Dostoevsky once said, “You can tell a lot about society by the way it treats its prisoners.” I would tend to agree, with the addendum of “and also the TV shows they watch” at the end. I forgive him for not mentioning TV since it hadn’t been invented yet, but I think my pal Fyodor would agree with me. Some types of shows have been around forever: the family comedy, the goofy roommates sitcom, the “rogue” detective drama. There are also some trends that come on strong for a while before eventually dying out in favor of another type of show. There are a lot of conclusions we can draw from these trends.
The Group Of Friends Sitcom
The Clinton years were great. The economy was running smoothly, everyone had money, and the only real problems were mundane issues, which were usually products of miscommunication. “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” and “Will & Grace” were the four horsemen of this genre. They were a caricature of what typified their era: smart, neurotic, mildly-sociopathic, upper middle-class white people dealing with the harrowing task of day-to-day life and love. There wasn’t any form of higher commentary that you would have seen in “All In The Family” or “The Cosby Show” from previous decades. I’m not even saying that as a detraction from these shows, because I still continue to enjoy them. It is a reflection, however, of the society in which they were popular. There were no major global conflicts the U.S. was involved in and everyone had a retirement plan. You’re much less likely to be rationally cynical when your bank account is healthy.
What were “Sex And The City” and “Entourage” actually about? Ostensibly, four friends trying to make it in big cities with jobs known for being notoriously difficult. It chronicled their struggles, love lives, and eventual rises to prominence, but you can’t tell me that’s why we watched them. Nope, it was for the glamour. Sure, there were plenty of laughs and touching moments, but we were always much more concerned with seeing how Ari was going to wrangle a fat check for Vince more than we ever really wanted E to find romantic happiness. Sure, it was also about friendship and brothers sticking together through good and bad times, but like “Sex And The City,” the core of the show was just as shallow as the motivations of the people watching it. Before I start sounding like some self-important film critic, I want to make it clear that I watched both of these shows in their entirety and loved them. I just didn’t delude myself into believing they were anything other than what they were.
The “Smart” Procedural
At some point, we decided that seeing cops or detectives solving crimes wasn’t good enough. We fancied ourselves an educated audience and demanded the same from our entertainment. “Law and Order” was certainly the first to break ground in dealing with concepts that would have previously been considered too complex for the average viewer. “CSI” was the real breakthrough, though. It sucked viewers in with pure Bruckheimer-style and the promise of police science. Did it matter that most of the forensic concepts were either wildly exaggerated or completely made up? Of course not. The audience wasn’t actually looking for knowledge, just a shiny counterfeit of it.
The Apocalyptic Drama
A significant argument can be made that the rise of the gritty, cynical action movie was in no small part influenced by 9/11. Similarly, the shows that seem to pop up every season now about humans surviving the apocalypse likely owe their popularity to the economic collapse. People began to realize that losing everything was a real danger, and new shows came in to comment on that. “The Walking Dead,” “Revolution,” and “Falling Skies,” along with a myriad of other failed series, are all members of that depressing club. At their best, these shows depict humanity’s resilience, along with the continued existence of love, hate, and fear. At their worst, they’re heavy-handed morality machines, attempting to convince us of some message the show creators already held in his or her mind. However, we’ll certainly look back on this era and realize exactly how much some of these shows truly captured the socioeconomic zeitgeist of the late 2000s and early 2010s.