How decades of television reflect our changing society


If you’ve been watching television for as long as I have (probably over 20 years by now), you’ll notice that there has been a significant shift in the way television is made, from a decade ago.

As I rewatch my favorite TV shows, from MASH to Star Trek to Justice League, I see a pattern. Each episode can be watched unto itself. If you know the characters, you could jump in at any moment, and the storyline would make sense, be it season 2 or season 10. There isn’t any significant change in the setting beyond certain actors or characters being omitted or replaced.

Television in the 80’s and 90’s was self-contained.

Maybe it was the nature of television then: you flipped it on when you got home from work and you vegetated on the couch. Sometimes you’d miss an episode because of friends night out or family duties, but more or less, the characters that you grew to love would be always be there. You’d feel safe with them. The world seemed clear, stable, obvious.

When the internet hit, and television shows evolved, we’ve seen a tsunami of new content that is far from self-contained. Storylines today must lead somewhere, characters must die, villains must be destroyed, and new ones must rise to replace them. Heroes must have a thousand faces, not just one. Episodes must have cliffhangers.

I’m not sure when it exactly started since I’m not in Hollywood, but my most distinct memory of a TV show that had this was 24, with the counting clock after every episode, you had to sit through nail-biting to the end.

During that same span of years, it seems reality TV shows also came to supersede trivia shows. The self-contained Wheel of Fortune, where one person won each episode made way for Survivor, where you had to stay tuned for an entire season to see the eventual winner.

Even in the world of news, self-contained pieces made way for narratives and punditry. Gone are the days when the supposedly objective CNN and BBC news channels dominate our airwaves, making way for folks like Fox and Comedy Central’s Daily Show to control a tight narrative that constantly wove a directed story around all the events we were witnessing behind our multiplying screens. They controlled the dialogue.

All of this, the trend from self-contained to long narratives underlines something more stark in our modern society.

The last twenty years, from a moral perspective, have been tumultuous. We’ve born witness to moral ambiguity, villains that are actually heroes, heroes that are actually villains, flawed politicians, old historical wins twisted into possible losses. Nelson Mandela liberated South Africa but his country is still in tatters. MLK Jr. was a leader but also a womanizer. Michael Jackson was an icon, but a child molester. Bill Clinton was a suave politician but a pervert. The list is endless. Politicians and celebrities were always flawed human beings. But with the internet and heightened media, their behavior (and therefore their morality) is now under a microscope for all to see. And as we’ve seen more and more of it, we’ve come to accept it. It’s now a fabric of our society, a matter of course. House of Cards is precisely the kind of TV show that tries to push the boundaries of what we think is right for a politician to do. We all know that Frank Underwood is a horrible person, but when we look back at our political reality, it looks more like a reflection than a fiction.

Isn’t it strange that most of the fans of Breaking Bad were rooting for Walter White up until the very end? The writers were testing our moral mettle, testing how much we could take. Our sensibilities (and therefore realities) get blurred in the watching. We see every shade of Walter, we love him, we hate him, but in some way, we also see ourselves in him, and it scares the hell out of us, deep inside.

And this is why we have these long narratives now instead of capsules of content or entertainment. The world has challenged most, if not all, of the old world beliefs. That clear post-Cold War world of good versus evil, or obvious superheroes and supervillains, is now a distant memory. The long complex and morally ambiguous narrative is exactly the kind of society we live in today.

The mighty institutions of our day, once pillars of morality, are now all cast with suspicion, everyone from non-profits to the NSA to conglomerates. That’s why we need these long seasons, these Netflixes to chill, poking and prodding into a person’s character, season after season, to allow us to look deeper into what makes a person, challenging us to ignore their actions and peeking into what makes them who they are. A person is now no longer one character, they are a series of characters, and we get to see their seasons, from summer to winter.

It’s a strange time, this 21st century, a time when we are hard pressed to find unscathed heroes. It’s a time where celebrity is spectacle and spectacle is likable (i.e. Kanye). But heroes? If they aren’t assassinated, they live long enough to be human.

And somehow, these long narratives, when they’re written by expert writers, open up an estranged empathy deep within us. We allow people to be human. What was once weird is cool. What once was evil could be good (but more likely the opposite). It helps us to cope with with a century tornadoeing out of our comprehension.

By Anh Minh Do