Arts & Life

A boob tube summer

With summer upon us, all the major season (or series) finales are in the rear-view mirror. No more Thursday night sitcoms or Sunday night cartoons. But it’s a different television landscape than we would have seen even ten years ago, and the traditional television seasons now find their borders challenged. We can thank many massively-popular reality television series with lower production costs for largely creating a genuine summer TV season, and though I wasn’t initially a fan of the genre, I think it’s grown enough over the years that there may just be something for everyone.

The first season of Hell’s Kitchen sucked me in but I got a little sick of Gordon Ramsey’s over-the-top outbursts and the transparent manufactured drama. Years later I find myself watching Ramsey on his younger show, Master Chef, focused on talented home cooks hoping to become professional chefs. Season one last year had several compelling stories, though none more so than that of the meteoric rise of Christine Ha, the blind cook.

I’ve been looking forward to another season, and I like being spoiled with two episodes a week all summer and finishing the season more quickly, rather than dragging it out over seven or eight months. With more and more viewers getting used to binging on shows, this is a nice compromise between parcelling out and simply dumping the content. That latter approach is another challenge to the broadcasting traditions of my youth, those deprived days when summer meant only reruns or the news, so that we had to go outside and suffer in the fresh air or else learn something.

Netflix’s recent original series, House of Cards, was released in one go, with every episode immediately available, as was the long-awaited new season of Arrested Development. This non-traditional delivery has been the natural culmination of a trend that began when television DVD audiences started rivalling the live-broadcast numbers. And speaking of, yes, summer is still a time when people buy season X of show Y, or else Netflix releases it, or else (gasp!) they pirate it.

The big show dump I’m waiting for? The second half of season four of Breaking Bad. And series three of the BBC’s Sherlock, though it’s been delayed multiple times, won’t be out this summer, and is technically released over the course of two weeks rather than all at once in any case. Of course summer is also a time to gorge on previous series, some multiple seasons in, that I missed during the original broadcast. Will this be the year I begin watching Dexter, even as it nears the end of its broadcast run?

Weird that even as cultural discourse in this decade has become oftentimes brief — the cliché that Twitter is proof of a diminishing attention span hardly bears repeating — the act of gorging on content has become more and more commonplace. Are we in an era of extremes? I don’t think so. I think it’s just an era of choice. We watch in bite-sized pieces or massive blocks as is convenient for us. As delivery media proliferate, the end consumer has more and more options for when and how to get their fix.

To that end, web-based series have also been coming up in the world, and neither do these follow the traditional prime-time fall-spring schedule. Strip Search, a reality show bent on finding the next great cartoonist, has its finale the same day that I am writing this, but this refreshingly honest, melodrama-free series, like any show broadcast via YouTube, can be watched on demand at any time, so it’s never too late to start. The website is even designed to be spoiler-free, so new viewers will not be immediately given the result on clicking that link. Fans of Charles Schultz, Bill Watterson, and of course Penny Arcade creators, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, should enjoy it.

That sure is a lot to watch. I’m reminded of Seinfeld character George Costanza, whose big summer plans were to watch TV non-stop and bite unashamedly into a huge hunk of cheese (“like an apple”). Of course, there are plenty of things to do this summer that involve being away from the various boob tubes entirely (to the extent that that’s still possible). Jazzfest, Fringe Fest, Folk Fest, Folklorama? No, this converted couch potatoe hasn’t forgotten you either. “Live”, too, is a medium that hasn’t gone out of style. But it has some competition.


Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. Links to his writing can be found at his homepage.