A few weeks back I tweeted that HBO’s Game of Thrones is quite possibly the LAST show to be embraced by the whole of popular culture. I’m hardly the sole proprietor of this theory, one that feels difficult to deny at this point. Chances are good that you know several people who watch Game of Thrones. People who know all about the Starks and the Lannisters and the whole of Westeros and Essos. You can see the social media firestorm that ignites in the wake of each episode: memes, arguments, speculation… most people play the game to one degree or another. And this communal aspect adds a certain bit of fun to the experience.
Do any other shows have that kind of cache in 2019? I’m not talking about a series that you and maybe two friends watch. I’m talking about a series that everyone seems to watch. In 2014, the first season of True Detective came close to capturing this type of bottled lightning. You couldn’t escape theories of the Yellow King and Carcosa, and people flocked to social media in the wake of each episode to share their thoughts. But 2014 is a lifetime ago at this point and it’s sometimes hard to reconcile just how much the entertainment landscape has changed since then.
Flash forward to winter 2019, where the third season of True Detective came and went without so much as a cultural whimper. A laudable season of television, buoyed by fantastic performances (give Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff all the awards) that nevertheless failed to ignite the social airwaves with anything more than a fleeting ripple.
It’s strange to consider, especially because it doesn’t seem that long ago when Breaking Bad spurred workplace conversations in the way Game of Thrones still does. I remember The Sopranos dominating talk radio on the morning following the finale, where everyone from Howard Stern to your morning zookeeper had to weigh in on Tony’s fate. If you didn’t… you truly were on the sidelines of a massive pop culture moment.
Before that there was Seinfeld, and of course M*A*S*H, which still holds the record as the most watched episode of television ever with an astounding 50 million viewers.
But after Game of Thrones wraps and the story of the Iron Throne is concluded, will there ever be another series like it? I doubt it. I’m hardly the only person talking about what’s happening to television right now. People gripe about it online whenever conversations turn inevitably to streaming services. It’s espoused on prominent YouTube channels and explored in slightly more depth across several episodes of the Bret Easton Ellis podcast. The idea that the television paradigm has shifted conversation from the topic of shows everyone’s watching to the shows you specifically are watching.
I see it every time I attend a family gathering. Each time I meet friends for dinner. No longer is everyone united in their discussion of the same television shows. There are no more Breaking Bads or Sopranos, and nobody can keep up with the flood of content that’s coming fast and furious. So much of the conversation now is, “oh, what service is that show on?” With so many options (and even more coming), our viewing habits have become segmented. Almost tailored to our utmost specifications. There’s an argument to be made why that’s potentially a good thing, I suppose. That pop culture is for everyone now. All niche and varied, and everyone has access to pet content the same as everyone else.
That is certainly one way to look at it, but let me be the first to disagree. No matter who you are, it’s fun to experience a sense of belonging. To experience art with people who’ve all read the same novel. Who watch the same series. I’m seeing Avengers: Endgame tonight because, much like television, there are precious few movies that dominate this much of the culture’s attention. There’s no better experience than to see these movies in packed theaters with rabid fans. It’s fun to belong to a larger community at times, even if it’s just for a couple of hours. But as content becomes more and more fragmented, it’s harder to make connections over these things because everyone’s plugged into their own matrix.
I recommend the Amazon Prime series Red Oaks to just about everyone I meet, and with the exception of two friends, nobody else I know has seen it. Every time we get together, my brother recommends a new series to try. This past Easter Sunday, it was some show with Bill Bob Thornton I’d heard of, but hadn’t seen. At some point last year, Ben Stiller directed a miniseries about the upstate New York prison break I’d heard was fantastic, and since I’d followed that case with interest, I genuinely wanted to check it out. I still don’t know what it’s called or where it aired, and if it ever occupied even a small space inside public’s consciousness, it’s gone now.
That’s been my experience discussing television content in the two years between Game of Thrones seasons. And how does it get better when there’s an ever-evolving platter of streaming services storming the market? The following list isn’t comprehensive, but if you want to have access to every streaming service that produces original content, you’ll need:
- Amazon Prime
- HBO Now
- CBS All Access
- Apple TV Plus
- YouTube Red
- DC Universe
It’s exhausting to think about. I have kids, which means Disney+ is a given. That will follow my Netflix and Shudder subscriptions. Of course, I’m a Prime member, so I’ve got Amazon content at my fingertips already. I also joined YouTube Red a year ago with every intention of watching Cobra Kai and have yet to do it (you’re welcome, YouTube). But everything else? I didn’t extricate myself from the scam of cable just to run up an equally absurd entertainment bill each month.
There are already articles written about how people are opting to pirate the shows they’re interested in, rather than pay the roughly $150 in subscription fees each month in order to have everything at your fingertips. And then we get glimpses into Netflix’s viewer habits that makes us question how many of their exclusives resonate at all. Nielsen data says that only two original programs sat among the top ten shows that U.S. subscribers watched most in 2018: Ozark and Stranger Things. Perennial classics like Friends and The Office (to name a few) topped the list, and now there’s rumblings that Netflix will lose these viewer favorites to a forthcoming NBC streaming platform.
I don’t think anyone’s out there disputing that more content is a bad thing. For starters, I’m chomping at the bit to get my eyes on Netflix’s upcoming Witcher series. And Amazon’s forthcoming Dark Tower adaptation (beginning with a young Roland throughout the Wizard and Glass years) has the potential to become a full-on obsession. Corporations are spending ungodly amounts of money to deliver top shelf content to their subscribers, though I do think it’s sad that neither of these shows probably have a chance of igniting the public’s consciousness in the way Game of Thrones has. Even if these shows are massively successful, they’ll be binged over the span of a few days and then forgotten until next season.
Hey, maybe that’s just the way it goes, and television is on the fast track to joining books and movies on the scrapheap of cultural relevance. I’m not disparaging any of these art forms, by the way. I’ve published several novels, have completed script work, and would love a crack at television. But nobody can deny the inescapable feeling of diminishing attention spans. At a time when there’s more entertainment being produced, enabling many, many talented artists to work on exciting projects, everything is being being delivered to smaller, fractured segments of audience. It’s great to see all of these opportunities out there, and it’s certainly encouraging for anyone looking to get in that game. But on the other hand, it’s kind of a shame that everyone’s out there begging to be seen in an oversaturated digital landscape.
It’s part of the reason I’m enjoying the hell out of HBO’s Game of Thrones sendoff. The show is a massive event. And that everyone’s in on the discussion feels almost antiquated at this point. In a decade, I think we’re all going to long for this kind of pop culture cataclysm. But by then it’ll probably be too late and there will be nothing to bring us together in the way that “watercooler” television once did.