Episodes: How to save the TV canon



(This is part two of a series. To read part one, go here!)

There was perhaps no TV feature so roundly misunderstood at the AV Club as TV Club 10. And I don't just mean it was misunderstood by commenters (though it was that). It was misunderstood by basically everybody, including me, and I invented the damn thing.

As I've been thinking about how to preserve the TV canon, I was reminded that I launched TV Club 10 in an effort to do just that, then didn't really succeed in conveying how it was different from just "a list of the 10 best episodes" (which the commenters generally understood it to be). No, the "most essential" thing in the intro text was always key to the whole thing. See, TV Club 10 was supposed to function, in a way, as a TV Cliff's Notes, a cheat sheet that you could use to check out 10 episodes of All in the Family (much less onerous than watching the whole show) and get a good sense of what it was all about. If you loved it, you could watch more. If you were indifferent, you could move on to something else.

I literally have no idea if anybody used the feature in this fashion. Within the AV Club, we still talked about it as a "most essential" episodes feature, but there was a tendency to skew it toward "10 best" anyway. To be sure, the distinction for some shows is non-existent, but I think the best TV Club 10s advanced an argument about the show as a whole, while also presenting its many faces. When I wrote about Breaking Bad, for instance, I tried to boil the show down to just Walter White's arc. And when I wrote about The X-Files, I attempted to figure out the many different "types" of episodes that show did and offer at least one of each form.

The handful of commenters who keyed into this aspect of the feature mostly bemoaned that neophytes wouldn't watch every episode, from the very beginning, and very quickly, it became a feature not for newbies, but for superfans. (That might have been a function of the AVC readership as well.) And here we find the other big problem with the TV canon: the idea of being a TV series completist is so deeply ingrained in the sorts of people who would watch a TV canon that to do so would become a major undertaking. It's not good enough to watch 10 X-Files, in the minds of most of us. You have to have seen all of it.

If there were a way to save the TV canon, then, I would suggest that's it. Let's strip down the TV canon from whole shows to individual seasons or even episodes that can stand in as representatives of the shows they were part of. Those who want to go on greater explorations of said programs can and should feel free to do so. Those who find them wanting can move on to other things. It's no good to want to discuss TV intelligently and have absolutely no idea what Hill Street Blues brought to the medium, but I also don't think it's necessary to watch the entire thing to get what was so important, unless you really want to.

The trend toward completism assumes that every single show in TV history was assembled the way that, say, Breaking Bad was, where every piece mattered. But that's only really been true for a smidgen of the medium's history, and even then, you can largely skip over episodes if you're not feeling them. I watched a couple episodes of Manhattan (a very serialized show) with my wife last night, a show she'd always been curious about but had never seen, and she was hooked, with minimal explanation. In general, most television is still rewarding to those who join late. You can figure it out, without too much effort.

That's doubly true for older shows. There's a general sense that non-serialized programs are less "sophisticated," but I don't think that could be further from the truth. There's a kind of purity to a well-done episodic show, where the conflicts eternally reset. It's the question of doing one thing well, hundreds of times, which is enormously difficult. Few shows managed it, and there's no shame in bailing once a series starts to fall apart.

The best way to restore the primacy of classic TV is watching classic TV, but the best way people encountered classic TV in the past was by stumbling upon it in syndicated reruns somewhere. It's harder and harder to do that in the streaming age, when you're invited to start from episode one. But that approach doesn't always work for shows that sometimes took seasons to figure their shit out. (Just ask any fan of Newhart, Bob Newhart's sitcom from the '80s that kept tinkering right up until the end.)

The best thing that we fans of classic television can do, then, is come up with guided tours of the best of old TV, and I don't just mean guided tours of the '90s to today. We should keep in mind that the way most people find classic TV now is on streaming and cater said tours accordingly (it does no one any good if an episode we recommend is difficult to find), but we should always be pushing for others to approach these things less as shows than as individual episodes. That's, after all, how so many of us got hooked. You can't build a wall without bricks, and I know I'll be doing my best to recommend some bricks in this space going forward. It's the name of the newsletter, after all.

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.