The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I love television. I love it as a source of entertainment and as an outlet for analysis. Besides books, there is nothing I love to analyze more than television shows.

Television gets a bad reputation as being “mindless entertainment,” but I believe that reputation is not totally fair. Like all forms of media, you have to choose to see the positive examples and focus on those instead of the negative ones. Besides, it’s not just television that can be trashy. There are plenty of distasteful, mindless, and just plain awful films and books as well.

For every terrible television show (Sixteen and Pregnant, Bad Girls Club, every dating show ever aired on VH1, etc.) there are great television shows (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc.). And there are fewer things more enjoyable in the life of a media studies geek than following a great television show through to its conclusion.

Television as a medium is like literature in a lot of ways. Each episode is like a chapter of a book, and each season is like a book in a series. If done correctly, television shows allow for the possibility of deep analysis and thoughtful discussion because of the depth with which stories can be told in this medium. Unlike films, which last two hours (or sometimes more – especially if you’re Peter Jackson or James Cameron), television shows can last for years. This allows for a kind of storytelling which, when done correctly, has the ability to present deeper characters and richer plots with more emotional weight than even a novel can present.

The emotional connection between the audience of a television show and the show itself is often stronger than the connection between other forms of media and their audiences. Viewers let television characters into their homes for an hour (or half-hour) every week for around 22-23 weeks per year (depending on the number of episodes in a season). There’s a sense of familiarity that develops in watching the interactions of characters for season after season of a television show, and that familiarity lends itself to a more emotionally engaging media experience than a standalone book or film. Put in the hands of capable writers and actors, these characters grow and develop over the course of a television show’s run, and viewers are able to watch that growth and personally connect with it.

More than any other medium, television produces impassioned discussions at family gatherings, in offices, and by high school lockers. Good television (and sometimes even bad television) demands to be discussed, to be shared, to be analyzed. Good television makes us think, makes us laugh, makes us cry, and makes us feel.

And it often moves us to do those things together.

In this age of social media, there’s a unique sense of community that comes with watching a television show as it’s airing, knowing that millions of others around the country are doing the same thing. After (or even during) a particular episode of a television show, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and numerous other social websites become gathering places for fans to share their reactions as they’re experiencing them. Those collective reactions are something you can’t really get with a book and can only get in small doses with a movie.

This time of year is the best time to be a fan of great television. There’s something about a strong season finale that can make a show stick with you forever. Season finales are where the most memorable shows create or build upon their legacies, where television becomes even more culturally relevant than it usually is. Season finales are where we are reminded of how affecting, engaging, and brilliant a medium television can be.

This is the time of year when couples who’ve danced around each other for years finally come together (Ross and Rachel on Friends), beloved characters die (Charlie on Lost), and unforeseen plot twists blow our minds (Sydney going missing for two lost years on Alias).

Season finales bring out the best of the best in terms of television. They are the episodes we talk about all summer, the episodes that draw new viewers to great shows, the episodes that make us reach for our tissues more times than we’d care to admit. Season finales are where Emmys are won, stars are made, and indelible television moments are created.

Here at Nerdy Girl Notes, I’ll be recapping five season finales over the next few weeks. For those keeping track at home, here’s the list:

Castle: Monday, May 7 at 10 p.m. on ABC
New Girl: Tuesday, May 8 at 9 p.m. on FOX
Parks and Recreation: Thursday, May 10 at 9:30 p.m. on NBC
Once Upon a Time: Sunday, May 13 at 8 p.m. on ABC
Glee: Tuesday, May 22 at 9 p.m. on FOX

Which season finales are you waiting with bated breath to watch? I’m always up for television recommendations, so let me know if there’s a show you think I should be watching!

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6 thoughts on “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

  1. I hate the “mindless entertainment” label. Yes, some tv shows are designed to be mindless entertainment but so are some books and movies and that’s alright, in my opinion. Sometimes you want to watch a show that doesn’t make you think too hard and lets you forget about your problems for 30-60 minutes.

    I also completely agree that television gets judged by those examples of “trashy” television, when there are a lot of really high quality shows out there. They are shows that are nearly universally recognized as “good” tv (like The Wire) and others that may not garner the same critical acclaim, but are just as beloved and analyzed by its fans. Admittedly, this can be a somewhat frustrating process if you feel like the writers aren’t doing justice to your favorite characters, but that isn’t a problem that is unique to television either.

    The emotional connection to the characters and their growth is what takes a show out of the group of shows that I watch for fun but am not necessarily invested in or particularly passionate about. Those shows that can make me fall in love with a character or a world are the ones that I want to talk about with others and engage with on a deeper level.

    This is actually something I’ve done a little bit of psychological research on, but unfortunately, it tends to see emotional engagement (or Parasocial Interactions, as they label it) with television characters or celebrities as unusual or pathological. I think the world of media studies is moving toward an academic point of view that still allows for the normalization of fans (thank you Henry Jenkins!) but I think it’ll be a while before psychology catches up.

    I’m reading a book right now that you might like about shifts in the way we see literature called Bring on the Books for Everyone that talks about how literary fiction has moved away from being something to look at from a detached, aesthetic point of view to something that is recognized as deeply personal that we can engage with and a tool to help us learn about ourselves. I see television in kind of the same way. In order to get credibility for a long time, you had to see television as either detrimental to society or as something to be examined through the lens of a critical theory, but now both media scholars and fans argue that both are possible and crucial for truly understanding television as a medium.

    • I completely agree with what you said about emotional engagement being necessary in order for me to want to analyze a show more intensely. I need to feel a pull towards the characters in order to care enough to really look deeply at a show. I always care about the characters first when it comes to TV shows, and then the plot.

      I love when you talk about scholarly approaches to television from a psychological perspective because it’s something I definitely want to learn more about. You’re so intelligent, and I can tell how passionate you are about this topic. I really want to get that book now because that’s exactly how I feel about literature; it’s deeply personal. That’s why I became interested in Media Studies in the first place – because books, films, and TV shows mean so much to me personally. I’m so happy that I’ve found friends like you who feel the same way.

  2. I’m completely agree with you on the difference between TV and movies. It’s why I’ve always preferred television over films. The story can go so much deeper, and you can get so much more invested in the characters in a television show than you can with most movies. I suppose that’s why I’m a total TV junkie, but when it comes to films I’m much more picky.

    I was thinking about this difference the other day because of two things. One I was reading about how my favorite book series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series (which I recommend to everyone because even if Stephen King isn’t normally your cup of tea, these books are an amazing blend of dystopian fantasy, western, and horror), is being shopped around to possibly make a movie or a series of movies. And I was really disappointed to hear that, because the books are so complex, with such amazing characters that I think it would be way more awesome if they made a premium cable series out of it, maybe on HBO or something. I just can’t see that story being served by even a series of movies, because part of the draw is that you slowly get to know this band of characters in the novels, as they draw together and become friends and even family, they sort of become your friends and family too.

    Second I was watching a clip someone posted of a Supernatural conference, where a girl gave a speech to Jensen Ackles where she kind of waxed poetic about how talented he is and how he’s brought his character to life for many people. I remember one quote struck me, “We think that a good actor can take you in a different place and is able not only to make you forget that you are watching an actor but also who makes you care about the character’s journey.” And I was thinking that that’s something that applies more often to an actor on TV than on the big screen. Because on the big screen, the actor only has two hours to tell you about the emotional journey of a character. Consequently, sometimes I feel like films can be a bit greek drama for me, with the actors having to spell out their every feeling, and kind of spoon feed the audience so that they get it before the two hours is up. But with television, a good actor can take their time, and let a look, a fleeting facial expression, and subtle body language (all things the aforementioned Mr. Ackles is excellent at) tell you more about the character than the words they say or even their actions. Obviously there are some movies and some film actors who are notable exceptions to this, who manage to be subtle and take you on a complete human journey even in just two hours, but for the most part, I think that’s a unique opportunity that mostly only television actors get. Which is why I sometimes don’t understand why film actors seems to be more respected than television actors, but that’s another issue.

    • I really should pick up The Dark Tower series sometime (maybe once I finish the behemoth that is Game of Thrones). My coworker also told me that I would really enjoy the series, and both of you are women whose opinions on literature I respect and value.

      Everything you said in your last paragraph rings so true in my mind. I have always loved movies, but I think what I really love more than anything is the experience of going to a movie as an event rather than the movie itself. As a medium, I really think I prefer television for exactly the reason you state: you get to go on incredibly complex and deep emotional journeys with the characters. There’s a depth to the characters in a well-crafted television show that simply cannot exist in a movie. For example, if Castle were a movie we would never have gotten the depth of character development for Kate Beckett that we’ve seen over the past four seasons. Television allows for characters to grow and change over years, and I agree that it takes special talent to show that growth in a natural and believable way – by showing rather than telling. I’ve always been of the mindset that television actors don’t get enough credit for how good they have to be at their craft, and I’m so happy to see that I’m not alone in this belief.

  3. I love television for so many of the reasons you listed. And I love social media and television for all the reasons you stated, without having really thought about it. The collective spirit of thousands of people watching something at the same time and reacting to it together. It’s a great reason to love social media in the way it lets people come together as a collective, especially for TV. Especially for nerdy guys and girls who may love something but don’t have a lot of people in real life who love those same things. Television and social media can help us feel less alone, which is fantastic. This is a really great blog and we love a lot of the same shows. =)

    • Thanks for commenting! 🙂 I especially loved this part of your comment:

      “Especially for nerdy guys and girls who may love something but don’t have a lot of people in real life who love those same things. Television and social media can help us feel less alone, which is fantastic.”

      It’s so true. I may have family and friends who watch a lot of the same shows I do, but they are definitely not as receptive to my analysis and intense reactions as the people I know through social media.

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