At Last, TV for People Just Like Me

by: Christopher Anderson / Indiana University

I hate your favorite television show. Honestly. I loathe it. You love it, I know. But it’s a stinking pile of shit. I’m sorry to be coarse, but I can’t watch it for two minutes without feeling sick to my stomach.

My favorite show is not like yours. Mine isn’t just good TV. It’s poetry. It’s timeless. It will last as long as Shakespeare, as long as human beings walk this planet. Of course, you can’t stand it.

Who could have imagined that television would give us so much to hate?

Consensus is a lovely idea, of course; but it’s just so twentieth-century. There’s still something to be said for respect and tolerance, but this is an age for preaching to the choir. If you aren’t like me, you don’t think like me.

It isn’t a tautology, or even bad faith; it’s demography — reinforced by the massless media of a new century. My tastes, as Amazon.com constantly reminds me, are remarkably similar to those of people like me.

The true savants of the age are the actuaries — those slide rule-wielding, cigar-chomping, hard-boiled avatars of Enlightenment. Think Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity: the sort of guy who can take one glance at your census form then look you in the eye without blinking and tell you what brand of toothpaste you use, which programs you TiVo, how long you’ll live, and which malady will put you in the grave.

Demography is destiny.

It wasn’t so long ago that we spoke of television as the campfire around which our culture gathers to tell its communal stories. Now it’s the doctor’s office waiting room where we idly flip through back issues of Cat Fancy while awaiting our lab results; or the bedside table where we stashed our precious, dog-eared issues of Tiger Beat, the ones with David Soul on the cover.

It’s a cold-eyed glimpse of someone else’s passion, or the white-hot detonation of our own. But it’s no communal campfire — unless it’s the campfire of a Survivor tribal council where we gather in seething resentment to cement temporary, self-serving alliances.

There are times when the TV industry tries to convince us that nothing has changed, that we still live in a Ptolemaic television universe with the networks at the center — or that we have a collective investment in the beating of a butterfly’s wings in some remote corner of the galaxy where network news anchors are still being built.

Even at their best, these moments come off as crude and desperate – as when NBC recently sent Brian Williams, the shiny new anchorbot in Tom Brokaw’s chair, to report on the Asian tsunami. Presumably, an anchor’s grave conviction is the one skill that can’t be outsourced.

At their worst, these moments are so comically self-delusional that you’d hardly be surprised to see network executives being chased down Fifth Avenue by fellows with butterfly nets.

Perhaps you’ve heard that, after twelve (or so) seasons of pulse-pounding drama, NYPD Blue has come down to its FINAL TWO EPISODES! Ah, nothing lasts forever. The passage of time is indeed bittersweet. NYPD Blue is a landmark, one of the three or four greatest dramas in the history of television, and — hey, wait a second — NYPD Blue is still on the air?

So much has happened in my hectic life–The Osbournes, The Sopranos, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Scott Peterson trial, Ken Jennings on Jeopardy, a DVD box set of Baretta — that, well, um, I guess I just forgot about my old friend NYPD Blue.

Motivated by the potent blend of curiosity and shame that is the emotional cocktail of choice for discerning television viewers, I returned chastened to pay my final respects. What I found was more sordid than anything I’d ever seen on television, and I’ve seen the local news during sweeps months.

In that familiar squad room stood Dennis Franz surrounded by people who looked like models from a Land’s End catalogue, a scruffy Gulliver in a land of well-scrubbed Lilliputians. Who are these people and what have they done with the real actors?

I’m sure that someone has been watching NYPD Blue since Bobby Simone died about 140 episodes ago; but I felt like I had stumbled upon the last remaining Japanese soldier in a Philippines jungle circa 1958. Did someone forget to tell ABC that the war is over?

Don’t get me wrong. I was once a dedicated fan of NYPD Blue. I made it through several cycles of tragedy and redemption, a few dozen manly embraces, and a couple jittery glimpses of Franz’s furry ass. And I appreciate the slow simmer of long-term storytelling, the leisurely revelation of character, the measured epiphany that arrives as a reward for a viewer’s commitment. As far as I’m concerned, there has been no TV drama with the storytelling depth of NYPD Blue, nor a character as rich or complicated as Andy Sipowicz.

But I reached the point of diminishing returns several manly embraces ago and by the time of Jimmy Smits’s much-hyped reappearance as one of Andy’s hallucinations during the November sweeps, I had scuttled off long ago to one of the programming niches designed for people just like me.

ABC’s ad campaign for the series finale would like us to think that there is a television-viewing public with a collective investment in NYPD Blue. But it’s an ad campaign uncorked from a time capsule buried sometime around the final episode of M*A*S*H — from a television universe that still existed when NYPD Blue first appeared, but not the one that bears witness to its demise.

I don’t doubt the passion for NYPD Blue that beats in the heart of true believers. After all, these are the days when fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer have marshaled forces to create a fully searchable database for each and every episode. If NASA could channel the energy of the committed pop culture fan, we would have a colony on Uranus by now.

What seems delusional to me is the belief that the NYPD Blue finale actually matters. This may be the culminating event in the lives of some NYPD Blue fans, but there are also people who get dressed up in military costumes on the weekend and re-enact the Battle of Bull Run. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

The true signpost for this moment in television history is not the final episode of NYPD Blue, as ABC would have us believe, but the second-season premiere of Deadwood, the new series by NYPD Blue creator David Milch, which returns to HBO in early March. At the nearly the same moment, HBO’s competitor, Showtime, is bringing back the second season of its drama, The L Word.

A couple of million people watch the scabrous Western, Deadwood, each week. Another, and presumably different, million watch The L Word, a contemporary drama set among a circle of lesbian friends in Los Angeles.

Each series is groundbreaking in its own way. Each charts its own course with virtually no concessions to a general audience. Each is viewed on a premium cable channel by the tiniest sliver of the national population. One is brilliant and stunningly original; the other is tedious and wildly overrated. If you’re like me, you’ll agree.

Links
NYPD Blue
The Sopranos
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Double Indemnity
More on Double Indemnity

Please feel free to comment.

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10 comments

  • TV’s limitless boundaries

    Has anything really changed? Or is this ‘communal campfire’ merely a broken rhetorical promise made by the so-called public service oriented networks to ensure support for the orchestration of a monopoly? Better yet, is this longing for a sense of a community brought-to-you-by television a contemporary preference informed by the mishmash of once disparate programming called “Nick at Night”? Perhaps, by nature, television has always offered to audiences positions that allow for preference differentiation. Any desire to organize such a boundless medium necessitates some sense of division, however arbitrary. In return, the medium outwardly projects through its peculiar modes of address its own conditions of production. The perceived audience becomes the ripe abyss. We become the programs.

  • The teleology of television

    I too was amazed to see that NYPD Blue is still on the air. I am pushing 30 and it first aired when I was in high school…. It is very much a relic of a former era — I’m wondering if the straight forward cop show would still play in Peoria when middle America has taken so kindly to Trump, bikini-clad beauties eating rat brains, and makeover mania?

    But re: Anderson’s point about the finale meaning so little — I feel as if finales mean so little these days because TV on DVD has resurrected so much programming for so many people. People who never watched while it was on the air (i.e. Buffy) and people revisiting shows that long since overstayed their welcome in reruns (i.e. 227 and Little House, and so on) are discovering things in the DVD format. I would argue that this designation of a telos seems somewhat illogical in the wake of this new technology…. Wondering if all programming is going the way of the soap opera? No teleology, just an infinitely expanding middle, depending on where you come in, how many times you watch, etc.?

  • Communal campfire lives on

    I’ve had similar experiences with network shows I once couldn’t miss (namely, the Simpsons). When I drift back to these old shows, I realize how much they’ve changed, and how much my viewing habits have changed. Ever since I got cable, I stick to networks that cater to my tastes and watch whatever happens to be on when I’m in front of the TV, appointment-TV watching be damned.

    Its easy to assume that everyone shares my sudden lack of interest in networks and their television events; too easy. Network shows like CSI & American Idol still garner far larger audiences than the highest rated cable programs (some of which are formerly-network syndications – Law & Order). With most households getting at least basic cable, people are still electing to watch water-cooler network shows. Frankly, I don’t get why segmentation hasn’t been faster or more complete than it is. My guess is that people will sacrifice watching programming tailored to their tastes just to have something in common to talk about with the folks at work/school. Either that, or producers haven’t created the shows that certain segments of the CSI audience would rather watch instead of CSI.

  • NYPD- not for me

    Honestly, I have only seen one episode of NYPD Blue and that was last year. I knew it was supposedly groundbreaking and amazing- but it didn’t seem like my taste. And now that I might be able to appreciate what it used to be, it has changed into something different. I would like to think that I have different taste from that of the majority. And naturally I would like to think that I have good taste. I have never watched either Deadwood or the “L” Word. As far as the movie channels go though I admit I am a fan of the show “Entourage”- and so far I am the only fan I have met. Instead of going for ground breaking shows- I choose shows that appeal to my sense of humor and my sense of vulnerability. Perhaps that is why I have stayed away from NYPD Blue- and it appears that I have now missed my chance to ever connect with it (sorry Serpico).

  • I think the fact that many didn’t even realize that NYPD Blue still airs demonstrates my opinion that sometimes shows go on way too long…examples include Friends, Sex and the City, and Fraiser. I particularly loved these shows, yet understood that there wasn’t much else left in the end. Although each show was funny, brilliant, original, whatever, all good things must come to an end.

    On another topic, I agree that people like to believe that their favorite shows are different and better than those of the masses. However, I don’t think that’s true. Every show out there has at least one other fan. So you can continue to feel like you’re unique and that you have better taste than everyone, but there’s always someone out there like you.

  • Vanessa Freeman

    Television Times are Changing

    I agree with many of the comments made so far. I too think that many television shows attempt to stay alive much longer than is probably in their best interest. After so many seasons the plots tend to become repetitive, original characters leave, and the show is only a small remnant of what it was in the beginning. I think more and more people realize this before they even begin to watch shows for the first time. The fact that there were a relatively large number of people that were completely oblivious to the finale of NYPD Blues just goes to show this. We are living in a time where people no longer feel that they have to watch a show while it is airing for the first time on television because they know that it will not be their only opportunity to watch it. I can not count the number of shows that I never watched until they were in re-runs or out on DVD and I have a feeling I’m not alone on that one.

  • Scarlett Oehlke

    I was never a fan of NYPD Blue. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually watched the show, and apparently it never had much of an impact on me. I mostly recall being bored out of my mind, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was once a popular show. Even though NYPD Blue’s fanbase has dwindled over the past few years, it must still be appealing to some people or it would not be on the air at all. Some veiwers can’t help but hold onto shows that they have been hooked on for years, even if the plotlines are completely ridiculous. Anyone can discredit the quality of a show, but all that matters is that there are still fans. If it is entertaining to some, then the adspace will still sell, and she show will remain on the air. In my opinion, NYPD Blue should have been cancelled years ago, or for that matter, it should have never been aired. But I’m sure there are still a few fans out there who will be sad to see it go.

  • TV Changes With Time

    I think the quality of tv changes with the quality of the present time. I often find myself watching a show every week and when it comes time for the season premiere the second time around, I lose interest. Everyone is different in what they deem quality television. I think the few episodes of NYPD Blue that I have actually seen where good, but thats just not the type of show I like to follow. Its just like American Idol, everyone jumps on the bandwagon at the end.

  • Bryan Canatella

    Exceptional television can stand the test of time

    I agree that TV shows can only last so long. NYPD blue had to go, and with good reason, although i never got into it. I believe that if a show can create a convincing reality and has a great set of writers, it will have much better longevity. The simpsons is that best example of this, being the longest running show ever. But is great about that show is the reality it creates is self-sustaining and convincing. The simpsons world is like a distorted image of our own reality, but reveals certain truths about our everyday lives. The show is very topical and is great social commentary, it just seems the show could go on forever. When that show ends (and it will) it will be a very sad day. But i think that shows that can evolve and be very socially aware are the ones that will have the most longevity and success.

  • Pluralism within TV

    The fact that a behemoth series such as NYPD Blue can die off unnoticed is indicative of the pluralistic nature of modern TV. It rotates through cycles, constantly refreshing itself, and are we really that surprised? Networks review the ratings on a weekly if not daily basis, and make changes so as to not fall behind. Thus, I absolutely agree: my TV is not for you. I may find a series I like, one that others enjoy as well, but the comparison ends there. What about the other shows I watch? Where are you then? You’re on the channel right below me, or perhaps one so far that if I were to try surfing to it, I would get caught on some network in between. But let’s focus on what we do have in common. We both love this sitcom or that drama. Did you catch last week’s episode? No, I was out of the house that day, sorry. But I was home last night and I discovered this really cool new show on cable, or maybe it was an info-mercial, I can’t really remember. TV has definitely evolved. No longer do we rush to it to catch our shows, we flip it on when it is convenient. Not only is society all over the radar over what to watch, individuals are as well. At any given moment a particular network will be airing the ONE show I hate. So I change the channel, only to find the OTHER show I hate. People no longer follow TV, instead with improved forms of demographics research and interactivity, I predict that TV will begin to follow people.

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