‘When television is bad, nothing is worse,” famously declared Newton Minow, former Federal Communications Commission chairman, in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961. “I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air . . . . Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”
Today, of course, that wasteland is bigger, badder, and more impressive than ever. Television, especially when it comes to our growing bumper crop of streaming-on-demand options, is an endlessly chatty slot machine that never signs off, never breaks a sweat, and never shuts off the lights.
Despite its outward verve and vigor, however, have you noticed that the bulk of today’s TV seems a bit, well . . . down in the dumps? Dear television: We don’t see that much of each other, but I’m kind of worried about you! Much of what today’s critics hail as “great television,” in fact, is so dark that it could send one right round the bend.
In case you’re rolling your eyes and silently debating whether I’m a hopeless old fogey right now, here’s the interesting twist: Generation Z, filled to the brim with teenagers, seems to agree.
Take pop sensation Billie Eilish, 17. Eilish, whose shows sell out across the country, talks openly about her struggles with depression. As ’90s nostalgia flourishes, she almost appears as if she just stumbled off of a bus from the heart of the Seattle grunge era. Billie Eilish sings of quiet angst; her fans, largely teenagers, go wild.
Eilish’s new hit album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, features tracks entitled “Bury a Friend” and “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.” But one of her most intriguing songs — and I’m not going to lie, I kind of like one or two of them — is titled “My Strange Addiction.” Lest you jump to any sordid conclusions, Eilish’s strange addiction has nothing to do with chemicals. Instead, she’s addicted to the very goofy and now-defunct NBC hit sitcom The Office.
“When I wake up, I put on The Office. If I’m making a burrito, I turn on The Office,” Eilish told Elle in March. “I need the distraction so I don’t think. It’s like therapy for me.” The singer says she has watched each episode of The Office eleven times. This is impressive dedication: It adds up to approximately 814 hours, or roughly one-tenth of a year.
Eilish is not alone. During its tenure on Netflix, The Office has far and away served as one of the network’s most popular features, followed by reruns of the very cheery Friends and the ironically cheery Parks and Recreation. “It has become perhaps the defining post-Millennial rite of passage to binge the entirety of The Office on Netflix as fast as humanly possible, then binge it all over and over and over again, then quote and meme it as if to create an alternate internet world where the show is still going,” Vulture reported in April. To be addicted to The Office, the piece adds, is “extremely Gen Z.”
This is particularly fascinating when you consider that many of the show’s jokes — together with jokes from, say, The Hangover, plus the jokes from about 5,000 other movies made before approximately 2014 — likely wouldn’t fly in today’s ultra-woke, hypersensitive shame-o-sphere. Meanwhile, this particular rerun-fest isn’t just for Gen Z: When suffering from occasional brain burnout, my very Gen X self recently started rewatching The Office, too. This is because it is light, it is funny, and I know that it will scorch neither my eyeballs nor my soul with painfully detailed reenactments of regular maiming rituals performed by evil, scheming, hygiene-challenged fairy-folk. (Cough, ahem, Game of Thrones, cough.)
“Watch Ozark,” my friends said. (I was traumatized after about four episodes.) “Watch Breaking Bad,” my friends said. (I am still trying to purge the image of Walter White’s underwear from my mind.) “Watch The Handmaid’s Tale,” my friends said. (Ha, ha! No!) “Watch Black Mirror,” my friends said. (Oh, dear: I am way too paranoid for Black Mirror, which serves up a new technology-related horror story with every episode. Black Mirror makes me want to unplug all my WiFi in a panic and move to an off-the-grid rustic-chic yurt in the middle of the Texas desert. To be honest, I kind of want to do that anyway, but that’s another column.)
“Okay, watch Game of Thrones,” my friends said. “Everyone’s watching Game of Thrones!” (Please see my note about painfully detailed reenactments of regular maiming rituals performed by evil, scheming, hygiene-challenged fairy-folk above; the show was described as a “wonderfully bleak journey” by the review clearinghouse Rotten Tomatoes. Help!)
Anyway, when my brain is too fried to read — I know, I know, I should be reading instead of watching The Office, so judge me as you will — there is at least one new television series that I have settled into: HBO’s Chernobyl.
There is nothing remotely light or funny about Chernobyl, of course. But it is powerful, sobering, and very, very well done. It reminds viewers never to trust the Commies, which stands as a solid added bonus in my book. It also gave my husband the opportunity to inform me that it was “not Chernobyl” when our air-conditioning broke down in spectacular style on a sweltering afternoon last week.
That said, in its own odd way, the show does a marvelous job of putting our nation’s current media angst-fest in clear relief. America has problems, but it is still — just as we used to say in the 1980s, as the Soviet disaster was unfolding — a remarkably blessed and wonderfully free country. We can always use a reminder of that fact, even if our TV situation could use a little help.