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How to save the TV canon (repost)

And the trouble with establishing a TV canon in the first place


Emily VanDerWerff

Aug 30 2021

11 min read


(I am taking several weeks off from the Monday newsletter. The Wednesday and Friday editions continue to run as normal for paying subscribers. Please enjoy this repeat, which combines two posts from November 2015.)

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 or something. 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 she 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. (2021 Emily popping in to say: Wow, was I wrong about The Sopranos!)

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. 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 there's a different solution.

There was perhaps no TV feature so roundly misunderstood at the AV Club as TV Club 10. And I don't just mean it was misunderstood by commenters (though it was that). It was misunderstood by basically everybody, including me, and I invented the damn thing.

As I've been thinking about how to preserve the TV canon, I was reminded that I launched TV Club 10 in an effort to do just that, then didn't really succeed in conveying how it was different from just "a list of the 10 best episodes" (which the commenters generally understood it to be). No, the "most essential" thing in the intro text was always key to the whole thing. See, TV Club 10 was supposed to function, in a way, as a TV Cliff's Notes, a cheat sheet that you could use to check out 10 episodes of All in the Family (much less onerous than watching the whole show) and get a good sense of what it was all about. If you loved it, you could watch more. If you were indifferent, you could move on to something else.

I literally have no idea if anybody used the feature in this fashion. Within the AV Club, we still talked about it as a "most essential" episodes feature, but there was a tendency to skew it toward "10 best" anyway. To be sure, the distinction for some shows is non-existent, but I think the best TV Club 10s advanced an argument about the show as a whole, while also presenting its many faces. When I wrote about Breaking Bad, for instance, I tried to boil the show down to just Walter White's arc. And when I wrote about The X-Files, I attempted to figure out the many different "types" of episodes that show did and offer at least one of each form.


The handful of commenters who keyed into this aspect of the feature mostly bemoaned that neophytes wouldn't watch every episode, from the very beginning, and very quickly, it became a feature not for newbies, but for superfans. (That might have been a function of the AVC readership as well.) And here we find the other big problem with the TV canon: the idea of being a TV series completist is so deeply ingrained in the sorts of people who would watch a TV canon that to do so would become a major undertaking. It's not good enough to watch 10 X-Files episodes, in the minds of most of us. You have to have seen all of it.

If there were a way to save the TV canon, then, I would suggest that's it. Let's strip down the TV canon from whole shows to individual seasons or even episodes that can stand in as representatives of the shows they were part of. Those who want to go on greater explorations of said programs can and should feel free to do so. Those who find them wanting can move on to other things. It's no good to want to discuss TV intelligently and have absolutely no idea what Hill Street Blues brought to the medium, but I also don't think it's necessary to watch the entire thing to get what was so important, unless you really want to.

The trend toward completism assumes that every single show in TV history was assembled the way that, say, Breaking Bad was, where every piece mattered. But that's only really been true for a smidgen of the medium's history, and even then, you can largely skip over episodes if you're not feeling them. I watched a couple episodes of Manhattan (a very serialized show) with my wife last night, a show she'd always been curious about but had never seen, and she was hooked, with minimal explanation. In general, most television is still rewarding to those who join late. You can figure it out, without too much effort.

That's doubly true for older shows. There's a general sense that non-serialized programs are less "sophisticated," but I don't think that could be further from the truth. There's a kind of purity to a well-done episodic show, where the conflicts eternally reset. It's the question of doing one thing well, hundreds of times, which is enormously difficult. Few shows managed it, and there's no shame in bailing once a series starts to fall apart.

The best way to restore the primacy of classic TV is watching classic TV, but the best way people encountered classic TV in the past was by stumbling upon it in syndicated reruns somewhere. It's harder and harder to do that in the streaming age, when you're invited to start from episode one. But that approach doesn't always work for shows that sometimes took seasons to figure their shit out. (Just ask any fan of Newhart, Bob Newhart's sitcom from the '80s that kept tinkering right up until the end.)

The best thing that we fans of classic television can do, then, is come up with guided tours of the best of old TV, and I don't just mean guided tours of the '90s to today. We should keep in mind that the way most people find classic TV now is on streaming and cater said tours accordingly (it does no one any good if an episode we recommend is difficult to find), but we should always be pushing for others to approach these things less as shows than as individual episodes. That's, after all, how so many of us got hooked. You can't build a wall without bricks.

Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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