The rising expectations for television shows

By Mackenzie Bush | 9/28/14 8:23am

Recently, television has been going through some massive character development arcs. Netflix now makes it much easier to binge watch and catch up on shows. We’ve largely moved away from multi-camera comedy (except for The Big Bang Theory, which simply will not die). And on a larger note, we expect more out of TV.

It is no longer just something to play in the background. Shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad demand that its viewer devote their entire attention to the screen, lest they miss something pivotal. We allow our characters room to breathe and let them drive shows.

Which is cool. However, this development has also led to a fairly new concept of television elitism; it feels like there is now a television canon, a list of shows that you must be watching to maintain your social status. This idea leaves many shows in the dust.

These shows are often television that has a little more pulp, that taste more like cotton candy than like vegetables. For example, these shows would include Pretty Little Liars, New Girl, Once Upon a Time, Teen Wolf and Scandal. If you would be embarrassed to put a show in your Top Three even though it might belong there, it’s probably pulp television.

But what, exactly, distinguishes these shows from the shows that win Emmys? Sometimes, the subject matter is a little lighter, and often sci-fi and fantasy are indiscriminately thrown in this pile. But it’s likely that other issues are at play here, too.

As with most forms of media, shows with a predominantly female cast or fan-base tend to be deemed more frivolous. Because of sexism, we’ve decided that Broad City and The Mindy Project should be taken less seriously than Louie and Community. However, the former shows have a great deal to say about the female experience and intersectionality, even if they do so while making jokes.

Pulp TV shows also often cover important, hot button issues. On The Fosters alone, there have been story lines about hair politics, gender presentation, sexual violence and the issues with the foster care system. These are all issues that don’t usually squeak into more serious television shows because most of their screen time is going to metaphors and inventive cinematography.

In addition, television really shouldn’t lend itself to snobbery. The medium wasn’t really created to convey art. Although all shows have their own goals and motivations, I think that television’s main goal is to entertain. Television must remain compelling or its audiences will abandon ship.

And television’s second goal is to inspire empathy. Television introduces its viewers to new people, perhaps those who they would never encounter otherwise. And unlike movies, in which they meet these people and then never see them again, television shows us a much larger chunk of these characters’ lives, giving us new perspectives on the people around us.

Television doesn’t have to be full of pink bears floating in swimming pools and trials by combat to accomplish its most basic goals, and it definitely doesn’t need them to be entertaining or worth your while.

So go forth and eat your television desserts. And don’t turn off your TV if someone walks in on you watching ABC Family. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

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