Tag Archives: Decade in Review

Television, the Aughts & I – Part Six – “Reinventing How We See the Wheel”

“Reinventing How We See the Wheel”

December 18th, 2009

[This is Part Six in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

I started Cultural Learnings in January 2007 for two main reasons. The first was that my brother Ryan had a blog, and thus its proximity to my life made it seem like a cool thing to do. The second was that I was in a “Politics of Mass Media” course and the idea of using a blog as a way of brownnosing extra credit appealed to me. So, in the early days (which, for the sake of my pride, have largely been purged), there were posts about a myriad of subjects, as whatever struck my fancy made its way under the collective banner of Cultural Learnings.

As noted throughout these pieces, a number of factors influenced the switch to a television blog, whether it was the return of Battlestar Galactica and Lost from their respective hiatuses or the false optimism engendered by Heroes’ first season. And in 2007, I wrote a piece that suggested (quite accurately, at the time) that the fan campaign surrounding Jericho was what made Cultural Learnings what it was in its first year. It made me realize that what I wrote had an audience, and that said audience could be enormously passionate about things in ways that I simply was not. It was what convinced me of the value of writing about television online in a blog format, and my experience in that community (despite my lack of affection for the show itself) was an important part of this decade.

However, if there were a single show that defined television criticism in this decade for me and quite a few others, it would have to be According to Jim

…wait, scratch that. Yes, I have to make a joke to distract you here, as I’m about to provide more praise for David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Wire, an epic tale of urban decay and personal tragedy that broke the hearts and captured the minds of critics and a relatively small number of viewers. It’s a show that will be near the top of almost every critical Top 10 list, and a show that until last summer I had never had the pleasure of watching. And that, if you look back in the archives, I’ve written about far less often than you might think, which isn’t entirely going to change here.

Rather than being the show that I’ve written the most content about, or the show that had the greatest emotional impact upon watching it, The Wire defines the past decade of television for me because it’s the show that has most made me want to be a television critic, to be able to not only analyze it more carefully but also spread the word and facilitate further discussion using the power of this blog. While I could probably get away with calling it the best television series of all time, my blind spots require me to simply say that no piece of television has had a larger impact on how I live my life than The Wire, both in terms of my choice to write television criticism and my aversion to hardware stores.

And I’m not sure there will be another show like it in the decade ahead.

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Five – “Late to the Comedies”

“Late to the Comedies”

December 17th, 2009

[This is Part Five in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

Flipping through the three channels I got using my rabbit ear antennas in my dorm room late one night (okay, early one morning), I stumbled across a very snowy episode of television. In it, a group of office employees organize an “Office Olympics,” which ends up both funny and quite sweet, and I wanted to know more about this single-camera comedy.

Following internet chatter, I heard of a cult-favourite show that my only memory of was my confusion at its victories at the Emmy awards.  Fan response was overwhelmingly positive to the point where my very credibility as a television viewer was in jeopardy if I didn’t join in for its upcoming third season.

Although no one I knew actually watched the show, I heard word of a multi-camera comedy with some recognizable faces that was slowly building a cult following of its own with what it called a “Robin Sparkles,” and since I was wrapped up in a “Save this Show” campaign for a different show at the time I figured I should see if another bubble show might be worth getting behind.

A decade ago, my only recourse in these situations was to find out when the various shows (which, for the unawares, are The Office (US), Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother, respectively) aired and just pick up wherever they happen to be, hopeful that some day reruns could fill in the gaps.

However, we live in an age where I was able to catch up with twenty episodes of The Office to be up to date a mere week later, and where I marathoned two seasons of Arrested Development to be able to join the Bluth family in progress, and where I spent the summer before HIMYM’s third season learning what a Slap Bet was and watching Barney Stinson own the Price is Right. As a result, I became a vocal supporter of all of these shows, getting in on all of their jokes, despite having been late to the party with every single one of them.

And I’ll admit right now that I probably broke a law or two doing it.

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Four – “Reality Doesn’t Bite”

“Reality Doesn’t Bite”

December 16th, 2009

[This is Part Four of a six-part series chronicling the shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

In Part One, I suggested that I had no real vivid memories of television before 2001, and while this is effectively true I do have a memory about reality television that predates that time. I was watching Entertainment Tonight (I swear, at one point this was a perfectly logical thing to do), and they had a short news blurb about how a Scandinavian reality show concept was coming to television amidst controversy. The show was, in fact, Survivor, and when they talked about the premise (people stranded on a pacific island left to fight it out for a million dollars) I thought it was one of the stupidest things I had ever heard.

And then I watched 19 seasons of it.

What I quickly discovered was that I love what we’ve now come to call the Reality Competition genre, shows which capture the thrill of, you know, competition with the added dose of, well, reality. To use other words is convenient to help justify watching the shows, equating them to a social experiment or a chance to live vicariously through others, but there is something about seeing people you come to know and care about compete against one another for a cash prize that continues to see me tuning in week in and week out.

Now, when analyzing the decade as a whole it may seem strange – more than strange, it’s probably a bit misrepresentative – to limit the limitless reality genre to only its competition format, but for me the competition format has been the far more important and positive television force. While there is, in fact, something borderline exploitative about some elements of the reality genre, competitive reality is the unique mix of casting and a cleverly designed structure, shows which utilize various narrative tools (especially editing) in order to welcome viewers into experiences that are not their own in a way that empowers us to, in a limited form, psychoanalyze our social interactions, race around the world, or care about something about which we know extremely little.

And while it isn’t in fact for everyone, it’s definitely something that has been an important part of my television experience over the past decade.

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Three – “Getting some (Critical) Perspective”

“Getting some (Critical) Perspective”

December 15th, 2009

[This is Part Three in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

When I entered into university, I knew that it was going to change how I approached various parts of my life. A liberal arts degree, by nature, is about developing analytical skills in order to more carefully consider and understand the world around you. And while I really enjoyed my high school experience, I knew that university would shift me even further in that direction, and I was ready for the challenge.

However, something very strange happened, in that concurrent to the development of greater critical analysis skills I started watching a rather enormous amount of television. And at that point, the two worlds started to converge, and I discovered that they were more peanut butter and chocolate than they were oil and water. It would be a number of years until this entirely crystallized, but it became very clear very quickly that I was not a “normal” television viewer.

The serialized shows that I was exposed to during this period are those which helped solidify my critical faculties, driving me to consider them from multiple angles and almost begging for a more careful consideration than most viewers might have been partaking in. And while I won’t pretend that this is the only way to watch television, there is no question that the convergence of my sudden interest in television and the critical analytical skills developed in university is an incredibly important part of how I enjoy this medium today: watching intently, taking notes, and spending as long writing about the episode as I spent watching it.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Two – “Coming of Age”

“Coming of Age”

December 14th, 2009

[This is Part Two in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

I don’t intend to go into too much biographical detail in these pieces, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that I made the transition from teenager to adult in the past decade (which, yes, makes me fairly young as far as television critics go). As a result, shows that appealed to this period of my life (like, for example, the aforementioned Gilmore Girls transitioning from high school to university around when I was doing the same) often connected with me over shows that, well, didn’t.

However, when I sat down to craft these pieces and lumped these three shows together, the idea that they are important because they chronicle the lives of high school and college students (the two most dominant identifiers in my life over the past decade) proves to be an overly simplistic one. In fact, the more complex (and more meaningful) connective thread between them is the emotional center that parents (or the lack of parents) provide to each series. And while Freud would likely argue this is some unearthed family anxiety (which, since my parents will probably at least read the opening spiel of a few of these pieces, is fundamentally untrue), I think it’s more proof that shows about the most fitful and tempestuous times in our lives require something stable, something almost unfailing, to ground them in an emotional reality.

And that those of us who watch them want to see, simultaneously, a reflection of ourselves, a mirror universe in which we are quite the opposite, and some element of truth which cuts through those expectations to either break our hearts or convince us that there really is hope for the geeks, hope for the private dicks, and hope for the underdogs.

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part One – “Beginnings”

“Beginnings”

December 13th, 2009

[This is Part One in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

Memory is inherently selective, and yet we have almost no control over the selection process. We’d love to be able to, say, remember incredibly important facts or theories for the sake of writing exams as opposed to having a steel trap when it comes to song lyrics, and random details about family trips are useless if you can’t remember the names of your second cousins, but it just isn’t possible. We want to be able to control memory, to think we can choose what we remember, but in reality it’s entirely out of our hands.

So I have to wonder what it means that before 2001, I don’t remember watching television.

This is not to suggest I was entirely ambivalent towards the medium, as I weekly sat down to watch The Simpsons and surely watched an occasional episode of the big shows of the 90s (or whatever was on TBS in syndication when I got home from school each day). However, there was no sense that The Simpsons were more than an anomaly, and more importantly there was no show I followed religiously. My television tastes were devoid of plot and substance, a fact which didn’t bother me at the time but now makes me wonder what I was missing. Of course, I was 14 when this decade began, so missing out on some shows that started when I was a pre-teen isn’t exactly the world’s greatest crime. However, that this medium, which has become so important in my life, was at one point unmemorable seems like some sort of cosmic mistake. But in the end memory’s selection process captures those things which felt like they had an important influence on some part of your life, and for me that simply did not happen with television…before 2001.

However, it did happen afterwards, signalling a shift in both how my memory operates and how I watch and write about television. I want to focus on the first three shows of the decade that I have distinct memories of watching, and in particular on how well those initial memories have survived the following years (which were not, in fact, entirely kind to these particular series). And while I may have turned on these series to varying degrees as they became inconsistent or went in unsatisfying directions, no amount of criticism can wipe away the memories of watching them for the first time – memories that might not exist before 2001, but most certainly exist for the years which follow.

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