As if e-readers did not make book-lovers guilty enough. Those who believe a preoccupation with television does nothing but negate the enlightening time they ought to be having with a book can rest assured, though: Watching television means still indulging in an enjoyable pastime while engaging with today's art.
Contemporary narrative television can now provide an equally edifying alternative to literature. Television shows with complex narratives are taking full advantage of their serial format and their ability to tell stories across seasons and years. Viewers are also much more likely to experience a show along with a vast number of others at the same time. Books will continue to enter the lives of readers on their own mysterious terms — sometimes a week after they were released and sometimes centuries after — but now is the time to indulge in our television obsession.
For instance, the plot of Community, a sitcom about both young and nontraditional students at a community college, recognizes and uses its potential and limitations as a sitcom. It celebrates sitcom conventions, like coupling, in order to examine and subvert them. The characters, like Jeff and Britta, evolve beyond their initial conceits as cute people to pair and into individual, continuously surprising and realistic people. Where shows once relied on formulas to comfort viewers, shows like Mad Men now get the opportunity to demonstrate long-term growth and change in characters.
Furthermore, leaving aside historical dramas on TV, characters on television are more likely to inhabit a world more immediately recognizable as the world of the contemporary viewer. HBO's Girls demonstrates how the protagonist, Hannah, perceives her own life as a narrative. Orange is the New Black, on Netflix, took full advantage of new media's potential for long-form, serial narratives and crafted a whole season woven with multiple narratives exploring economic disadvantage, rotten childhoods, and more across the experiences of wildly disparate women while, like David Berry observes at Hazlitt, privileging no one's story over anybody else's.
For a reader, few joys compare to finding someone as enthusiastic as they are about the books they love, but television benefits from its comparably smaller well. A viewer is more likely to simultaneously experience a television show along with many others, and some of those viewers keep amazing blogs. Dear Television, Vulture, the A.V. Club, Emily Nussbaum, and others reveal that the shows themselves, as marvelous as they are, are also vessels for important insights. Viewers get the feeling, watching the work that inspires this level of commentary, that they are part of a very special experience.
An obsession with TV does not make one more frivolous or less thoughtful. Like Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes said of his characters in Gosford Park, those who reject the medium of their time are doomed. Being more enlivened by a show than a book is only being in tune with the storytelling medium of one's day — nothing more. Binge-watch, re-watch, watch it with the commentary, and enjoy watching a form of art come into its own.