How to watch TV in the 2020s, part 1

Different eras of media and a short list of some of my favorite shows when TV doesn’t exist anymore

Joel Van Kuiken
Nov 28, 2020 · 4 min read
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“Forgotten television” by autowitch is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How do you watch TV in the 2020s? As a Gen Xer in the United States, I’ve grown up experiencing different eras of media. In a sense, during each decade of my life, what we know as “TV” has gradually evolved — like a boiling frog. Arguably, in the 2020s TV doesn’t really exist anymore.

Here’s some viewing history. From three network terrestrial dominance (plus PBS) in the 70s and into the 80s, to cable TV and eventually the satellite dish from the 80s to 90s. The birth of Netflix as a digital Alexandrian library of DVD mail exchange in the late 90s (see ya, Blockbuster). The slow conversion from cable and satellite dish to streaming content in the aughts and 2010s. And now, an endless supply of streaming on demand content from dueling providers across devices. It’s the attention economy in full steroid mode.

So how do you watch now? Very carefully.

We want to get sucked into excellent long-form narrative that emulates the hero’s journey. But we also want entertaining quick bites (and sometimes meaningful) content. There doesn’t seem to be much space between the two. It’s zero-sum, either-or, depending on whether you are sitting at your desk or on the couch.

So here’s kinda how I watch in the 2020s, and a list of the shows over the last couple years that actually sucked me in. Dopamine has got to be involved in this somehow?

The “ Recap” content industry machine has become a great way to digest a meaningful episode after you’ve watched it — and it’s low hanging pop cultural fruit for websites looking for eyeballs. AV Club is my favorite. Sometimes I enjoy reading the recap and the comments about an episode more than I enjoy actually watching it. Do you read the recaps after you watch an episode? Let me know in the comments.

Now, let’s get to the point of all this. Here is my list of five shows, in no particular order, that I have recently enjoyed getting sucked into along with a short explanation of WHY I enjoyed it. I subscribe to Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu and Disney+ (it’s a package deal). That’s where these shows come from — sorry, no HBO or Showtime at this point. Although, I consider The Wire to be the standard bearer for episodic American (Greek) tragedy and literature (in a TV series) in the 21st century.

Just a reminder that I will give you five more shows in the next blog post, and another five in the third blog post. So stay tuned.

  1. The 100 I started watching this to tide me over until I found the next show I wanted to see. Oh boy, seven seasons later (with 13 to 16 episodes per season) — I. Got. Sucked. In. In a post apocalyptic world where the earth has been radioactively contaminated, a few generations of humans coexist on a space station orbiting the planet. As systems begin to fail on the space station, and oxygen is in ever shorter supply, a hundred “juvenile delinquents” are sent back to earth to “test” the air. That’s the first part of season one — you can only imagine where it goes from there. Buckle up!
  2. Mindhunter Set in the 70s, two federal agents training regular cops around the country in detective/investigative methodology find themselves intertwined with and interviewing devious criminals in federal prisons. Their research leads to defining criminal personas that will become known as serial killers. It’s a gripping ride with the hyper-educated, over zealous young gun paired with the seasoned, understated pro.
  3. The OA The setting for this one is actually West Michigan where I hail from. The protagonist goes missing for seven years and then miraculously reappears. And what a strange, mind blowing trip it’s been for her. This one took a few episodes to settle into, but once it got on track it turned me somewhat inside out.
  4. The Mandalorian This is the hero’s journey Kurosawa / Star Wars ethos with stand-alone stories that nicely thread together. The latest episode is a Samurai story that reminded me of both Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai — two amazing movies that everyone should watch. Even me, and I really don’t watch movies anymore. There’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon baked into this episode also.
  5. Devs This is a brilliant, slow burn that tingles in your spine. Essentially, a silicon valley overlord has his own “secret” division in his company enterprise that is using quantum theory in an attempt to twist the space time continuum. It builds and builds and builds.

So, that’s my first batch. What are some of your favorites? Drop them into the comments. Let us know what you’re watching (and why).

Originally published at https://joelvankuiken.substack.com.

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