Attention Deficits

Justified’s pursuit of excitement and non-stop action at the expense of story fits something broader that troubles me about the future of high-end TV. For years, great novelists like Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace have all complained about what they see as the rapidly-declining attention span of the American reader (and indeed of readers of works by people like the authors above, the very type of people whose attentions we might think are most sustained). I worry that a similar thing can be seen in television. The genre that I’ve referred to as “high-end TV” was basically originated by The Sopranos (with some initial influences of things like Oz and The Larry Sanders Show) and then quickly followed by innovators like: The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and The Shield.[1] Those shows were serialized rather than episodic in nature, more graphic than previous critically-acclaimed entertainment, and produced 13 episodes a season rather than 22. Contrasting those against previously-acclaimed pieces like ER, L.A. Law, or (to a lesser extent) NYPD Blue is like night and day in terms of their critical ambitions or quality.

But now, after the initial wave of innovation, this brand of show has entered a more mature phase; some general-interest syndicated networks aspire to put out lighter entertainment (Burn Notice, Leverage, Royal Pains, Monk, White Collar, etc.) but FX, Showtime, Starz, IFC, SyFi, AMC and PBS (Justified, Dexter, Magic City, Portlandia, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey among numerous others) have all followed in HBO’s footsteps and have made shows in the roughly 13-episode, more explicit, more loftily-aimed footsteps of the innovators named above.

As the industry has become more mature, though, I worry that it has also become more commercial and less artistic, seeking to project the excitement and thrills that keep the audience coming back for more, letting the backstory and subtlety drip out to feed the climax addiction, to give the viewer more of what they want. Thus plots of shows like True Blood, Justified, and (perhaps) Game of Thrones gain more and more forward-momentum, snow-balls rolling down a hill, while ignoring the contemplation and artistic boundary-pushing that set apart their earlier peers. It’s no coincidence that the more recent shows in this genre that have been produced and stayed on the air[2] have not reached the heights of earlier works. While they’re all good, the best two shows on TV now are each in their fifth season (Mad Men and Breaking Bad). While admittedly some great shows improve a bit over time, there’s nothing new on air now as good as those earlier works, and there’s not a lot in HBO or AMC’s pipeline that gives grounds for hope.[3]

The fast-pace and thrill addiction of Justified makes me concerned that episodic TV – a genre whose works are as lengthy and protracted as a Russian novel – is being damaged by the supposedly limited attention-span of its viewers, and that work in the slow, steady, brilliant vein of a Sopranos, Wire, or Mad Men would not be easily created today on TV. Hopefully this worry is baseless, though, and I eagerly hope for Justified to right the ship and prove me wrong.

[1] Freaks and Geeks is a tremendous show that was a network show and sort of falls outside of this genre.

[2] With the possible exception of Homeland which I haven’t seen.

[3] With the possible exception of Girls, which will never have the scale of the hour-long dramas.


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