I remember riding the bus to school in the early 2000s, listening as the older kids argued passionately about was going to happen on that night's episode of Friends. In the background, radio ads on the local Top 40 pop station dramatically intoned that maybe Rachel was finally going to admit she really loved Joey and not Ross, but you wouldn't know unless you tuned in to NBC at 8:00 on the dot.
Friends was not a particularly dramatic show, nor were its plots complicated, twisty cliffhangers that drove you to demand another episode right away. Friends, like many of the most popular shows of the last 20 years, was a character-driven fluff piece that still made you care and still drew the eyeballs because if you didn't watch it right then, when would you? (Unless you were one of those fancy families who had a TiVo).
There's something special about those communal TV moments that unite a generation. For me, the most important part of watching TV is being able to talk about and complain about the show's characters and dramatic choices and ridiculous costume decisions. So for me, TV works best when everybody has seen all the same episodes and isn't censoring themselves over potential spoilers.
Today, with our sprint toward on-demand all-access TV excess, we're gaining convenience but running the risk of wiping out that wonderful collectively-held-breath phenomenon of not so long ago.
I know a lot of fans of the new Netflix experiment in 'all-at-once' viewing, David Fincher's trashy-good political thriller House Of Cards. I sometimes hang out in the kinds of places where DC journalists and political aides gather, and the depiction of Washington as this sexy, stylish place where deals are made and rivals are killed off secretly and thrown in the Potomac hits all the right buttons for a lot of these people.
But these same people are unsure what kinds of conversations they are allowed to have about an "all at once" show. It's one thing to say that I had to miss last week's episode of Girls because my cable was out. It's another thing altogether to say that I am only halfway through a series run, while my barstool companion is perhaps finished already and eagerly awaiting the promised season two.
That's right — for all the flexibility and choice that changes in the landscape have brought, I miss the much less flexible 'Must-See TV' of my childhood, when popular shows aired once a week at a set time and place, and if you didn't happen to be home Thursday at 8:00, you missed the big moment when character A dumped character B / that crazy neighbor turned out to be a spy in disguise / the lead actress cut her hair.
There's something to be said for the value and convenience of web-enhanced viewing. What a wonderful world it is that I can watch all five seasons of The Wire at any time on my computer or tablet, or catch up on favorite moment from an earlier episode of Parks and Recreation. I wouldn't want to end TV on-demand, and no one would discount the clever and perhaps successful programming decisions of the folks over at Netflix.
But chipping away with communal viewing is worth a moment of consideration.
An illustration might be helpful. When John Carpenter called his father from the set of ABC's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? on Nov. 19, 1999 to tell him that he would be the first contestant to snag the show's token $1 million prize, I was watching. So were my parents and so was my brother and so was the vast majority of my elementary school.
The next day, most of the morning's conversations on the bus and in the coat closet were about the show. Our teacher had certainly been watching, and we talked about some of the questions Carpenter had answered correctly the night before and played a hypothetical game of "What would I do with a million dollars?" It was kind of a special moment, as silly as it sounds.
Today, if such a show drew even a fraction of the audience it did back in 1999, it would be a Twitter trending topic, and those watching would tell those of us sitting on our computers and smart phones if it was worth tuning in to watch this smart-aleck steamroll his way to the final round and eternal game show glory.
It wouldn't be the same kind of collectively shared cultural moment. It wouldn't be the same TV triumph. Conversations at work would be fragmented and split between people who own TVs and the growing numbers of those who don't.
Television can be a terrible waste of time. But at the moments when it unites and electrifies us, it can spur controversy and comment and — most importantly — lively conversation.
How will we know what we're supposed to talk about if we didn't all tune in at the same time last night to watch?