Television has been a lot of things in its 60-some-year life, but one thing it was not, until this century, with certain rule-proving exceptions, was cool. It was the home of "Father Knows Best" and "The Andy Williams Show," "Dynasty" and "The Dukes of Hazzard" -- something for the whole family to enjoy, when three broadcast networks ruled the nation and competed for viewers of all ages.
But to be seriously into "Breaking Bad" or "Pretty Little Liars," "Doctor Who" or "Fringe," "Bob's Burgers" or "Adventure Time," Rachel Maddow or Jimmy Fallon, "The Voice" or the "Real Housewives" of here and there, now confers status -- and the basis for an identity -- in the same way that liking the Velvet Underground, Skrillex or the Alabama Shakes might.
Once a fairly monolithic medium, in its subdivided formats and niche-directed multiplicity, it caters now to myriad smaller but often more intensely dedicated audiences, inspiring a sense of ownership and of community reminiscent of the way pop music works. So I ask: Has television, so long considered the lowest medium -- the boob tube, the idiot box, the old vast wasteland, corporate and irrelevant -- finally become hip? Is it the new rock?
The place to be
As always with coolness, it is partly a matter of perception -- first it wasn't cool to like Neil Diamond, but now it is -- and TV was always better than its reputation. But it is also that TV actually has
It's been a commonplace for a while now that television has gotten to be, at its best, as good as or better than film. Movies still seem the dominant medium, because they cost more to make and show in theaters, but many actors and directors -- including Dustin Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Nicole Kidman, Claire Danes, Kevin Costner, Gary Sinise, Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, Michael Mann -- who might once have considered TV a comedown (or an unfortunate return to the place they started) now embrace it without shame or desperation as an opportunity for creative work and personal expression. Many more, and more all the time, will take that as given.
Before "Louie," Louis C.K. made a few short independent art films and other projects you have to work to find; on his FX series, he makes art 12 weeks a year, and it is widely seen and celebrated. The independent films Lena Dunham made are what got her the chance to create HBO's "Girls," but TV, which has imported her sensibility unscathed, is what made her a star.
TV has grown wilder on the one hand and deeper on the other. Its audience divides and unites itself by interest, by age, by cultural or countercultural self-identification. Like pop music, television today is multifarious and factional, and with the expansion of cable and cable's leap into original production, it has acquired something like an "indie" or alt-TV component to complement its still substantial mainstream.
You see it in the weirder reaches of Comedy Central and IFC -- whose "Portlandia" is not just metaphorically "rock" but made by rock musicians -- and in the animations of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim and Nickelodeon, where whole new realities are drawn from the ground up and individual visions, and visuals, are the name of the game. And for that matter, on HBO and Fox and even NBC, whose "30 Rock" has broken as many rules as any show ever aired and where young heroes of comedy Aubrey Plaza and Aziz Ansari appear weekly on "Parks and Recreation."
But the way we consume television is part of it as well. Watching any particular show no longer necessarily happens in real time, or at home, or with the family, as was often the case in a world of less choice and fewer screens -- for better (more choice) or worse (less social cohesion, end of the universally shared television event). TV can happen anywhere, and it can happen over and over again; it has, like music in the succeeding ages of the transistor radio, Walkman and iPod, become portable and personal.
By stream or on DVD, Blu-ray and whatever format comes along to replace them, on wall- or pocket-sized screens, the life of any television series -- or the hooky television moment, for that matter, in this age of viral replication -- may be extended indefinitely. This is similar to, but fundamentally different from the traditional syndicated rerun model, which caters to mass tastes and depends on them.
In the cloud-based, Wi-Fi-ed, file-sharing, content-rental economy, the past is eternally present: "Freaks and Geeks," streaming since September on Netflix, your time is now.
Social media, being the demonstrative organs they are, amplify the effect. There is increasingly a word-of-mouth or word-of-text aspect to the way content makes its way through the world. Tumblr, Pinterest and Facebook exist to let you share taste, to array the things you love like posters on a dorm room wall for potentially all the Web to see: The YouTube link, the screen capture or animated GIF can slice a TV show into mountable, shareable "objects." Kids make mottoes from dialogue the way another generation looked for the meaning of life in the words of Bob Dylan. You Are What You Post.
What's true of the amateur watcher is true of the professional as well: To be a critic of TV in 2012 is something different from when I first wrote about it, back in the 20th century, before the cultural penetration of "The Sopranos" signaled the beginning of the end of the hegemony of old-school network television. (It's a game that new broadcast networks Fox, the WB and UPN had already begun to change from within, as it were.)
Just as a school of rock criticism emerged in the late 1960s to reflect, reflect upon, contextualize and celebrate pop's growing ambitions, dignifying music that had once been regarded as junk -- while still embracing the parts of it that were -- critical writing about television, once largely skeptical and superior or blandly industrial, has grown enthusiastic and engaged. (Like Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker and GQ's Tom Carson, among others, I am a rock critic turned TV critic.) I don't want to say the job is sexy, but it has definitely become more attractive -- taken off its glasses and shaken loose its hair -- especially since the Internet let a thousand critics bloom.
The subject is addressed in voices intellectual, passionate, academic, giddy, provocative, belligerent, comical, concerned, feminist, post-feminist and every other flavor imaginable. And just as there are "critics' bands," more written about than listened to, there are critics' shows, discussed out of proportion with their actual viewership. Sometimes it takes a while for the world to catch up with us.
It doesn't make you a nerd to love TV anymore, ardently and without irony. But even if it did, being a nerd is cool now, too. So you are all right either way.