Watching TV with my dad is a fairly unfocused experience. He’s the classic channel-flipper, always searching for some unexpected gem among the 500 cable channels around 10:50 p.m., just to take the edge off before bedtime. So it surprised me when, during a phone call the other day, he announced that he’d started Breaking Bad — allegedly on my recommendation. I had no memory of this, which makes sense when you figure I probably told him about the show in 2008 or 2009, when the crime drama was taking off as a pop-cultural phenomenon.
“I really like Hank, the detective,” dad told me, referring to antihero and eventual meth kingpin Walter White’s macho cop brother-in-law, totally unaware of this character’s destiny or how it would entwine with the series’ narrative arc. “In a way he’s totally obnoxious, but he’s also got this goodness in him.” Remembering how my experience with the show was tainted by lots of bullshit fan theories, predictions and obsessive analysis on forums and Reddit, I was envious of this fresh and simple read on the first few episodes. But 10 years later, and my dad didn’t have to deal with any fan following Breaking Bad as it aired; instead he could enjoy it on its own terms.
I started to ask if he’d gotten as far as a certain important development, but he protested: “Don’t spoil it for me!”
The era of Peak TV has brought with it a definite exhaustion. It’s hard enough picking what to stream, let alone keeping up with whatever is deemed to “matter” at the moment. Adding to our stress, the discourse that attends the mega-hot show of the period is relentless punishment. Bad Takes abound, and if you’re an episode behind, there’s a decent chance that some dumb meme will ruin the twist that lies ahead. We’re in a rush to catalog a series’ strengths and failures, to define its legacy and meaning before it’s halfway over.
As such, most of our approach to TV these days misses this basic fact: We’re dealing with serialized, ongoing entertainment. It could build tension masterfully or achieve an iconic style; it could abruptly nosedive after a couple seasons. Either way, you’ve committed to a perspective — and a time-suck — before you have real data.
Not so the people who come “late” to the “essential” shows. They are truly free.
When I asked people how their delayed viewings of major TV shows had gone, they cited any number of advantages. You can go at your own pace, for one thing, spreading episodes out as far as you like or binging at top speed (all the while pitying the fools who had to wait another week for a cliffhanger to resolve). You get the pleasure of having a common reference finally explained, or letting age and the intervening years offer a more nuanced view of what’s unfolding on screen: I heard from folks watching The West Wing or Friends for the first time who were impressed by the craft of either but cringing at some of the sexual politics. Perhaps most unexpectedly, there was the fun of being cheered on by the show’s long-standing acolytes as you joined their ranks.
TV history also has the effect of curation; only years later do you have a sense of what’s held up and had a lasting impact. Is anyone going to remember Stranger Things in 2029? Would the 1.6 million irate viewers petitioning to remake the last season of Game of Thrones have gone as hard early in the series had they known where it would end up? And is it maybe better to be forewarned of The Sopranos’ ambiguous final shot, so you can appreciate how radical and clever it is, instead of automatically condemning it?
A solid decade between you and the hype or backlash really cuts away the dross and gives the good stuff room to breathe. Our determination to be ahead of the curve on an oversaturated medium is costing us the idle, passive satisfactions it once provided. TV is now homework when it should be relaxation. The creators who rely on an audience to prove a show’s value as it debuts and advances have my sympathies, because I may just adopt my dad’s wait-and-see approach going forward. It sure beats life on the treadmill of content, where any minor backsliding throws you entirely out of the loop.
A loop, of course, that merely serves the interests of those who watch too much TV in the first place.