Editor’s Conversation: In a Nation Divided, Is Water Cooler TV a Thing of the Past?

Spoilers

We’re interested in trying new things at TV Fanatic.

Today, associate editor Tyler Johnson and I had an off-the-cuff conversation that felt like an article in the making.

But what if the conversation is more fun than any article we could write? We’re about to find out.

Carissa: I love this bit from David Cronenberg from an interview with The Hollywood Reporter out of Cannes:

THR: So if you’re not ready to put your filmmaking career to bed, what makes you get up each day with an inkling you may do another movie?

Cronenberg: What makes me wake up is the thought of breakfast, quite frankly. That’s enough to get me out of bed.

Tyler: Love him, love that. 😂

Carissa: It’s funny. I read this title, “David Cronenberg Is Shrouded in Mystery — Even as He Bows a Painfully Personal Film at Cannes,” and it sounds like it might be a bad interview.

But I think it’s a fantastic interview of a normal person who happens to make art. I would be absolutely thrilled with an interview like this because honesty is so rare and refreshing.

David Cronenbert in 2022

Tyler: Right? I love it when someone who everyone expects to be some pretentious weirdo is just a normal person.

I see jerks cheering on AI because they hate the stereotype of the snooty artist so much.

Hey, some of us just like TV and movies, and we need to make a living, and we’re not good at math! 😂

Carissa: I just shared with you an email newsletter I got from TVRev. It’s why we exist and why we’re suffering during these short seasons, and from everyone who thinks it’s just groovy that all we get are 8-13 episodes of TV.

Tyler: “There is an ad-free version of YouTube as the service reminds me Every Single Time I use it.” 😂

It’s such a weird effing time. No one has any idea what’s gonna happen next, and our attention spans are shot.

Mine is way worse than it used to be, but at least I didn’t grow up on YouTube and TikTok. Even dumb TV required us to pay attention. These kids are screwed.

The Men of The Sopranos

Carissa: But he’s right about needing 22 episodes a season to foster investment. We aren’t going to relate to or remember short series where we barely get to know anyone before they’re gone.

Historically speaking, even shows that lasted only two seasons are generally forgotten. In some cases, that’s more episodes per series than some new shows get in four seasons.

Tyler: It’s true. And with few exceptions (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under), fans don’t form the same emotional connection to the prestige 10-episode per season shows as they did to the long-running broadcast shows, where they started to feel like the characters were a part of the family.

And then streamers made the problem even worse by dropping whole seasons on the same day.

Talking About Grief - Mare of Easttown Season 1 Episode 6

Carissa: The final season of The Sopranos had 21 episodes, which is unheard of on prestige TV anymore.

Tyler: I’d wager the average viewer felt more closely connected to the average sitcom cast in the ’90s than they do to drama characters from today.

Carissa: And none were under 13 episodes. And that’s why people like to binge-watch. You grow close to the characters over a longer arc.

Tyler: Yeah, but I think I remember The Sopranos pissing everyone off by splitting that last season.

But still, yeah, way more episodes than a lot of these newer shows are doing. These HBO sitcoms do about six episodes and then take 18 months off.

Colonel Henry Blake Looks Perturbed

Carissa: I meant binge-watch classic TV, not modern content that’s one-and-done.

Tyler: Totally. These minuscule seasons are missing one of the best parts about narrative TV: the ability to get to know characters over the course of actual years.

People like that experience, and it’s older than TV. It’s why Dickens and Tolstoy used to publish a chapter a month. And now it’s on the verge of disappearing from our culture.

People rave about every new prestige limited series, and then they never watch it or talk about it again.

I loved Mare of Easttown. Tried to rewatch it recently, but it wasn’t the same without the suspense and the weekly conversation among a bunch of people who were all watching it for the first time.

Partners in Cuisine -tall - The Bear

Carissa: I’m so angry at FX and Hulu for dumping The Bear on us again in one batch. So people will devour it, and chatter will hit Twitter for a matter of minutes, and then we’ll be done with it for another year.

Well, until awards season, when new TV has already overtaken the conversation.

Tyler: I can’t believe they haven’t learned from that. Talk about a show that would benefit from slow-burn word of mouth over the course of 2-3 months.

I feel like I always go back to the same shows from the ’80s and ’90s, but I feel like these were formative series for a lot of people. I have this vivid memory of watching Roseanne as a kid and feeling like it was the first time that I’d seen a family like mine on TV.

And then the show ran forever (I don’t acknowledge The Conners), and there were many times where the storylines closely mirrored stuff that was happening in my own life.

I don’t want to be too nostalgia-biased, but I wonder if young people form connections like that anymore — especially to sitcom characters.

John Goodman as Dan Conner  - The Conners

Carissa: I love nostalgia. Bring it on. It’s funny, but I’ve never really thought I connected to sitcoms. I’m old and watched things like That Girl, Mary Tyler Moore, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Brady Bunch, but I never really considered them sitcoms.

I also watched M*A*S*H and Friends and all the things, but when it comes time for me to rewatch something, which I have been doing in copious amounts over the last several years, it’s always dramas.

I’ve rewatched all the medical dramas like St. Elsewhere and ER, and police dramas like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, and then The X-Files and Fringe.

I have tried rewatching Mary Tyler Moore several times, but I always stop midway and return to dramas.

I wonder why some of us turn to sitcoms and the others drama. The allure of Suits on Netflix surprised me. I felt seen that people are discovering long-form (what sadly is now) classic dramas.

Following the Signal

I guess what I wonder is how we can help people watching TV today — the short bursts of it, especially — find a connection to shows like we did to the shows of our past. Can we, as “journalists,” help them find that connection?

Or is it just too difficult with so much TV to choose from and how quickly one show is replaced with another, especially while binge-watching?

I enjoy revisiting classic TV in a binge because I know it has a beginning and an end.

It’s when I don’t know if a show will get a proper ending or when (or when it might be on the air again) that I tend to get frustrated. Can we do anything to alleviate that pain?

Hopefully, someone reading this will chime in with an answer.

Cracking A Case - The X-Files

Tyler: I think my attraction to sitcoms stems partially from the fact that I read a lot of fiction and watch a lot of movies, and most of the stories I encounter in those arenas would best be described as dramas, so TV comedies make for a refreshing change of pace.

There’s also a factor that viewers rarely need to contend with in the streaming age — time slots.

When I was a kid, networks usually aired sitcoms from 8-10 pm, and the dramas of that era came on past my bedtime. I couldn’t stay up until 11 pm to watch ER, so I never got into it until the later seasons.

There were outlier exceptions like The X-Files that aired at 9 pm on Fridays.

It’s another aspect of our TV viewing habits that’s changed entirely.

Lucy and Desi on I Love Lucy

Department stores used to change their hours of operation so that they wouldn’t have to compete with I Love Lucy. Now everything is pretty much available whenever.

I wonder if that’s affected the way that people connect with television. We’ve lost the communal experience of tens of millions of people tuning in at the same time. 

It’s hard to talk about these things without sounding out of touch. I’m not a huge fan of nostalgia for its own sake, and I’m not a believer that the old ways are necessarily better.

But it does feel like people are less emotionally invested in TV than they used to be, and that’s partially the result of certain industry trends.

Carissa: YES! Such good points.

It was what they called “watercooler” talk because when people went to work the next day, they literally gathered around the watercooler to share their thoughts on what they watched the night before.

Harvey in Court - Suits Season 9 Episode 9

Now, social media plays that role, but it’s way too segmented to really give us a full picture of what people think. Unless you’re following specific hashtags, you’re in a silo of people you follow.

Even with a hashtag, you’re only discussing things with people on social media, with whom you may or may not have any common interests.

We’ve talked before about how much we miss the IMDB forums. That was the place to go for the longest time, and sorry, but social media does not make up for it.

Are people less emotionally invested, or is it the shared experience that helps drive that engagement? It’s the same reason film producers want their movies played on the screen.

How you experience what you watch is as important as watching it. Without the preponderance of people watching what you do, some of that is missing.

It may help explain why streaming classic TV is a thing, too. You can’t watch Suits in one sitting. There’s time for others to catch up and for you to share a larger conversation.

Michael with Pam  - The Office

Tyler: Exactly! And there are occasional attempts to recapture these things, but once the suits (no pun intended) get involved, they tend to f–k things up.

Teens and twenty-somethings unexpectedly connect with Friends, The Office, or Suits, so then we get a Friends reunion or revivals of The Office or Suits, but you then you lose the “simpler time” vibe that attracted the younger viewers in the first place.

Kevin Costner’s Horizon project seems like a similar effort.

It’s this big, two-part Western from an A-list star that demands to be seen in theaters.

In just about any previous decade, it would’ve been a guaranteed hit, and the guy who works in the cubicle next to you would’ve been quoting his favorite lines and impersonating characters all summer (okay, we might be better off without that part).

It’s easy to see why Hollywood wants to get us back to that point, but our culture is so splintered these days that it might not be possible.

Will Patton in 2012

Carissa: You know what I recognized from the Horizon cast? Costner hired a bunch of well-known TV stars for his project.

He must have learned something about actors in the medium from working on Yellowstone. I was surprised when I looked at the cast list. Not really part of this conversation, but interesting nonetheless. 😂

Tyler: I had the same thought! He might not have gotten along with Sheridan at the end, but I feel like he learned a thing or two about efficient production methods! TV actors show up and do the job!

Carissa: So, how do we end this conversation? What are our takeaways? We long for honesty, time to get to know characters and their stories, and the opportunity to really discuss it in detail.

And we don’t mind (in fact, we value) comfort viewing, too. Not everything has to be highbrow. There is a place for a lot of content, and the less demanding it is, sometimes, the more enjoyable it is, too.

Determined to Bring Kayce Home - Yellowstone Season 1 Episode 5

Tyler:I guess I would point out that TV execs are leaning very heavily on two different approaches these days: The broadcast networks are sticking with the long-season procedurals and nighttime soaps, and the streamers and cable outlets are all-in on prestige dramas with light episode orders and marathon breaks between seasons.

Both have their merits, but maybe it’s time to stop treating them like different species.

The next Shonda Rhimes, David E. Kelley, or Taylor Sheridan might be the person who successfully combines the best parts of both approaches.

Carissa: But if ABC’s schedule is any indication, broadcast networks are also losing faith in that format.

Shorter seasons and more reality are on tap, which seems counterproductive to building the kinds of relationships with shows and characters that drive people toward classics, where they can build those bonds, even if no new episodes are on the horizon.

Scared About Her Child - tall - Grey's Anatomy Season 20 Episode 5

Tyler: Well, as much as I love my job at TV Fanatic, if I knew the solution to TV’s current problems, I’d be collecting eight figures in some Hollywood corner office. But there must be an answer!

It feels like the era of great populist TV gave way to the new and exciting world of prestige TV, but then that sort of petered out (see David Chase’s comments on the subject).

There are still plenty of great, high-minded shows, but they’re not changing the cultural landscape the way The Sopranos did.

So now we’re stuck in this world where there are two different breeds of drama, and neither of them is creating the same impact as NYPD Blue, or Breaking Bad, or Miami Vice.

A Burning City  - Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5

I guess Game of Thrones came the closest to combining the populist and prestige approaches (yes, it was a fantasy series, but it was also soapy as hell) … but we all know how that turned out.

Sure, GoT delivered massive numbers for HBO, but it hasn’t exactly entered the pantheon of classic television.

On the sitcom end of things, will we ever have another Cheers, or The Simpsons, or The Cosby Show? Comedies so popular that their influence can be felt in just about every demographic?

People are split on Jerry Seinfeld’s recent remarks about the state of TV comedy, but there’s no denying that very few shows amass the sort of cultural cachet that his eponymous sitcom enjoyed at the height of its popularity.

It’s natural for TV professionals and fans to seek solutions, and perhaps Jerry was way off base with his views on the subject.

But those of us who miss the era of water cooler TV will continue trying to figure this thing out.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on X and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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