There’s a sketch in the first season of Portlandia called Did You Read It?, in which Fred and Carrie discuss articles they’ve seen – in McSweeney’s, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal – with increasingly frenzied competitiveness. As they dash across the road to pick up yet another free newspaper, they get run over – because they didn’t read the sign. As a TV obsessive, this is shamefully familiar. Mad Men is back. Game of Thrones is almost back. In the next three months, there’s new Louie, Veep, Orphan Black, Hannibal, Orange is the New Black, and Masters of Sex. I’ve made a list, on a sticky on my desktop, to make it all seem more manageable.
That list of titles is evidence enough for never going to the cinema again. But then I start to consider the commitment and it becomes overwhelming. What will happen to my summer? Will I ever see the outdoors? How will I have time to watch them and read all the thinkpieces and argue about it on my social network of choice?
It’s hard to knuckle down to an earnest essay about the thematic concerns of a slow-moving meditative cable drama without wondering when TV stopped, well, being fun. I knew there was a problem when I finally got through all 13 episodes of Netflix’s amiable comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, then instantly started Googling for interviews and articles around it (the brilliant New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum provided, as always, a review that discussed the show’s incredible sleight of hand, which is that it’s “a sitcom about a rape survivor”).
I’ve laughed to the point of tears at Broad City – by far the best new comedy of recent years – then gone straight to an LA Review of Books piece asking viewers to consider its racial insensitivity. I spent this week carefully curating what I see on the internet, just so I don’t run into any spoilers about Mad Men’s final stretch. I have shushed friends discussing Louis Theroux; I have stared at a DVR full of Wolf Halls and wondered if I’ll ever get to it. I’m behind and I need to catch up and it’s all becoming so stressful that I go into avoidance mode, and sink into another Come Dine With Me repeat instead.
To endlessly dissect television doesn’t just make it less enjoyable; it may also be making it less good. The “How will Mad Men end?” pieces have been doing the rounds for a while now (and when it does finish, in six weeks, the inevitable “Matthew Weiner has betrayed the fans” essays will travel the same roads), but when truly dedicated fans take it upon themselves to work out how a tricky show should conclude its complex plots, they occasionally do a better job than the writers. Doctor Who and Sherlock both suffered from fans coming up with more innovative explanations for certain storylines than Steven Moffat did, and True Detective’s final episode was a disappointment, because it revealed itself to be far more straightforward than its intricate backstory had suggested. We could start to destroy the thing we love.
But then I turn back to my list and I realise that we’ve never had it so good, and really, the burden of choice is a tiny one. The best line in the entire run of Friends, which can be applied to life on a daily basis, sees Chandler mocking Joey for having two lovers: “My wallet’s too small for my 50s and my diamond shoes are too tight,” he cracks. Complaining about having too much to watch and think and read about is a true “diamond shoes” moment. Last year I interviewed Mindy Kaling, who had a much more sanguine approach to being a hopeless TV obsessive than me. “There’s so much good TV, and I love TV,” she said. “In the old days, The Sopranos ended and it’s like, what’s next? And that was only 10 years ago. There was nothing, you were starving. Now it’s like Breaking Bad ends and look, House of Cards is on! What a delight that is.”