Which isn’t to say that the networks are giving up on the gold standard of a huge hit—a Cosby Show for the new century, or at least a CSI for the new decade. It’s now widely accepted that everything’s niche, but broadcast television still lives in hope of finding a niche that’s, you know, really, really big. Failing that, it faces a dilemma—would it rather have an audience of 4 million talkers, tastemakers, and tweeters, or 10 million viewers who just forgot to change the channel after Dancing With the Stars? That uncertainty is likely to pervade next fall’s lineups. The networks are finally working to figure out what ideas they can poach from cable—more daring content, an “indie sensibility” (though what the networks mean by that isn’t so much Girls as New Girl), fewer episodes per season, star casting with actors who will commit to only a small number of episodes a year. Those growing pains—maybe they’re really shrinking pains—will be good for a medium that is at its best when complacency is not an option. But right now, every decision, every tonal or structural shift, feels like an attempt to keep abreast of tastes that seem to morph by the month: The makers of one 2012 pilot were asked to change course from serialized crime drama to serialized romantic drama to semi-serialized workplace drama to largely self-contained workplace-based romantic drama with a dash of mythological backstory. The fall schedule currently being unveiled will likely include several of those anguished hybrids, and there’s reason to hope that whatever succeeds will actually be original—a Frankenstein amalgam of used parts and prior successes that turns into something genuinely new.
As TV evolves, so does our way of watching—sometimes in two opposite directions at once. This spring has brought a good deal of pissing and moaning about how there’s too much good stuff to watch on Sunday nights—even though, in the DVR era, a one-night embarrassment of riches shouldn’t matter. But the rise of tweeting and recapping makes it matter (as the magazine’s TV critic explains, just to the right): In order to engage fully in the energized dialogue that’s taking place about TV, you pretty much have to watch shows the way your ancestors did—right when they air—or risk having your Monday ruined by a minefield of Internet spoilers. So given the luxury of personal convenience or the fun of instant web communality, which brave new world do you choose?
Maybe it’s enough to celebrate the fact that the choice exists at all. Though, of course, some lonely apostates don’t find the new landscape worth celebrating. Recently, David Simon, lord of The Wire (which aired a few years too soon to capitalize on Internet-driven drumbeating), unloaded on the show’s Omar-come-latelys—fans, viewers, and even critics who weren’t around when Simon feels it counted but now indulge in episode-by-episode exegeses and who’s-the-coolest-character bracket games. His tone sounded reactionary, the sigh of an old-schooler who rejects (rightly, in some ways) an audience’s thrillingly deluded belief that it co-owns a show, and who also believes that there’s only one right way—a certain time, a place, and a pace—to watch.
Those days are gone, and not worth mourning. When Simon’s Treme returns this fall for a third season that never would have happened without TV’s new broader array of viewing options, the show’s small band of supporters will be able to see it when it airs or when it re-airs, the night of its premiere or whenever they get around to it on the DVR, on HBO, HBO Go, or HBO on Demand, on their widescreen TVs, their small-screen iPads, or their tiny-screen phones, at the same time once a week or in multi-episode feasts. Those possibilities are now so much a part of our TV lives that we take them for granted and get annoyed when they freeze or pixelate or fail to “buffer” or stream, embodying what Louis C.K., in his 2009 riff about Wi-Fi on planes, identified as the conviction that the world owes us something we only knew existed ten seconds ago.
That sense of entitlement is a reminder of how firmly what we used to call “the future” has taken hold. The revolution will be televised, on demand, across multiple platforms. And it’s okay if you’re not interested. You’ll almost always be able to find something else to watch.