Television has always been the most insecure medium. From the time that television emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, TV has always been viewed with a negative connotation as opposed to other forms of media like cinema, literature, theater, etc. That’s where the question originates: what is good television?
Many can argue that quality television holds a sort of intelligence to it. Whether its a comedy or drama, for a show to be considered “good” it has to bring in social, economical, political, and cultural elements to their characters and narratives.
There are others that argue that for a show to be of quality it simply just has to entertain them and do what television is “intended” to do: be a distraction from reality.
So the question still remains in the air: what is quality television?
The rise of quality television seems to have emerged in the 1990’s with the mainstreaming of cable television, a decline in broadcast TV’s audience and the growth of the internet as an entertainment media. All of this contributed to the opportunities of “cinematic” (cinematic meaning close up angles, over-arching storytelling, complex characters, mini-series, etc.) TV that gained an active audience as opposed to telling a simple story with a three camera setup and characters that lived a simple suburban-life which we were used to seeing in early television.
It seems like networks that we consider as quality television are narratively challenging television and not wanting to appear as television but something more (HBO’s “It’s not TV. it’s HBO,” FX’s “There is no box,” AMC’s “something more,” etc.) There’s also the rise of quality shows appearing on platforms that are not television (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube).
Based on what we socially view as good shows, quality television tends to prioritize genre crossing, breaking the fourth wall (mockumentaries, characters are self aware), etc, to be considered good. They are the shows that are associated with a dedicated fandom and new viewing practices like binge watching and online viewing instead of tuning in once a week to view it on a television set.
As we are in the second golden age of television there are anxieties that are brought on by the notions of TV in social situations. There are pressure of being up to date with TV shows like Mad Men, OITNB, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc. The truth is that we base our identity based on the media we consume; we feel “un-cool” if we don’t have anything to contribute to a kitchen dinner conversation about the latest show, just like our friend Andy Samberg in his Emmy opening. We feel pressured to be fluent in good television.
If we socially find TV this important, then why is television so insecure? We associate quality television with something that isn’t really television but it really is. The way that we consume and create television has changed, with a cinematic approach to production values and edgy narrative content.
What we consider of quality now doesn’t really rely on whether we are just simply entertained. Quality TV has to challenge our way of thinking, it has to have some sort of influence on us. Television has made its entertainment more significant and more influential.