Episodes: The Viewers for Quality Television

If you spend a lot of time reading and researching about '80s and '90s TV (and u know I do), a group keeps popping up: the Viewers for Quality Television. At first, the idea of the group seems more or less obvious: this was an organization of TV viewers that banded together to keep shows they saw as "quality" on the air, via advocacy and yearly awards. But the truth is that the deeper you dig, the odder the group's story becomes, and the more you realize that the antihero movement that now feels so tired arose precisely because so-called "quality television" felt so boring when The Sopranos hit the air in 1999.

Viewers for Quality Television was started by Dorothy Swanson in an attempt to save the 1980s cop drama Cagney and Lacey. Groundbreaking at the time simply for showing women working in law enforcement, Cagney and Lacey hasn't really held up. But in 1984, when VQT officially became a nonprofit, it really was like nothing else out there.

What Swanson realized was that there were a lot of viewers out there like her, viewers who could be mobilized to save "quality" programming via letter writing campaigns and the like, because they were tired of lowest-common denominator television (at that time represented, I suppose, by shows like Knight Rider). The group published a newsletter, in which it reviewed quality TV and advocated for other quality TV shows, and it was like kind of a proto-internet comments section, recommending good shows to members and suggesting others to stay away from. And perhaps not coincidentally, VQT disbanded in the early 2000s, due to lack of funding -- precisely when sites like Television Without Pity were proving that TV and the internet were perfect bedfellows.

(Swanson, I should say, didn't really give a damn. She and Cagney and Lacey producer Barney Rosenzweig feuded after becoming friends, because she never embraced his follow-up show. She also feuded with various VQT members, who split off to form their own groups. Much of the book Swanson wrote about VQT deals with these feuds, in often entertaining fashion.)

The group's awards, if you ever look at them, tended to be incredibly streaky. Like the Emmys, when they found something they liked, the VQT dug into it and hung on. Cagney and Lacey, as an example, won the group's best drama award four years in a row, and Sharon Gless its best actress in a drama award those same four years. (Hell, supporting player John Karlen even won supporting actor in a drama twice.) That continued for as long as the group existed. In its heyday, VQT would hold an actual awards banquet, at which stars would come to hobnob with their biggest fans. (It should also be noted that VQT was terrific at recognizing shows about and created by women, which was at least slightly unusual.)

What's inescapable about all of this is that the VQT's idea of "quality television" -- and the idea of "quality television" more broadly throughout the '80s and '90s -- had enormous blinders on. It tended toward workplace dramas and pathos-ridden comedies. (Seinfeld, for instance, never won its best comedy award, though the little known -- terrific -- nostalgiacom Brooklyn Bridge, about which I should write a newsletter at some point, won twice.) The shows it honored almost always dealt forthrightly with social issues. And they were rarely, if ever, about characters involved in bad behavior, or genre shows, or anything that might seem non-middlebrow.

I don't want to seem like I'm giving VQT a hard time. Television in the '80s and '90s would have been a lesser place without them, and they kept a lot of good, deserving shows on the air. But with a little distance, it is impossible not to see all of the ways that the group was largely missing the really cool trees for the forest that was upholding a proper image.

To a degree, this is just what happens when you have a bunch of people vote on something -- those votes will tend to skew toward the most anodyne selection on the ballot (with obvious exceptions in the real world). And especially when the idea is to pick the most "quality" TV shows, well, that means embracing an idea of quality that leaves out a lot of great stuff. VQT embraced some shows -- like X-Files and Buffy -- but it often seemed a little half-hearted in that support. Or, in other words, it would nominate them for things, but rarely would they win. It would contradict the group's stated purpose.

I think often of the VQT when I'm writing reviews, because I think they're a useful example of how easy it is to believe that there's a "correct" way to make television. This is true of any medium, of course. There have always been disreputable genres and forms, and there are certain styles of, say, filmmaking that come in for approbation from time to time.

But TV in particular seems to be driven by the idea that, say, serialization is preferable to standalone episodes, or that the live studio audience sitcom is automatically working with a system stacked against it, or that reality TV is inherently inferior. In the post-Sopranos, post-Arrested Development era, we live in a world where we're pretty sure what a "good" drama and comedy look like. But what we almost never realize is that something is coming to blow all of that up.

To be fair, we're living in a great era for experimentation in TV comedy. There are tons of shows on the air right now that blow up the formats we've been working with for a while, and others that invent new formats all their own. And I think we're on the cusp of such a revolution in drama, as I'll argue (hopefully soon) in a piece for Vox.

But it's always good to remember to check your assumptions. Something you reject because of its form just might be the treat you didn't know you needed. There's no one way to make good TV.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I 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.