post cover

Episodes: The problem with the TV "canon" (and why maybe classic TV is doomed)


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 25 2015

7 mins read



I have a love-hate thing with canons. I think they're useful in general, because they give us all something to react to and push back against, but I also tend to find they have gigantic blindspots, in terms of voices represented, types of work celebrated, and the very things they say about what we value in art. Every canon is an attempt to draw up a definition of what passes for greatness — and trying to pin such a thing down is inherently limiting.

The problem with having a canon for TV is that it's probably impossible.

I hear what you're saying right now. We HAVE a TV canon! Why would you suggest it's impossible? But do we? I think we have a bunch of competing canons, that don't really have a lot of overlap, and at best, they tend to encompass about 20 years of TV history. The classicists tend to overemphasize the era from about 1955 to 1975, while the current TV heads tend to overemphasize the era from 1995 to 2015, and there's not a ton of overlap, beyond the former, say, tossing a bone to Mad Men or the latter admitting they've seen a few episodes of Cheers over the years.

This is to say nothing of the fact that the TV drama canon and the TV comedy canon seem to take aim at wildly different things and write off entire genres with the stroke of a pen. There are some great completely episodic dramas from the pre-Hill Street Blues era. There are many from after that seminal show. But the trend toward serialization has mostly written them out of the canon, save for a nod to Twilight Zone here, or a quick acknowledgement that Rockford Files was awesome there.

And even if we found a way to reconcile all of the above, how do you deal with Johnny Carson? How do you figure out where Sesame Street fits? How, pray tell, do you begin to build the reality TV canon? TV is so many different things to so many different people — and was, even in the three networks era — and so much of it was built to be ephemeral. We don't have early Johnny Carson Tonight Shows, because nobody thought anyone would care. And from their perspective, they were right! There's tons of stuff we don't have from that era that we don't even know enough to miss.

TV also tends to be very fleet, which dooms it from the sense of history. A show breaks new ground, and a season later, everybody is copying it. Compare this to the rise of the modern movie blockbuster, which has taken nearly 40 years to get to a point where it's completely devoured the film industry. TV is a motorboat; film is an ocean liner, and everybody remembers the Titanic.

This means that if you want to introduce somebody to, let's say, M*A*S*H, you have to go through a lengthy list of historical explanations and artistic apologies, right from the word go. That is a terrific show, one of the best, and one that has done a much better job of surviving across eras than many of its contemporaries. (I say this as someone who finds much of that show hard to take.) But you still have to explain the stilted laugh track, or the show's overtly theatrical staging (increasingly a no-no on modern TV) or its frequent didacticism. By the time you're done with that, the person you're talking to is binging The Grinder. Because there is so much TV. (I don't know if you've heard.)

So full shows are out. Asking someone to devote themselves to classic television is, in essence, asking them to become a hobbyist. And I say this as someone who watches as much classic TV as he can fit in around the edges of contemporary stuff but still has tons of big blindspots from TV history. (The biggest: Gunsmoke and most of the '70s miniseries.) I've seen an episode or two of most of them, so I know how they generally work, but when I start talking, it's based more on research than it is lived experience.

That's fine — nobody can watch everything. The TV canon is always going to be amorphous, because shows fall out of circulation, or just disappear, and nobody bats an eye. (All of this was prompted by musing on an article some colleagues wrote — and I edited — about dealing with the dated production values of WKRP in Cincinnati. The commenters were aghast they'd never seen it, but the show essentially disappeared from syndication for decades because of music rights issues. You had to live in exactly the right market, or watch a lot of Nick at Nite during its brief, out of the way run there. Not everybody did.)

I'm also increasingly wondering if most TV just isn't built to last. I had originally phrased this notion as "most classic TV just isn't that good," but then I thought about it and realized that what I meant was "most TV isn't that good." And what I mean by that isn't that TV isn't GOOD, but that it's not as artistically "pure" as we might consider a classic film or novel, where its themes can sing out, forever and ever, regardless of shifting artistic values.

TV isn't built to do that, not really. It's built to be part of a conversation that it's having with its viewers and itself. It's built for us to have a relationship with it, week after week, until we're done having that relationship, and then we move on. The binge-watching era hasn't underlined TV's artistic greatness; it's underlined how disposable so much of it is. Attitudes change. Production methods shift. What seemed groundbreaking once seems creaky now. (The Sopranos is just a few years away from feeling hilariously out of date, and then the whole antihero era will start to seem that way.)

But, and here's the key, this is not a bad thing. We need that conversation to keep going. We need these relationships. TV being ephemeral is part of why it's great. It's just hard, sometimes, to accept that in an artistic culture that values permanence above all else, when, really, the vast majority of art is built to be forgotten — and can succeed wonderfully at those terms.

Maybe TV just has a shorter half-life than film, where something like Gone with the Wind's place in the canon was essentially unassailable until the last 10 years or so. (I am not suggesting Gone with the Wind should be removed, just that having it on your top 100 whatever list was assumed.) Maybe a 20-year canon is OK, if literature has about a 150-year one and film a 75-year one. After all, video games seem to have about a 10-year one. Maybe things are just speeding up.

Or maybe this essay got away from me, and I solved the problem of the TV canon and forgot to tell you the solution. Come back tomorrow for that.


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter