By Kenny Herzog
Special to MSN TV
When ABC's aliens-out-of-water sitcom, "The Neighbors," premiered this fall, a prominent critic denounced it as "one of the least funny things to air on television since the last Hitler documentary on History." That is, assuming said author watched History's most recent exposé on the genocidal world leader, which is doubtful. In either case, it's a tasteless, meaningless little quip that's entirely more offensive than "The Neighbors" itself. At worst, this harmless throwback from Chris Koch and Jeffrey Morton (whose additional producing-directing credits include "Modern Family," "Workaholics," "Traffic Light" and "Don't Trust the B--- in Apartment 23") can be accused of uncomfortably navigating both racy topical humor and old-fashioned wholesomeness. At best, its tone and structure are quite reminiscent of "Modern Family" (albeit with a less charismatic ensemble) but hinge precariously on earnest nostalgia for a loony, overcooked "Bewitched"-cum-"Small Wonder" retro charm.
But in 2012 -- with "Louie" internalizing the half-hour comedy as a deconstructionist exercise and NBC's entire Thursday night lineup dancing around sitcom cliches like the teens in "Scream" outsmarting horror tropes -- the centrist position of "The Neighbors" as neither TGIF fodder nor meta-expression makes it strangely conspicuous. Of course, it's a scenario being played out among dramas, too. The usually lauded suspects -- "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Sons of Anarchy" et al -- in addition to the typical wealth of superlative premium-cable originals (currently, "Homeland" and "Game of Thrones" come to mind, among others), have offered an embarrassment of "prestige" TV. That trend has helped explode an inescapable qualitative gap, which can be useful when narrowing down a DVR schedule, but also risks hardening viewers and encouraging professorial attitudes toward a traditionally escapist medium. It's almost hard to imagine that a mere half-decade ago, one could go blue arguing for scripted television's merit as substantive art. Or that, for many highbrow naysayers, disowning their idiot boxes was a fashionable lifestyle statement. Now, confessing ignorance about the week that was on HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, TNT and their peers has become tantamount to cultural neglect, subject to chiding reminiscent of intellectual jousting over literature or modern sculpture.
The stars aligned
This seemingly overnight readjustment was partly a direct result of prolonged, diminishing qualitative returns within the movie industry. A-list Hollywood types (e.g. Denis Leary, Ray Romano, Diablo Cody, Glenn Close) tired of trading off theatrical fluff for the odd passion project began fixing their gaze on television and developing ambitious serial projects. Amid this migration, the aforementioned network powerhouses began gathering exiled small-screen talent from behind the camera who wanted to make their own name after cutting teeth on premium-channel darlings like "The Sopranos" (i.e. "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner). Meanwhile, the Home Box Offices, Showtimes and even Cinemaxes of cable guides' upper echelons began scrambling to either retain their best writers and producers, solicit the most established leading men and women, or simply plant their flag amid an increasingly crowded settlement of quality-driven series. For every one of FX's Jessica Lange-level casting coups, HBO could muster up a Steve Buscemi in "Boardwalk Empire" or Showtime would announce Claire Danes as the face of its eventual flagship series, "Homeland." Not long after, CBS, NBC, ABC, et al snapped to and slowly reconstituted their seasonal lineups, a process they're still largely adapting to with marked unsteadiness. (For every "24," "Lost" or "The Good Wife," there's a graveyard of tepid nonstarters like "The River" or "The Playboy Club.") In essence, Hollywood had endorsed television.
Everyone's a critic
Around that same period (roughly the late-2000s), the majority of online entertainment publications opened the gates of their reviews to virtually unfiltered public feedback. Comments sections on some of the popular alternative-criticism sites metastasized into their own authoritative incubators. The actual staff writer roles had ostensibly been reduced to town hall moderator. Whereas print outlets once tracked their influence via concrete circulation figures that in turn were bartered for ad revenue, and dictated their editorial voice under the leadership of a well-resourced publisher, a website's value lives and dies by its reader engagement -- even if that means conceding editorial direction to a volatile user base. The upside to that is its inherent anarchy. The consequence is a "Lord of the Flies" scenario where a utopia of empowered autonomy and progressive cross-dialogue is quickly dispatched in deference to tribal politics. It began to seem as if everyone with a TV set was not only passionate about what they watched, but inclined to clinically post-assess their experience like a focus group of industry insiders. Watercooler chatter was slowly being upended by ticker-tape threads of blog patter about showrunners, multicameras and episode arcs. Being a couch potato was suddenly serious business.
This is a recording
The forum for expressing insights about each night's lineup of potentially landmark television isn't all that's changed. Thanks to DVR-capable technology and On Demand, your average enterprising cable subscribers can at last control when they watch, whether they watch in chunks or all at once, and if they skirt over ads with ease or use those helpful interruptions as bathroom breaks -- provided, of course, you're not looking to record more than two titles concurrently. (Cue reference to recent DirecTV campaign promoting redundant scheduling.) Most of us aren't working any less. Even kids are spread thin. So it's hard to argue with DVR and On Demand services' practical imperative. And we all appreciate opting out of endorsements that waste our time and manipulate our wallets. The only danger is a growing accustomedness to binge-viewing, which probably threatens more free, interpersonal moments in a week than the scattered intrusion of commercially sponsored real-time airings. It's an even more isolating habit when you consider how it antiquates the singular quality about television that was so instantly impacting on the American way of life: that shared experience of witnessing an event, performance, piece of news, classic sitcom sequence or dramatic narrative turn of events at the same precise moment in time. Those instances -- whether it's a State of the Union address or discovering who shot J.R. -- are self-defining. They spare us from needing to brutally dissect or overthink what we just saw. The option to instantaneously recall and reacquaint with any broadcast, and in turn so readily defer its communal significance, is a pretty lonely routine -- no matter how many times one refreshes comments online.
Spoiler alert! This is about spoilers
Part and parcel with all the above arguments, there's the wonderful world of spoilers. Without a doubt, broadcast networks that still avoid replays of their marquee series (On Demand notwithstanding) seem perilously stubborn and out of touch, a la record labels who refused to budge on album prices when digital music erupted. But it sure is tough to argue that things were so much simpler when you either tuned in at a designated hour for your favorite stories or simply missed the boat. Unless you felt like spending 25 minutes beforehand manually prepping a VHS to document a poor facsimile of the real thing. Even if you did record that week's "St. Elsewhere" for posterity, despite the often-momentous nature of TV generations ago, it wasn't as if you'd spend the next morning at work in fear of screaming headlines and recaps on your computer screen, taunting your recreational transgression. Or, in other words, there were no spoilers! The pressure to avoid instant-feedback blogs, Twitter and Facebook reaction (social media is a whole other ball of congestion) and subsequent workday discussion on the latest "Walking Dead" offing or "Revenge" double-cross has completely muddied our priorities and silently bullied us into compulsive, almost fearful consumption. If only school teachers and college professors mustered up such effective scare tactics before exams. Not to mention, spoilers spoil things, and it's very stressful, and who has the time to press play on last Sunday's "Once Upon a Time" until Wednesday when they're still ordering the importance of "Dexter," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Homeland"?
What does it all mean?
Not much, in the grand scheme. As many of us were reminded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, access to entertainment when we want it and are used to having it (never mind contributing to and taking in the gallery of opinion) is an absurd luxury. TV can be transporting and thrilling and distracting and cathartic, and it certainly keeps plenty of people employed, whether they're making it or offering token analysis that's really an invitation for trolls and amateur experts to seize the viral stage. TV's also simultaneously ephemeral and timeless, and thanks to all the discussed technology and cult devotion to even the fringiest of product, its content will be there whenever we need it or serve as a reality check when it's no longer urgent. Television is fun to take seriously, but as evidenced in recent years, awfully easy to take the fun out of. Hopefully, we won't find ourselves resembling the father-and-son extraterrestrials of "The Neighbors," Larry Bird and Reggie Jackson (don't ask). When introduced to our wondrous boob tube, the pair obliviously spend their evening blissing out in front of a blank high-def screen, which we can all agree is a markedly less enticing prospect than 30 minutes with "The Neighbors."