Is Television Getting Crappier? Or are We Just Too Cynical?

During my small bout of post-grad unemployment thus far, I’ve had a lot of time to watch television. I’ve blasted through five seasons of The X-Files and have begun laughing along to 3rd Rock from the Sun, both of which can be found streaming on Netflix. Not to mention I’ve been re-watching some of my go-to favorites, like Buffy and Star Trek.

I’ve always been a lover of television. Movies are great, too, but there’s nothing like the expansion of an epic story arc over the course of twenty-odd episodes, culminating in a probably even more epic two-part season finale. My taste in television is diverse–you can catch me watching anything as embarrassing as Glee, to as “vintage” as Bewitched, to as gripping as Six Feet Under. And yet when I look at the fall primetime TV lineup this year, I’m not that excited. In fact, I had to drag myself into watching the premiere of Doctor Who this past weekend, which used to be one of my all-time favorite shows. Why is it that, especially lately, I’m gravitating towards shows made in the ’60s thru ’90s rather than checking out what’s new on my screen?

Upon really thinking about it, I found the answer to that question isn’t as direct as I’d hoped it would be. In fact, it’s the product of a plethora of influences and attitudes, particularly created in media–for what are we, as human beings, but ever imprinted upon by our surroundings? And mainstream media–particularly the Internet–surrounds us all the time. So, I’ve concluded thus: We (“we” of course being my Tumblr- and Twitter-addled generation) are more apt to reach out to “older” television because of (a) technology/ease of access provided by streaming sites like Netflix, and (b) the cynical, particularly Millennial view of mainstream television that makes essentially everything airing right now problematic enough in some way to stop watching altogether.

Those were a lot of words, I know. But think about it. A few paragraphs up, I referred to Glee as “embarrassing.” When it first premiered in 2009, however, it was regarded as one of the great up-and-comings on FOX, receiving a viewership of nearly 10 million people in its first episode and throughout the first season. As illustrated by this chart, though, ratings dropped and dropped and dropped to a drastic 2 million by the end of the show’s run. It’s no coincidence to me that the rise of Tumblr “fandom” culture coincided with Glee’s downturn.

Cry about it, Quinn. Cry about those ratings.
Cry about it, Quinn. Cry about those ratings.

The majority of Gleeks, myself included, are millennials. Millennials who spend a lot of their free time online, particularly on Tumblr, Reddit, and Twitter. The Tumblr fan community, in case you weren’t familiar with it already, spends a great deal of energy analyzing and over-analyzing their favorite things. I, too, take part in this trend, writing paragraph upon paragraph analyzing the Star Trek reboot franchise’s treatment of women, or criticizing Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat’s “destruction” of the Doctor’s character with the rest of the angry Tumblr Whovians.

A pretty common opinion of the show these days. Source:
A pretty common opinion of the show these days. Source:

But where did my opinions of these things I used to love come from? I believe it’s a combination of groupthink and Millennial Cynicism. Honestly, if I’d just stayed off the Internet from 2009 to 2015, I’d probably still regard Glee as a pretty fun show. But every time I logged on Tumblr and searched through the Glee tags, I’d see fans tearing the show apart for its decrease in diversity, unwillingness to talk about real LGBTQ issues, and sloppy character arcs. All of these, I should clarify, are very real issues to have with Glee. But once one or two people got behind the idea, Millennials came together and quit on Glee altogether. Now, this isn’t to say that the ratings 100% directly correlate with the Internet’s gradual annoyance with the show–but I definitely think that’s part of it. If posting those five paragraphs about the flaws in Kurt and Blaine’s relationship got you 10,000 notes–it means 10,000 different people want to discuss it, and 10,000 different people will be questioning whether or not to tune into Glee next week.

It comes down to this: if Tumblr doesn’t deem it “progressive” enough, it’s not worth watching. There are components of this mentality that I agree with. I’m ecstatic, for example, at the success of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe (which features essentially all female leads and open lesbian relationships), and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder (which stars a woman of color, Viola Davis, as a protagonist with power, intelligence and grace). The ratings for these shows are consistently high–and that’s because Millennials really are, through social media, in control of what’s considered “good” television. But these shows are considered anomalies online. They’re creations to be looked up to, for other “lesser” programmes to aspire to. Everything else? Well. Everything else is garbage.

So we respond to our own disdain in a number of ways. For one, we put on an air of nostalgia. We say we long for when television was good. We go back to Special Agent Dana Scully, who set the precedent for strong women in procedural dramas on The X-Files. And we can excuse these shows for their bad behavior–like Darrin telling Samantha to stay home and cook dinner as are her wifely duties, or the football coach slapping Sally Solomon’s ass without warning or consent as the audience chortles–“because of the times.” We praise shows like Buffy (1996-2003) and Wonder Woman (1975 -1979) for, despite their flaws, creating a platform for discussion of diversity. And a lot of these shows, especially as of late, have been made readily accessible through Netflix instant streaming. We have vintage television at our fingertips, and we’re certainly using it. It’s fueling more discussion than ever–or, if it’s the same amount as before, it’s certainly more accessible through online social platforms. We watch and re-watch and sigh, “Ah, those were the good old days.”

And the fact that a lot of generally popular new shows, like Sherlock and Doctor Who seem to take steps back in feminist/LGBTQ/POC issues, leads millennials to vocally demand something better than what’s on now. For one, that’s really inspiring. Because of technology and access to TV shows through various (legal and illegal) mediums, it’s not necessarily the ratings that shape a success of a show anymore; rather, it’s how much it’s talked about through shares on Facebook or Twitter statuses. Having these discussions, really furthering knowledge of what it means to be progressive through entertainment and media is very, very important. We need more diversity in mainstream media. That is a fact I refuse to dispute, and anyone who would clearly isn’t living in this reality.

But in the same vein, the permeation of constantly negative thinking construes every decision every writer or director makes into something political. Good shows get positive attention–but are the “bad” shows really irrevocably “bad”? I read an argument on Tumblr the other day in which users discussed whether or not Sailor Moon‘s main protagonist choosing to end her life in the first arc is “anti-feminist,” when the show and manga have been regarded for decades as extremely empowering for women. Usagi’s suicide was very clearly meant not merely as a reaction to the death of her boyfriend, but as a means to save the world. Did…everyone forget about the part where she entirely avoids a fated repeat of a terrible apocalypse? Does the fact that the gay couple on Modern Family seems too “stereotypical” to some, negate the fact that they represent a powerful overthrow of the typical nuclear, heterosexual family on the average sitcom?

We take whatever’s airing, whatever’s “mainstream cool,” watch it, and before writing up our own opinions, scour the Internet for opinions to latch onto. I’ve been caught more than once by my friends with the question: “Is that what you believe, or is that what the Internet believes?” Groupthink among fandom culture has created a dichotomy wherein everyone questions creative entertainment, but no one is allowed to question that questioning.

No matter your viewpoint, the fact remains that our generation is shaping what “good” and “bad” television is. We’re redefining expectations and standards–and plus, with the internet and technology, you’ve got to make something really good to hold our attention. My fear is that, with sites like Tumblr, something “good” doesn’t stay that way for long. I think it’s important to think critically in all you do, even if it’s watching your favorite show. But when the show becomes ruined for you because of what you’re told you are supposed to believe about it–isn’t that negating the purpose of your being a “fan” at all?

Especially with the Internet, television has become more than just entertainment. It’s inspiration, fuel for discussion and empowerment. So, yes. Maybe Supernatural needs a lot of work in the “keeping female characters alive for more than two episodes” department. Maybe writers and producers could be taking bigger social strides forward in what’s played on our screens every night. But I don’t think anything should be looked at in such black-and-white terms as “this show is god-sent” or “that abhorrent show must be canceled.” To think critically is to look at all sides of a situation–to be willing to understand multiple points of view, multiple avenues of thinking. Perhaps if we looked at the positive side as well as the negative, we’d find a lot more to be happy about in modern television than we’d seen before.

On that note, I’m going to go check out the series premiere of Scream Queens (created, ironically enough, by Glee‘s Ryan Murphy). And in case you were wondering–I won’t have the Tumblr tag open as I watch.


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