How We Went From Television's Golden Age to 'Peak TV' Blues

Why we now live in a small-screen era that we can't keep up with anymore

Credit: Sean McCabe

TV has always held a crucial place in the American soul: It's our favorite thing to lie about. America still loves to lie about television — hell, that's the national pastime — but these days the lie has flipped. Remember when everybody used to claim we watched less TV than we really did? Kiss that era goodbye. For the first time in history, America is lying to cover up our desperate shame at not watching enough of it.

Because there's too damn much. Too much good stuff. Too much great stuff. Welcome to the age of Glut TV.

In a memorable August speech, FX boss John Landgraf bluntly summed up the crazy times we're living in: "Peak TV in America." He broke down the numbers — last year, there were 371 scripted TV series in prime-time alone. "We believe 2015 will easily blow through the 400-series mark," he said. "This is simply too much television."

Fact: There will not be enough hours in 2015 to watch all the TV you want to see in 2015. It's not humanly possible. If you give each of your eyeballs its own screen, then wire another screen directly into your cortex for a third rail, you'd still run out of time. All the shows you promise yourself (and your friends) (and your co-workers) (and the screen that greets you every evening like the world's neediest roommate) you will catch up on, as soon as you get a chance? You are lying. The truth: You will die before you clear the DVR. Your final seconds on earth will be spent pleading, "But I promised my mom I'd check out Outlander!"

This changes everything.

You can no longer give your friends the speech about this amazing new show they need to watch, right now, seriously, now. Your friends will nod politely and lie to your face. They're already overpromised and overbooked. They will run out of 2015 before they run out of the TiVo space they have emotionally and socially committed themselves to unclogging.

And so have you, my friend. So have you. You keep promising to catch up, but you are guaranteed to fail and disappoint your TV. You have written TV a check your eyeballs can't cash. You are officially a deadbeat viewer. So say we all. (Speaking of, how did Battlestar Galactica end up? I'm a few seasons behind.)

Whichever way your taste leans, there's more good stuff aimed at you than you have time to sample, so you are missing out. Your FOMO keeps buzzing 24/7: Too much prestige serial drama. Too much zany stoner comedy. Too much reality slap-and-cry-fest action. Too much everything. No matter what you like, you're shamefully behind schedule. Now TV tells you its demands and you meekly promise to do better next week. As Walter White would say, TV is the one who knocks. (Speaking of, how did Breaking Bad finish? Did things work out for that chicken guy?)

It's not even possible to sate your cravings by watching the proverbial "a little of everything." Because these days, until you have binged the complete run of a series, you haven't seen it at all. Telling your office mates you checked out their beloved Treetop Cat Rescue for two or three episodes? And it was "interesting"? Forget it. That's worse than admitting you never bothered. Try it: go to a party and casually mention you saw The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once. You liked it — hey, you might watch it again someday! Watch their faces. Get ready to spend the party in the Unfuckable Loser Corner. You have just entered church and spat a gob of coffee into the Holy Water.

This changes the way you talk about TV, which, because we're all good Americans here, means it changes every detail of your social aspect and cultural status. It gets too emotionally fraught to discuss television. When your friends rave about this new Danish crime musical that'll blow your mind, you use the same oh-really fake-smile muscles you use when your mom tells you about this friend of hers with a nice single cousin. Oh, how sweet. Sure. Why not. Right. When I get a spare fucking life.

(BTW, your mom would really appreciate it if you'd try Outlander. You know, like you promised? Get busy pronto or Thanksgiving dinner could get ugly.)

Remember the days when you could count on idle TV chitchat to break the ice with your dentist or your boss or your bartender? They the old days. Now by the time some thirsty rando tells you about the next new show your life sucks without, your brain is already doing the get-me-out-of-this math. It's like they're handing you a really sweet stray cat, when you've already got so many roaming your kitchen you're hiding on the fire escape. We've become a nation of DVR cat hoarders. (Speaking of, is My Strange Obsession still a thing?)

Is too much quality TV a sweet problem to have? No doubt. Even a few years ago, it would have seemed absurd to call it a problem. But that was before the deluge. There are so many worthy shows fighting for the same tired eyes. As Landgraf says, "There's just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones."

Yet Glut TV also raises a more fundamental problem deep in the American psyche, because talking about TV is what Americans do. And our TV lies have changed. We can't rely on the old-fashioned lies of yesteryear, like, "Sure, I'm caught up on Grey's Anatomy. I absolutely did not spend the weekend getting wasted to Pants-Off Dance-Off." Now we face darker questions, like, "Does the fact that I keep re-watching the same Difficult People episodes when I'm a month behind on Masters of Sex prove I do not deserve to be loved?" For fans who pride themselves on keeping up with everything, it's no longer possible for them to bullshit themselves. But they stopped fooling the rest of us years ago. Television remains our dirtiest, guiltiest national secret, except now instead of feeling guilty for watching too much, we're guilty of not making more time for it. As a society, we'll have to learn a whole new set of lies. So the question isn't what Glut TV will do to our remotes. The real dilemma is what it will do to our minds.