If you ask the average American, they will most likely tell you that TV is better than most movies out today. I would argue that this is across the board regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. While I think there are a variety of reasons for this, I want to highlight three specific reasons: relatable characters, unpredictability, and consistent world building. I'm going to highlight each of these in specific recent shows; however, I want to bring us up to speed in how we got with the large shift in TV show style in the 2000s.
Aughts and Anti-Heroes
After 9/11, America got pretty grim as a whole and instead of rooting for the surplus spending and heroes of the 90s, the US realized that life was fairly bleak overall. As such, a number of anti-heroic shoes cropped up during this time starting with The Sopranos. Even humor seemed to support awful people to root for unlike generally plucky families or bumbling fools. Most of the characters from this time often bent the law according to their terms, like Vic Mackey or Al Swearengen. There were also characters who were criminals themselves like Tony Soprano and Stringer Bell. In a sense, it felt more authentic because it was not avoiding the issue of a variety of problems throughout America and instead having characters emblematic of the issues themselves.
Eventually this would become trite as everyone tried to cash in on the wave from The Sopranos, The Shield and The Wire culminating in Breaking Bad, which I believe to be the last strong anti-hero centered show. Breaking Bad not only created possibly the best arc of an anti-hero for a single protagonist but its start coincided with Barack Obama's which is important as not only a sense of hope and change compared to 9/11, but also a sense that would mark his two terms with being someone who was relatable, consistent in its world, and at times unpredictable with regard to the norms of American history.
Fast-forward to today and now we are past anti-heroes and more into ensemble casts that do their to create a stronger sense of being able to with their audience. The TV show Friends is often a show that people cannot entirely explain why they like because it is hard to relate to a gaggle of white people in their 20s/30s living in Manhattan without a lot of stresses. Bars and apartment buildings is a part of NYC life but there's a whole lot more comparatively and honestly if I'm in the 90s, listening to Nas or Biggie while hustling on the corner I'm not too concerned about Phoebe's cat.
This ideology of sitcom style whiteness began to fade with the 2010s and really began with Mad Men that rides this line of in essence a white show with an anti-hero at its center that becomes a multi-faceted show for female empowerment, consumerism, America today and mental illness in many forms.
This coincides with Obama being president who pushes for more and more globalism as we see a rise in shows that are about particularly marginalized groups ranging from women (The Handmaid's Tale), Women of Color (Orange is the New Black), LGBTQ (Sense8), Black people (Atlanta, Blackish), Latinx (Jane the Virgin), East Asian (Fresh Off the Boat) and even multiculturalism (Master of None). Many of these shows appeal with a larger spectrum of the audience/American public than ever before. This is important because of not only the purchasing power of this diversifying public but also that many of these stories are our own. Most of the writers on those shows reflect the characters.
As such, it pushes these characters out of caricatures and stereotypes and into fully realized characters with intelligent dramas and comedies. This works even in shows that have white characters at the center, like Stranger Things, which works so well because it treats its kid story not as a side story or something trivial, but instead its the driving force and harkens to a pre-internet time where kids were recognized for their ingenuity. As such, it appeals to not only nostalgia fans but also my students to due them being able to relate to their ideas of problem-solving as children. In turn, this has many traditional TV screenwriters scrambling on ways to appeal to emerging markets of the audience who demand well-written characters who look and think like them. Archie Bunker and JR Ewing are not the model, Poussey Washington and Eddie Huang are.
This aspect is a current delight of many fans in television at the moment. Note that what is different is unpredictable ideas that you never saw coming. This instantaneously makes a show more exciting because you are tempted to keep watching because you're uncertain of what comes next. While you may not know what is going to happen on the Cosby Show or Three's Company you know that either status quo will be restored by the end or nothing extreme will happen to any character unless the actor has to leave the show. This is different than say the current exemplar of unpredictability, Game of Thrones, in which many times we don't know who is going to die and how it will happen. There were attempts at this in the 2000s from Oz: Season 1, episode 1 with the *spoiler* Dino Ortalni POV character dying in the pilot, and the randomness of Arrested Development which goes forwards, backwards and to places never before seen with its comedy.
However, like relatable characters this wasn't always polished and sometimes stagnated with later seasons. Still, it often exciting when you don't know who might die in Game of Thrones from one week to the next which creates a temptation factor. Many shows try to do this their narratives and characters to increase the overall appeal for people from week to week or even to create a bing show in which a major event happens every season. This also is frequently done with anthology shows, such as, Black Mirror, in which you are uncertain not only how the episode will turn out but how all the elements of the show are composed.
This is the most prominent idea that creates strong television currently. While you could argue that Clarissa Explains it All has a consistent world building it does without the other two factors and that's what makes the modern shows so appealing. We have entire universes in which our characters interact with uncertainty for our entertainment. The set design and production team create a look and feel of several TV shows all their own. Mad Men remains instantly recognizable from its 60s decor, Game of Thrones has medieval fantasy and fiction, Stranger Things is firmly in the 80s and even a show like Mr. Robot stays in a particular feeling/framing of hacker culture versus business board rooms.
We like many of these worlds because they are so different from our own or similar to ours with little flourishes like the Marvel Cinematic Universe's spin on NYC found in its Defenders' shows. As such, we end having great tweaks and imaginations to augment our own world while kindly hoping we could be in the ones that are unattainable.
To summarize, modern television is highly creative fuel and we the audience are the ones who benefit from it. Whether it is Atlanta (Black culture world building, Relatable variants of Black people, and unpredictable in who will be the protagonist for our episode) or The Handmaid's Tale (Unpredictable what time period our episode shows, relatable women including women of color, and world building of subjugated women *shudders*) many of these shows encourage us to think in ways we often did before but now in a world that is special and with people like us. My only hope is that television continues to rise.
Hope you enjoyed this media heavy post. Here is my highest recommendation for television at this moment.
On the watch for next year: Westworld, Atlanta
What you should've already seen this year: Stranger Things, Handmaid's Tale
Surprisingly good: Mr. Robot, The Deuce