TV’s wasteland is sprouting oases

    Is television still a vast wasteland? In today’s Center Square essay, Chris Satullo begs to differ.


    [audio: satullo20100314.mp3]

    I have a few quirks.

    Here’s one: I confess to a hair-trigger impatience with snobbery, with people who parade a refinement of taste they seem to think makes them superior beings.

    Few topics trigger the snobbery reflex more than television.

    A certain breed of educated person can’t wait to tell you they never watch television.

    Then there’s that type of parent who wants you to know THEIR child NEVER watches TV. Apparently, before bathtime, little Madison instead translates a few verses of Beowulf out of the original Old English.

    Here’s my message to people who are so proud never to watch TV:

    You’re missing the golden age of the distinctive art form of modern America.

    Sure, in the digital cable universe, your TV delivers an avalanche of dreck – TV shoutfests, lewd sitcoms, bad reality shows.

    But there’s another avalanche: of great stuff, clever, daring, well-written, well-acted.

    You see, Newton Minow was wrong when he famously dubbed TV a “vast wasteland.” In those three-network days, it was really a narrow wasteland. Today, it is a vast territory, with both barren wastes and stunning peaks.

    Digital cable is a treasure trove of sustainable niches where quality can flower. Every night it offers shows which, as mirrors to the times, or examples of sheer quality, will bear up under the study of future generations the way Restoration comedies or 19th-century realist novels do today.

    Any future scholar of politics and media might well begin their study of 21st century America with a look at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

    My beloved Lost, just like the splendid St. Elsewhere long before it, is a tour-de-force of intricate narrative arc over multiple seasons. On FX, Damages is devilishly well-crafted fun, with Glenn Close extraordinary as the malevolent protagonist.

    And that underlines a key point: TV dramas today take bigger risks – like a complex, morally dubious lead character – than do studio-release movies, which live or die based on the votes of teenagers.

    Friends whose taste I trust extol many shows I’ve not yet sampled. Some adore Mad Men, Breaking Bad or Big Love. And, as a Netflix procrastinator, I haven’t even seen The Wire yet. Everyone assures me it’s the best thing ever on TV.

    Yes, television has never been better, even at the same time that it’s never been worse.

    If you tell me you never watch it, I’m not going to admire you. I’m going to feel sorry for you.

    Chris Satullo is WHYY’s executive director of news and civic dialogue.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal