How many television shows is too many? Too many to casually watch? To obsess over? To write about? To simply exist? There is no definitive number, but there is one thing we can all agree on: There is a hell of a lot of television out there these days, and sometimes it can be downright anxiety inducing.
If you’re wondering why there has been an outpouring of critical writing about “peak TV,” it’s because FX’s John Landgraf, the Network President of Critics’ Hearts, discussed the idea at length during this month’s Television Critics Association press tour. After handing out a chart detailing the meteoric, almost terrifying rise of scripted programming during the last few years, Landgraf put it bluntly: “There is simply too much television.” There is too much television that gets in the way of great television, too much television to keep watching an initially shaky series that gets better after viewers have jumped ship, too much television for critics to review everything we’d like, too much television to watch anything twice or to revisit a classic series that was just added to Netflix.
There are pros to this massive amount of television. If we only had a few shows, they would likely be the ones starring and marketed to white men: the big-budget Game of Thrones-style sagas, the broad CBS comedies and procedurals, and the comic book adaptations. With 400 scripted series, television is able to tell a multitude of stories and represent a vast array of cultures. Without peak television, we probably wouldn’t have Transparent or Orange Is the New Black. We wouldn’t even have Fresh Off the Boat or Black-ish. Peak television means that there is always something on television, and it’s not always as white and male as it used to be.
But with peak television comes peak anxiety, particularly for an obsessive TV fan like me. I have this unexplainable compulsion to finish any show that I begin, even if it’s not very good or I simply don’t like it. It’s a peculiar feeling, almost an insatiable itch, that follows me around when I’m actively avoiding watching episodes of a series that I’ve started. It’s what drove me to watch Two and a Half Men until the very end, why I’m still watching Big Bang Theory every week, why I sigh whenever I realize there’s an unwatched episode of 2 Broke Girls on my DVR. Keeping up with these existing shows is just about impossible, let alone trying to do so when there are so many more premiering next month and beyond. This probably explains why I recently had an actual nightmare about the new fall TV season.
Even for those who aren’t, like me, especially susceptible to this specific brand of TV-induced anxiety, there is far too much television for the average person to keep up with. (It becomes overwhelming for critics, too; we’ll have more on that next week). I can’t even begin to fathom all of the great non-American programming I’m missing: UK Channel 4’s Raised by Wolves had a fantastic start, but I haven’t been able to keep up; I’m fascinated by Colombia’s version of Breaking Bad — and what a fun way to brush up on my Spanish; and I desperately need to check out these amazing-sounding Korean teen dramas. And then there are the streaming sites — not just Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, but Acorn, Crackle, and Yahoo Screen. Original web series also pop up on Vimeo, YouTube, and Funny or Die; networks like The CW, Comedy Central, and MTV have online-only series to check out; even PlayStation got into the original programming game this year; and, lest we forget, premium networks have apps like HBO Go/HBO Now and Showtime Anytime.
Those streaming sites and apps pose yet another problem, albeit a problem that I can’t quite bring myself to complain about: the existence of hundreds of classic shows to watch (or re-watch). How many people are going to want to revisit The Wire after the finale of Show Me a Hero this Sunday? HBO Go makes it possible! Want to see every episode of Law and Order: SVU to pick the most ridiculous ripped-from-the-headlines stories? Hulu has you covered! (The answer is a tie between the Gamergate episode and the Chris Brown episode; I burned through the series in May and June.) Feel an inexplicable need to watch 243 episodes of 7th Heaven? Hope you have an Amazon Prime account! Thinking of refreshing your memory of Heroes before Heroes Reborn premieres next month? Netflix understands! (Watch three or four episodes a day, and you’re good; that’s my plan starting this weekend.)
On the one hand, having access to all of these shows whenever you want is beautiful and exciting. On the other hand, how do you find the time to watch, or even decide what to watch? It’s overwhelming, and it’s impossible. There is not enough time in the world; I forgo enough sleep to make sure I’m all caught up on Mr. Robot (brilliant!) and Stitchers (please cancel this, ABC Family, so I can free up 48 minutes a week!), so how much more can I give up to watch Clarissa Explains It All on Hulu or 3rd Rock from the Sun on Netflix? There is no solution!
And I often make poor decisions: after finishing every episode of SVU, I decided to obsessively watch every episode of House because, when it was on the air, I stopped watching around the fifth season and have felt uneasy ever since. I started on July 11, watching whenever I had a spare moment (usually as I fell asleep), even as the episodes grew steadily worse, and even giving up fancy network parties at TCA to sit in my hotel room and watch House, once again, announce a diagnosis out of thin air during the last seven minutes of the episode. I watched the series finale on a plane back to New York City — my seat mate did not want to hear my frustrations with how utterly terrible the episode was — and then immediately switched to catching up on AMC’s Humans.
Back home, too overwhelmed to decide what to watch on my DVR after nine days away, I watched the pilot episode of Prison Break (inspired by Fox’s news of a sequel). Then I watched all 81 episodes within 11 days, unable to think or talk about anything else (especially as the show went way, way downhill), to the likely annoyance of my Twitter followers, who had to witness this two-month spiral into mid-2000s Fox dramas. It was not the best decision — I am still not caught up on Humans or Playing House or Another Period; I still haven’t even watched the True Detective finale! But I feel oddly calm now, after finally finishing that (completely baffling) fourth season.
Netflix is the greatest and most destructive thing in my life, and I suspect that’s somewhat true for most people. It’s so appealing to sit down and watch an entire series of a show in a day; it’s so comforting to fall asleep to the laughter on Cheers episodes. Yet it’s impossible to ever satiate a Netflix addiction — especially when there are so many good shows currently airing. I need to check out Killjoys, I need to listen to everyone and finally binge on Hannibal, and I need to watch all of those “truly epic!” takedowns that John Oliver puts out weekly. Unless I learn how to freeze time for five years, though, it won’t happen. But it’s such a great problem to have.