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The schism between quality and popular shows – Guest Clack

Today’s guest clacker is Kelly Bedard, who — wouldn’t you know it — has her own TV-themed blog and podcast.

This summer a friend and I engaged in an epic Facebook TV war. For months we quizzed each other, back and forth, pretentiously spouting off on such enthralling quandaries as “which small screen characters do you think make the strongest feminist argument?” and “of all Whedon’s creations, who do you think demonstrates the greatest heroic arc?”

We debated the symbolism of Six Feet Under’s archer moments and discussed the darkest mysteries of the Lost island, but the conclusion we ultimately came to is that, while we love slogging through the metaphorical depths of some of TV’s artier shows, there’s a reason that we can watch an episode of Friends ten times and still find it funny, while once through Mad Men is quite enough. TV critics and award shows have descended into irretrievable depths of elitism in recent years and television is suffering for it.

Every year, the schism between “quality” shows and “popular” shows is widening and I honestly don’t believe that it’s because the audiences are getting dumber. These days it seems as though being on a mainstream network immediately disqualifies you for an Emmy or even for major critical recognition. All the love, instead, gets directed towards cable shows that no one I know actually watches (and my friends watch A LOT of TV).

Every time another Emmy goes to Jeremy Piven instead of Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother gets a step closer to being canceled and replaced with CSI: Guantanamo Bay. The more the press panders away from shows that are readily within the public’s grasp, the more the quality will disappear from them and we’ll be left with mindless procedurals, a couple of reality shows about heiresses doing construction work for poor dwarves with bad hair and a couple of really good cable shows that most people don’t get on their basic cable package.

But it’s not just the press and the awards shows. I know too many people who refuse to watch Gossip Girl because they think it’s “mindless”, won’t watch House because it’s “unrealistic” and ignore the genius of Friday Night Lights because, and I quote, “high school shows are dumb.” People — and this is from someone who’s spent many hours discussing the importance of the character foils Sorkin creates in his shows and how Veronica Mars redefined the role of the television outsider in a classist society — Gossip Girl is a good show.

So is the conventional and cheerful TBS sitcom My Boys. The OC was a great television achievement, that Friends is just as legitimate a piece of comedy history as Arrested Development is, that Scrubs is home to some of the most complicated relationships in watched medium history, that the broad US version of The Office easily rivals the more subtle BBC version and that anyone who disagrees probably has not actually watched most of these shows.

Just because the characters carry Gucci purses, have unrealistically beautiful hair or are still in high school doesn’t mean that the writers didn’t make a point of giving them some depth. Just because there’s a pratfall in the opening credits doesn’t mean that a show can’t contain sophisticated humor. Plots can be complex, arcs can be engaging and metaphors can resonate even in a show on a mainstream network, free from the glory of the press and without an Emmy in sight.

Photo Credit: The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

Categories: | Clack | Features | General | Guest Clack |

16 Responses to “The schism between quality and popular shows – Guest Clack”

November 20, 2008 at 12:17 PM

I definitely agree that all the quality serial dramas have moved to cable. 2008 brought us seasons of The Wire, The Shield, Damages, Dexter, Generation Kill, Brotherhood, True Blood, The Closer, Saving Grace, and many other wonderful shows. The only thing on network television which compares, in my opinion, are the primetime soap operas (Greg Berlanti’s three shows and Desperate Housewives), and the sci-fi shows (Fringe, T:SCC, and hopefully the upcoming Dollhouse).

As a Clacker, I’m thankful for HBO, Showtime, FX, TNT, and USA’s unwavering commitment to excellence.

November 20, 2008 at 12:38 PM

Sorry, but I don’t think the Emmy’s have anything to do with it. Sure, it irks me that Michael Emerson was overlooked for Best Supporting Actor, but the Emmy’s do not influence which shows I watch or don’t watch.

I think the real issue is that the Neilsen Ratings is the only measure of tv viewership out there. Why are there no alternative ratings systems in a free market economy such as ours? Why should 10,000 families (possibly imaginary as I’ve never known anyone who has actually been a Neilsen family) determine what the entire US is forced to watch?

By the way, I do think that the tv viewing public is getting dumber. They no longer want to think on any level.

November 21, 2008 at 1:31 AM

I’d agree with your argument on the Nielsen Ratings. I wish that the networks would track alternative forms of viewership, rather than just who is able to turn on the tv during that time slot. I know personally I’m often busy with other things during a show’s broadcast time, so I have to either download the episode or stream it later.

I’d wonder what would happen if the networks monitored how many people download an episode from Bittorrent, iTunes, or any other location. Some of the shows that don’t seem very popular according to the ratings and get canceled (Journeyman, for example), get tens of thousands of people downloading them to watch them the day after it gets shown.


November 20, 2008 at 12:47 PM

Remember, Arrested Development won SIX EMMYS and still the ratings sucked and it was eventually canceled.

November 20, 2008 at 3:18 PM

I’m going to have to disagree with your paragraph regarding The OC, The Office, etc. The whole point of The Office is to point out the mundane sadness and inherent boredom that results from working a dead-end job. As someone who HATES Steve Carell, I cannot bring myself to watch a rip-off of a perfectly well-executed sitcom. I loved BBC’s Coupling (and currently own all of the DVDs) and that show was horrendously revamped (with the same recycled script) for America. I don’t want to suffer from that ever again! As far as the OC, I am going to say that its a BH 90210 clone with a catchy theme song. Bad boy falls for rich girl, usual soapy obstacles get in the way, rich girl dies, bad boy matures. What was the great achievement, exactly? The show was nothing original in my book. Entertaining, maybe.

November 20, 2008 at 3:42 PM


Did you watch The OC? or The US Office for that matter? I fought watching the OC for a long time, I thought it was dumb. But I make a point of watching almost everything that is really popular or critically adored, just to see what Im missing and be able to support my arguments. I found that the OC wasnt about Marissa and her handbags like the magazine covers would suggest. At its center the show was about the Cohen family, multidimensional parents included, the unbreakable friendship formed across socio-economic barriers between Seth and Ryan and the juxtaposed hardships of being and outsider and the ulimate insider. As for the US Office, the magic’s in the supporting cast. While I agree that David Brent is way funnier than Michael Scott and that Garreth is vastly superior to Dwight, the BBC version never had the opportunity/took the time to develop the other co-workers, a strength that has served the American version very well. You have to remember that there are hundreds of people who spend their lives making these shows, there’s always something worthwhile in them. And as per your 90210 comment, just because it came first doesn’t mean it was the best of its kind, I think 90210 had a fraction of the depth of The OC (and I have watched both, in their entirety).

November 20, 2008 at 3:59 PM

I’ll admit I didn’t watch the OC in its original run, but I do catch it occasionally on Soapnet. I will give it more of a fair look now that there may be a reason to pay attention to it. And, as far as NBC revamping Britcoms, after Coupling (WHICH I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE) was ruined, I can’t bring myself to watch anything else they reinvent. LOL, but I might Netflix it if you agree it’s so good.

November 20, 2008 at 1:06 PM

I don’t believe the TV Gods give a tinker’s dam about Emmy’s. What talks in big business is ad revenue.

I also believe the term quality television is subjective. There are many that consider Deseperate Housewives a quality program but I would only watch it under threat of death.

November 20, 2008 at 4:45 PM

Very subjective.

November 20, 2008 at 1:06 PM

I did know a Nielsen Family! Just like the talking M&M’s “they do exist!”

Good post. I hope you are wrong however, that cable shows will increasingly get more love. As much as I adore my Entourage, Six Feet Under or Curb Your Enthusiasm (and much more)- network TV still has a lot to offer. I hope that does not change.

November 20, 2008 at 4:20 PM

I know a Nielsen family, too. They’re part of the reason we still have crap like the WWE around.

November 20, 2008 at 1:44 PM

I always felt like the rise of original cable programming was a way for tv to offer something to everyone. On network tv you get shows that tend to appeal to a broader audience, and are also limited as to the “adult content” (sex, violence, and cursing) that can be portrayed. For those who want a little more edge in what they watch, there are a lot of great choices on cable that a few years back didn’t exist. I don’t think it’s about elitism because many people, myself and many friends and family members included, like a little bit of both. Another argument people often make as to the quality of a series is the amount of time spent in the production of the same. Starting with your daytime soaps, the actors have to pound through about 60 (if I remember correctly) pages of script per day. This not only takes a toll on the acting but also the writing, going for quantity over quality. Once-weekly shows go through that amount in a week, giving them more time. Then you have the shows on cable, that usually run for about 12 episodes in a season, rather than the usual 22. That way, there’s more time to be spent on perfecting the overall quality of the show.

November 20, 2008 at 6:42 PM

When a wonderfully entertaining and quality show like “Pushing Daisies” is routinely trounced in the ratings by the “Knight Rider” reboot, it’s hard to justify the comment that network TV audiences aren’t getting dumber! And it took me an entire season to convince people that “Gossip Girl” was worth watching too! Maybe some shows, like “Pushing Daisies,” would benefit from the BBC model of production – 6 to 13 episodes a season, so writers can work on quality scripts instead of churning out script after script for 22 to 26 weeks with maybe a third of them being outstanding while the rest are good to downright, puzzlingly awful! But do American viewers have the patience to wait 8 months between seasons? Obviously not with PD’s ratings in the toilet (but I blame ABC for not giving the show a summer rerun period to build up interest again).

November 20, 2008 at 8:18 PM

I knew a girl who was confused when she was appointed a “Neilsen Family” since she didn’t watch TV.

It’s a terrible system – advertisers need to realize that.


November 20, 2008 at 8:32 PM

The Emmys, if they were once about quality programming, are not any more. Yes, we do get lucky and good shows are nominated, but so many are overlooked its ridiculous. Emmys and Oscars and a one car train. They find something they like and then nothing else is nominated in any category. I hate awards shows for that reason. I wish more people would do what Katherine Heigl did. Um….my role wasn’t worthy of an award this year, but thank you. David Hyde Pierce nominated every single year of the shows run(or something equally as outrageous)? Hey – the show was good for a while, but you do not deserve it every year. Step back and give someone else a chance. Buffy never nominated in all those years. Was Battlestar Galactica nominated? That whole subject just drives me nuts.

Quality is subjective. Everyone likes something different. People love Dancing with the “Stars” – I can’t figure out why…is it because they really want to go dancing but are just too damn lazy to do it? We will watch people dance, but not do it ourselves? Most likely we’ll never know. But we’ll still be annoyed along the way! :-)

November 20, 2008 at 8:58 PM

I couldn’t have said it better myself! I have read of companies trying to get into the ratings game and Nielsen just sues them into submission until they either go broke or give up. It’s crazy how one corrupt, fraudulent, and outdated ratings system that samples just 10,000 homes controls not only what 300 million plus Americans watch but also $30 billion plus in advertising revenue. Most times its just 5,000 Nielsen homes because the other 5,000 homes are on paper diaries and they only mail them in during sweeps so it takes weeks to get that data and they may have already cancelled a few shows by the time they mail them in. Plus you can tell they picked some real idiots to be Nielsen families this year based on the ratings so far.

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