This Week in TV: Real Talk About Everything On Your Screen
Goodbye for now.
Each week, Torontoist examines the upcoming TV listings and makes note of programs that are entertaining, informative, and of quality. Or, alternately, none of those. The result: Televisualist.
Editor’s note: This is the final installation of Televisualist. But don’t fret! Chris Bird, who has been with Torontoist for nearly a decade, will move on to contribute a new media criticism column. We thank Chris and all loyal Televisualist readers to staying tuned.
The Real Housewives of Orange County returns for an eleventh season. But you all care more that this week marks the final instalment of Televisualist. Yes, after almost nine years, someone actually said, “Why does this website focused on Toronto-centric issues have a TV column anyway?” It’s been a good run, but I knew someone was going to ask that question eventually. Perhaps the better question to ask is, “How come Torontoist is able to distinguish and clearly delineate its brand, while most Canadian cable channels have long since abandoned the idea of even paying lip service to their mission statements?” The answer is that, unlike most of those channels, we have standards. Okay, maybe it took us nearly a decade to exercise those standards, but then again Real Housewives of Orange County is in its eleventh season, so really, is that so bad? (W, 9 p.m.)
Also returning tonight: 19-2, which is an actual non-CBC Canadian show produced by and starring Canadians that is intended for Canadian audiences, and—this part is important—cares about being a successful show. What can I say? Nine years of watching terrible CTV show after terrible CTV show have made me cynical. Cheapo sitcoms designed to fulfill programming requirements that were already remarkably lax are, in my opinion, designed to fail, because successful television shows cost more money to continue producing. Outside of CBC, original scripted dramas that aren’t international co-productions (and, let’s be honest, international co-productions aren’t really Canadian fare) are rare. That’s the nature of the beast, and it sucks. (Bravo, 10 p.m.)
Guilt debuts on Canadian TV, only a year after it aired in the United States and failed to find any significant audience. Do any other of the older readers remember, back in the pre-DVD era, NBC’s “It’s New To You” commercials? From the days when, if you liked a particular TV show, you would almost certainly end up missing one or two episodes over the course of a season (if not more), so the summer rerun period became a marketing tool for major networks. The practice of Canadian cable networks picking up foreign (and mostly American) series years after their original debuts reminds me a lot of that, except where the American networks were using reruns that could not easily be seen elsewhere as a tool for additional revenue, Canadian networks are picking up shows well after their original airing in order to save as much money as possible. The fact that these shows have typically found their most fervent audience in Canada via proxy use of American streaming services or via illegal downloads well before the original airing is something I suspect broadcasters use in negotiations to drive down the price of the licence rights. It’s enormously frustrating to watch happen over and over again: it’s both a crime against our culture and against our production industry, and one all political parties have cheerfully allowed to happen again and again and again. (Bravo, 9 p.m.)
Of course, any criticism of Canadian nets for their enduring cheapness forces any close observer of the American TV production industry to admit that the opposite end of production focus level has its own problems as well. Consider Greenleaf, an original series airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network, starring Merle Dandridge, Keith David, and Lynn Whitfield about a ministerial family serving a megachurch in Memphis and their various family dramas. Early critical reception to this show has been good, and that’s not a problem in and of itself. The problem, really, is that we’re currently in a golden age of television production. There is so much that is good on TV right now that it is impossible to watch all of it. But this surplus means that increasingly, scripted series are being made at greater and greater expense for fewer and fewer viewers and less and less opportunity for long-term revenue. Ten years ago, Greenleaf didn’t exist, because the Oprah Winfrey Network either wouldn’t exist or would air reruns of scripted series from network television. Now every channel has to have a Greenleaf, or preferably several of them, while viewers increasingly demand both more and more options while also wanting to pay for their TV channels a la carte (and those cable package fees are all that enable these smaller channels to make these shows at all; a la carte 10 years ago meant AMC continued as just a movie replay channel, which means no Mad Men, Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad), or, as is increasingly the case, not paying for TV at all. (10 p.m.)
But I can add a caveat to the American TV industry’s audience fragmentation: there’s a more-than-reasonable argument to make that audience fragmentation has as much to do with increased audience diversity finally being recognized as much as anything else. American Gothic (which, before the old people ask, has nothing to do with the mid-90s cult favourite series of the same name) is your prototypical network show simply by looking at the cast: mostly white people with a token visual minority. There’s a long and proud tradition of this sort of casting for most mainstream network shows— the success of, say, Empire is a reaction to that, the idea that one could have a black-cast soap that finds an audience of people bored with the usual rich white people show. Audience fragmentation shouldn’t be considered a bad thing—or a good thing. It’s just a thing that’s happening. Oh, by the way, American Gothic is a boring shitty soap about a rich white family but one of them might be a murderer. (Global, 10 p.m.)
Enough opining about the state of television, and instead, a few notes about writing a weekly TV column! First off: there will be nights when there is not really any new or noteworthy television for you to write about. For these nights, there is almost always sports! Anything can be worthy of mention, because sports teams provide their own drama and storylines, and tournaments (such as UEFA, going on right now) can give you half a column all by themselves. For example, tonight is the NBA draft, where Torontonians can cheer on local boy Jamal Murray, and watch as the Raptors pick ninth overall. See? I even made that one municipally appropriate. (SportsNet, 7 p.m.).
Also good: movies. There’s always going to be a movie on some channel you can write about. If it’s a good movie, like Matilda, then you can praise it. (There’s a reason they made it into a musical, it’s just terrific on every level). If it’s a bad movie you can make fun of it. Or even simply say it’s bad, if you’re having a lazy week. The commenters will take it from there. (AMC, 7 p.m.)
You will use these cheats because the simple truth about being a TV critic is this: you will never have time to watch everything, so don’t even bother trying. People will assume you watch everything because it’s your job, but it’s a beautiful world out there, and why would you spend all of your life watching TV? (Never mind that every minute you spend watching bad TV is a minute you don’t get to spend watching the good stuff, and, as previously mentioned, there’s so much good stuff.) You will watch the first 10 minutes of a lot of bad TV shows; if a show doesn’t get your attention within the first 10 minutes of the pilot, it’s very unlikely to manage it after that, but you’ll still have enough of a sense of it to write about it for the column. Yes, I am fully aware this is probably cheating; I am hardpressed to care. And sometimes you won’t even bother with the first 10 minutes! I have not seen minute one of ABC’s revamps of $The 100,000 Pyramid or Match Game, but I really don’t need to: these are celebrity-driven shows, old-school Hollywood smarm, and Alec Baldwin being the host of Match Game…man, if I can’t get a paragraph out of that, what kind of freelance writer would I be? (9 and 10 p.m. Sunday, respectively)
Finally, related to our previous discussion of the unsustainability of our current golden age of television: let us consider Netflix. I know you all love your Netflix memberships like your own children, and you are fond of its quality original offerings like Bloodline (second season now available). But here is a simple reminder: Netflix loses a ton of money. It’s been operating at a loss for years because its original business model was predicated on numerous cheap-as-dirt streaming agreements; the entire reason for the shift to original productions was to create a library they would own in perpetuity, but original productions are expensive, and it needs a never-ending supply of new content to feed the beast (to say nothing of the fact that the expense of bandwidth doesn’t really get cheaper with audience growth at the margins Netflix operates on). So: do not look to Netflix and other streaming services to keep your hopes of never-ending low-cost original TV selection alive, because it isn’t sustainable either.
That’s it for Televisualist. It’s been a fun nine years, especially when I got Game of Thrones screener episodes months before they aired on HBO. (On the other hand, I also got the entire first season of Luck months before that aired on HBO, too.) And getting a shout out from Morgan Spurlock only a couple weeks ago was a fun cap on it. But now it’s time for something new.
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