Alan Sepinwall has a problem.
The Hitfix.com TV writer often writes recaps for several TV series and keeps up with many others for his "What's Alan Watching" column. For years, that was no big deal.
Now, though, it's too much.
"This TV season is the first time I've began to feel like there may, in fact, be too much good TV," he wrote in his April 11 column.
This wasn't a complaint, he hastened to say, but a conundrum. There are only so many hours in a day, only so much space on his DVR, and yet so much to write about: an abundance of excellence, or at least merit.
We are living in good TV times. No longer is it easy to insult television as the "idiot box." With more channels and more choices, there are also more creative voices being heard.
Less than a decade ago, top-tier scripted television was mainly limited to HBO, bits and pieces on other cable networks (FX's "The Shield," the network formerly known as Sci-Fi's "Battlestar Galactica") and a handful of shows on the broadcast networks. Now it's all over the place: AMC ("Mad Men," "Breaking Bad"), Netflix ("House of Cards"), the Sundance Channel ("Rectify"). Even Amazon has gotten into the game, offering 14 children's and comedy pilots and letting users vote on the most promising.
"We've got new players entering all the time," says Sepinwall, who traced the rise of good programming in his book, "The Revolution Was Televised," due for rerelease May 21. "Netflix is now making shows. Amazon is starting to make shows. History, A&E ... my view is always that when a new player comes on the scene, good things tend to happen."
'It made me mad'
It's not like television was a "vast wasteland," in the immortal words of former FCC Chairman Newton Minow, before we all got wired for cable.
Old-timers still rave about the "golden age" of the 1950s, when "Playhouse 90" and "Kraft Television Theatre" were running original works by Rod Serling, Reginald Rose and Paddy Chayefsky while Sidney Lumet, Delbert Mann and John Frankenheimer handled the directing. Partisans of the 1970s trot out MTM's output ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The White Shadow"), Norman Lear's provocative comedies ("All in the Family," "Maude"), "M*A*S*H" and "Columbo" to make their case.
But those shows were the exception, not the rule. In the three-network world that existed until the 1980s, it always paid to pursue the broadest audience, and that meant keeping it simple and uncontroversial. The brave stuff stood out for its quality as well as its ratings, as if the two had to be mutually exclusive.
It's not like people didn't notice.
"I remember thinking in fifth grade, 'I have to get inside that box and make this s--t better,' " Louis C.K. said in a 2005 interview. "It made me mad that the shows were so bad. People have a right to relax and watch theater about themselves that makes them reflect and feel and have a good time doing it."
But change was just around the corner.
Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, dates the modern era of high-quality television to 1981 and the debut of the gritty, documentary-like "Hill Street Blues." He adds that it's no accident that its first season dovetailed with the rise of videocassette recorders and cable, two inventions that splintered the viewing audience and made it possible for a struggling show such as "Hill Street" to stay on the air.
"All of a sudden there's this idea you can program for demographics instead of mass numbers," he says. "Once the networks allowed things like 'Hill Street Blues' and 'St. Elsewhere' in, with lower ratings but great demographics, it provided a model."
The progress was slow -- as Thompson observes, for every "St. Elsewhere" there was a "Knight Rider" -- but inexorable.
The Fox network, which debuted in 1987, was willing to gamble on shows such as "The X-Files" (a sci-fi genre show that succeeded) and "Profit" (a dark show about a psychopathic businessman that failed).
The WB, which didn't need huge ratings to survive, stayed with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for seven seasons. And the Big Three contributed "NYPD Blue" (like "Hill Street," a product of producer Steven Bochco), "Twin Peaks," "Homicide," "Picket Fences" and "ER."