you generally can’t subscribe to HBO without also paying for extended cable — at least a hundred dollar cable bill. I get why they only want rich people watching their shows. I get how exclusivity, in and of itself, is one of the ways that HBO ascribes quality to its programming.

But you know what separates the “good” from the “significant”? Exposure. Not just initial exposure, like the hoopla surrounding the relatively unpopular Girls, but endured attention and familiarity. Viewers of broad ages and classes and tastes watching. Syndication used to do some of this work for us: that’s how I consumed M*A*S*H, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, classic Saturday Night Live, original Star Trek, and even MacGyver. It was MTV reruns, for example, and not ABC, that made My So-Called Life a cultural touchstone: the two words “Jordan Catalano” stand in for a host of dude-related agonies and ecstasies. Granted, you could watch Sex and the City on TBS, and The Wire on BET. But those were Frankenstein edits of the originals — and what little extended cable this generation does watch, it’s generally new content.

Netflix, and other forms of cheap streaming, thus takes up the role formerly occupied by second-run syndication. Only unlike the reruns of M*A*S*H I’d watch every night at 7:00 pm, these reruns are there whenever I want them and without commercials. With the rise of streaming services, we’ve avoided the term “rerun” and its connotations of the hot, bored days of summer. But apart from its foray into original programming, that’s what Netflix is: a distribution service of reruns. And as with second-run syndication, what’s available is what gets watched; what gets watched becomes part of the conversation. It’s not a question of quality, in other words, it’s one of availability.

HBO has always prided itself on being the cool kid in high school. It’s fine having only a few friends, so long as those friends are rich and influential. But no one can stay in high school forever: eventually your world changes, whether you want it to or not. And you know what happens when the cool kid goes to college? He gets lost in the crowd. There’s no one to remind everyone that he’s so cool or exclusive, of what the last decade of his life meant, or why he should be respected and feared today. Even if he throws a really excellent party, he’s still one of many doing the same.

For coolness and distinction to endure, it needs an indelible sense of legacy. HBO’s not in danger of losing that any time in the near future — at least so long as most of the people writing about television are those of us reared on the DVDs of its golden age. But think of the next generation of critics, whose tastes are guided, and will continue to be guided, by streaming availability. For them, Louie and Scandal will always be more important than Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Newsroom.

This summer, HBO finally gave credence to rumblings that they’d offer HBGO as a stand-alone subscription service. It may happen next year; it may happen in five. But each year they wait, each year that hundreds of thousands of viewers choose what’s at their fingertips over what’s not, their legacy fades. Perhaps that’s for the best? I mean, let it be said: I’m super okay with more people watching Friday Night Lights than Hung. But some, if not all, of those shows deserve better.

Ignore Al Swearengen at your peril,

AHP

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