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Problem of plenty: keep calm, there's officially too much TV

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:23 IST

Pop culture loves to announce the death of stuff. A few years ago it was TV. Except then slowly - or not, depending on how closely you were watching - something started to happen.

Television - that glut of game shows and reality shows and dance-offs - developed a new storytelling gene.

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For me, it started with Breaking Bad. A few years ago, a good friend suggested I absolutely, positively must watch it. I'd love it, he said. It was everything I'd enjoy, he insisted.

With his persistence rose a resistance: an annoyance hard to swat away. I just couldn't get myself to plug in despite the show being, in theory, everything I could love.

A year later, I saw an episode with a friend. And then another. And another. Suddenly, over a month's worth of binge-watching, I had devoured the entire series.

The remaking of the idiot box

Not too long ago, everyone claimed they watched less TV than they actually did. Seemingly overnight though, we've done a 180 degree shift: we're almost ashamed of not watching enough.


Because there's too much good stuff. Great stuff. This is a new era of television or, since we love hyperbole, the golden age of TV. The age of glut.

Say hello to Peak TV

This August, FX boss John Landgraf bluntly summed up the crazy times we're living in. He broke down the numbers - last year, there were 371 scripted TV series on primetime alone.

"We believe 2015 will easily blow through the 400-series mark," he said. "This is simply too much television."

And what a feast it is.

Right now, I'm watching the fourth episode of Season 4 of The Big C, just saw four episodes of Fear of The Walking Dead, wrapped up Mr Robot three weeks ago and am just starting the very The Wire-like Narcos. Oh and of course, MTV's Awkward - always a great guilty pleasure - is back with three episodes, which I've already seen.

The excess, at times, threatens to consume my waking life. There are nights I've gone from episode to episode only to realise it's 5 am.

Despite this I - and most of us - are always experiencing just the top of the iceberg; it's impossible to find time for more. There's just too much of everything. Too many family dramas and zany stoner comedies. Too much reality and fantasy (Un-real anyone?). Too much violence, sex, and too many vampires and occult hunters.

These are shows that tackle, with intelligence and insight, what our modern world looks like

And it's good stuff. It illuminates the times we live in. These are shows that tackle, with intelligence, humour and insight, what our modern world looks like, from cybersecurity to politics to media. These are shows that help make sense of what we see, and help cast light on what we don't.

All this is fundamentally changing the conversation.

It's impossible to give your friends a speech about this 'amazing new show' they need to watch now. They'll nod and say yes, but they know they've already overpromised and overbooked.

Entire shows are going unseen by virtually everyone, though they're worth watching and following for several seasons. Quantity may have always been the enemy of quantity, but TV is set to show us it doesn't always have to be like that.

Is TV the new book?

Here's another example of the changing conversation: in the fifth season of Game of Thrones, HBO became bolder than ever in departing from the plot laid out by George RR Martin - something which greatly frustrated the readers.

But it also gave way to cheers from watchers who hadn't in fact read the series - no longer would the knowledge of readers hold sway.

Not too long ago, it was prudent to call yourself a reader rather than a watcher.

Now, in a departure from that age, people readily say they don't read. Those of us who did consume, at times, a novel a day, are far too distracted to read more than 3-4 books a month. If that.

Thankfully for the watchers, the three-camera sitcom with a laugh track has at least been replaced by shows that are much more like books - intricate narratives full of text and subtext.

A natural corollary of fear of missing out is arrogance: we write off that which we don't know

The biggest losers in this glut of TV, in this fight for mindspace are other forms of media.

For TV watchers - by which we mean mini-series, not America's Got Talent - movies are often meaningless. TV has complexity, intricacy and the advantage that you can watch it in your pyjamas. And instead of close to Rs 500 per film (and another Rs 500 for munchies), it only costs me a couple of thousand rupees with my broadband connection.

Remember when you'd travel and finally find time to read? Well now, everywhere you go, you always take the TV with you.

Even after a whole news day, where I've been bathed in information, when it finally comes to having some me-time, a few pushes of a button away is the next episode.

In fact, I once filled my phone with episodes of Fargo and watched six of them on a train from Delhi to Goa. Instead of staring out the window at the lush, stunning Western Ghats, my head was in my phone just trying to catch up on this show that had rave reviews from all quarters.

And finally, FOMO raises its head

Fear of missing out is a real thing. And when it comes to popular culture, we live in a time that has taken that fear to epic levels.

Yes, there's crap being produced.

But there's also more great music being made than ever before. More great TV. More great cinema. More art. More poetry. Despite the decline in reading, more is being written than ever before. More websites are doing more worthwhile content than ever before.

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You're never going to be all caught up. You're never going to watch everything you should, read everything you should, listen to everything you should.

And that's okay.

A natural corollary of fear of missing out is arrogance: we tend to write off that which we don't know. We'd rather say television is tacky than accept we can't see all we want to. We'd rather say the book is dying than acknowledge we can't read everything worth reading.

It's time to acknowledge that the world is full of some incredible art in all its forms, and we won't be able to see, read, hear more than an insignificant part of it.

First published: 6 October 2015, 2:23 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.