Television

Television Is Going Exactly the Wrong Direction. I Know the Solution.

I just want to let a story wash over me, leaving no trace.

A man holding a remote watching The OC on his large television.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by burakkarademir/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

There is an episode of The O.C. where Ryan Atwood—the flinty adopted son of Sandy and Kirsten Cohen, played by actor-turned-anti-crypto-prophet Ben McKenzie—decides he wants to try out for the high school soccer team. This is the first time Ryan has expressed any interest in the sport. He arrives on the pitch for a set of practices, and is conveniently pitted against his enduring nemesis, Luke Ward (played by Chris Carmack). Both of them are gunning for the same position; Ryan shows a promising flash of brawny striking ability, but his emotions get the better of him when he launches a vindictive slide tackle at Luke’s legs. Sandy (Peter Gallagher), always even-keeled, takes Ryan aside and compels him to get his temper under control. He says that his other son, Seth, has never shown much interest in athletics, so Ryan represents his best chance to experience the parental joys of varsity sports. We are left to assume that the two enjoy many more blissful afternoons on the field together, all of which were left entirely off-screen. After the conclusion of the episode, Ryan’s interest in soccer is never mentioned again.

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The O.C.’s first season contained 27 episodes and ran on Fox from Aug. 5, 2003, to May 5, 2004. The show assembled and discarded countless sizzling narrative threads during that run, and like Ryan’s soccer obsession, none of them made any impact on the show’s overarching canon. There was, for instance, the plotline in which Ryan (ostensibly a 16-year-old) hooks up with the sultry twentysomething girlfriend of his adoptive grandfather. An episode later, he rescues the apple of his eye—Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton)—from an overdose in a Tijuana alleyway. The show was conceived as one of those venerable network workhorses, deployed every week to eat up time and generate ratings, all the while ensuring that the principal agents of this sun-kissed interpretation of California life were never altered in any substantial way. (In Season 4, Ryan gets wrapped up in an underground cage-fighting ring. He’s applying for colleges one week later.) This is the model pioneered by the daily extraterrestrial conundrums of Star Trek: The Next Generation or the minor mysteries of The X-Files. In the same way Homer Simpson never changed out of his white T-shirt and jeans, you could always expect Ryan Atwood to punch someone in the face, and maybe fall in love, every week.

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I don’t watch much network television anymore. Like most Americans, I’ve long conceded to the force of the streaming revolution. My DVR records the daily Jeopardy! and the occasional basketball game from the cable package I still subscribe to, but outside of that, my nights around the television are bound by Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and the various other streamers that lay siege to my bank account every month. Unburdened from the protracted, serialized demands of cable, “prestige television”—as we learned to call it—pared down The O.C.’s trademark filler into dense, eight-to-thirteen-episode seasons. There is no wasted motion in Severance or The White Lotus, both of which made it onto many end-of-year best-of lists in 2022. You will not find a sequence where the manic-depressive media scion Kendall Roy experiments with a soccer career for an hour. No, the showrunners of this golden age are making operatic movies that have been subdivided into their own bespoke chapters. All the pieces matter, and any dangling threads or abandoned narratives are considered a storytelling crime.

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But lately, I’ve been thinking that we didn’t appreciate those vintage, 27-episode seasons of workhorse network shows enough. As I embrace my nightly scroll—as the algorithm populates with my diet of airtight prestige drama and bitter narrative comedy—I find myself yearning for a simpler time. All I want on a weekday is an hour of unchallenging television, made by those following the ancient code established by The O.C., or 90210, or Happy Days, or really any show forged before the streaming revolution. We are living through a dearth of service television; the wondrous nothingness of 8:30 p.m. on TNT. (Its replacement, the endless tide of cheap reality television, could never achieve the same feeling of dulcet, bloodless harmony. I simply cannot relax when the Real Housewives of New York are drinking and screaming.) Yes, the trophies, the accolades, the surprise deaths, and the universe-altering twists are all fine and good. But sometimes people want to see their favorite characters having fun on-screen, without any of those writerly stakes getting in the way. Is that too much to ask?

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There is a salient tweet from an account called @topherflorence that contemplates an imaginary television show called Surf Dracula. In the ’90s and 2000s, during the network era, the tweet argues, every episode of Surf Dracula would feature fresh new adventures starring our titular vampire. He’d explore new beaches, broker fleeting rivalries, and, most important, spend the bulk of his air time carving up waves. (After all, that’s why you’d tune in to the show.) But in the streaming era, argues @topherflorence, “the entire [first] season gotta be a long ass flashback to how he got the surfboard,” until the dwindling moments of the finale—right before the teasing end credits—when we finally get to see Surf Dracula shred, like a poetic coda to an arc that nobody desired.

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I do not think that Surf Dracula will be the next project taken on by Benioff and Weiss, but the tweet is correct about the unsteady position television now plays in our culture. It wasn’t that long ago when TV was stationed as a gloriously schlocky distraction for sick days and languid afternoons. You could watch a hundred consecutive episodes of CSI, mouth agape, without ever feeling the need to explore the internet for overlooked subtext. (A lot of people still do!) I myself consumed endless reams of House during its prime years on Fox, and I’m unable to recall a single dramatic flourish in its entire expanse. That seems to also hold for my girlfriend’s relationship with Grey’s Anatomy, one of the few network toilers still chugging along, in Season 19, unabated by the passage of time.

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But streaming executives seem to have grown far too self-conscious about television’s transient, ephemeral reputation, and have squeezed projects that would be far better suited as low-stakes fare—that beloved Surf Dracula tier—into increasingly awkward contexts. Does a fictionalized account of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin need to be a stodgy Emmy vehicle for Kate McKinnon? No, but Hulu tried anyway. A serial about Alfred Pennyworth (yes, Batman’s butler) should be a campy, silly, X-Files–esque romp through sodden Gotham. But on HBO Max, the seasons are 10 episodes long. A long-running television program with low aspirations is a genuine public good; there is truly no euphoria like getting lost in a rerun that fundamentally does not matter. Sometimes, all I want is for my TV to assume that I’m barely paying attention. But alas, Soccer Episodes are hard to come by these days.

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I want to believe that a rebound is on its way. Already, Netflix and Hulu are making overtures to a vintage television tradition. Rather than dumping the full breadth of a season onto the services all at once, executives are again doling out their serials on a week-to-week basis, summoning up the primordial glee of clearing out an already-empty (let’s be honest) Thursday evening for a night of stories. They just need to take one step closer to the edge, and fully revive discourse-free TV. Start greenlighting 27-episode batches of content, and instruct the writers room to make sure that nothing of substance—the characters, setting, or tone—changes between the pilot and the conclusion.

Barring that, just revive The O.C. for a new series. Maybe Ryan Atwood can check out bowling next, and lacrosse after that.

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