Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Looking back on the TV that shocked us collectively us reveals it really was the end of an era

As much as movie-going is supposed to be something of a shared experience, with a couple hundred people engaging with the same program at the same time, I've lately come to think that television is the true communal bonding experience while watching content. This is more anecdotal than scientific, but when I've discussed both movies and TV shows with people, it's more common to find their emotional bond is stronger to the TV experience than the film.

So because I enjoy turning my Twitter mentions into a mess for 24 hours at a time, last Monday I asked Twitter which pre-Twitter TV episodes or events would they have liked to have seen live-tweet reactions to the first time they aired. I figured it was a fun way to poll people on which TV moments made them lose their minds.

My personal pick was the end of the ER episode "Be Still My Heart," where Carter and Lucy are stabbed and left bleeding out in Curtain Area 3 while the rest of the staff parties outside, oblivious to their distress. It was a helluva cliffhanger for the following week. I was on Usenet when it first aired and I remember the ER newsgroup going nuts. This also kicked off a tradition of new members constantly asking "What was the song that played when Carter and Lucy got stabbed?" ("Battleflag.")

A lot of people responded that my moment would have been their pick too, recalling their own shock at the twist. There was a fair amount of appreciation for ER in general in the replies as many people also cited George Clooney's surprise cameo in Juliana Margulis's farewell episode, the moment where ER docs realize the patient hit by a train who they're trying to save is actually Omar Epps's character, med student Gant, Mark Greene's death, and the episode where Mark loses the pregnant woman.

Apparently I have a lot of ER fans who follow me. The fact that at its peak, the show was pulling in 30 million viewers a week might have something to do with it. Let me put this in perspective - last year's number one show was THE BIG BANG THEORY and it had just under 19 million viewers. Your average episode of NCIS pulls in 12 million viewers, and last season, THIS IS US averaged just over 11 million viewers.

Let's let that sink in, the "it drama" on TV has an audience of about 1/3 of ER's reach.

Some other frequently mentioned responses:
- Col. Blake's death on M*A*S*H
- the M*A*S*H finale
- Captain Picard assimilated by the Borg in the Season 3 cliffhanger
- Who Shot J.R?
- Who Shot Mr. Burns
- Seinfeld's "The Contest," which many people confoundingly remembered as "The Bet." Was this some kind of Mandela Effect?
- Lots of X-Files, particularly Scully's abduction, Mulder's abduction and Scully's pregnancy.
- Lots of Friends, especially Ross saying Rachel's name when he was marrying Emily and the finale.
- Will's breakdown over his father on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
- Alias's "Phase One," the Super Bowl episode that completely blew up the show. Sidney realizing she was missing two years was another frequent mention.
- Many Lost moments
- Dwayne crashing Whitley's wedding on A Different World.
- Joey/Pacey on Dawson's Creek.
- Melrose Place. Wig.
- Multiple Buffy and Angel moments, particularly Angel losing his soul and Buffy having to kill him. Her death and the musical were also brought up a lot.

Look at the shows mentioned there. With a few exceptions, those were Top 10 shows at a time when TV was pulling in a much larger audience. The result was that those big "WTF" moments were penetrating into the larger culture in a way that today's fractured viewing could never hope to achieve. Can you think of a single cliffhanger over the last couple years that had audiences as much on edge as "Who shot JR?" or the fate of the Enterprise against Locutus of Borg.

There was a fun sense of community in the replies. Someone would mention their dorm freaking out as Kimberly ripped off her wig to reveal a scar on MELROSE PLACE, prompting others to share their memories of watching the show live. They talked about how old they were, who they were with, who they had to talk to about it afterwards. It was a neat window into how so many of us had a shared point of reference, and then seeing how those experiences were the same or different from each other.

I tried to think about my biggest WTF television moments of the year and I honestly couldn't come up with anything that made any kind of comparable cultural impact. Three moments this season that genuinely stunned me were:

- From BARRY - the moment when Barry realizes his friend, his old army buddy, isn't going to be able to keep quite about their involvement in the deaths of some mobsters.

- From CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA - the outcome of "The Feast of Feasts," and I really feel like that's all I should say about it.

- From THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE - the ending of "The Bent-Neck Lady," where the true behind one of the hauntings snaps into grim, heart-breaking focus.

Of the three, the only one I felt any real community discussion about was THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, and even that was pretty sparse compared to what any of the above examples generated. There are two main reasons for this - one is the aforementioned drop in viewership. The other factor is that the streaming model means that we're no longer all experiencing content at the same time.

In 2000, if you wanted to watch ER, then chances are you had your ass in front of the TV at 10pm Thursday night. When you went into work or school the next day, everyone had seen it. It was fresh on their minds and the shared "Holy shit! Did you see that?" was a real thing. We don't have that any more. Even if you're watching network TV when it airs, there's a good chance some people around you are waiting to binge it, or are at least time-shifting via DVRs.

That aspect is becoming obsolete and it makes me sad we might be at the tail end of an era when there was such a strong shared experience. There's no show on TV that will have quite as large an impact as an ER, or a SEINFELD. In fifteen years, if someone drops a reference to BARRY on Twitter, there's no way it can elicit the same kind of knowing responses that the 500 "I, Ross, take thee, Rachel..." replies I got did.

That doesn't mean that television can't touch the individual in a personal way. I think in the last two or three years I've seen several shows that hit me emotionally and personally as much as anything I watched in the era of ER. The fragmenting of the audience means that as shows become more unique  and specific, they are less broadly targeted. They appeal to niche tastes, which is how you end up with a show like AMERICAN VANDAL, that's as funny as THE SIMPSONS in its peak, but seen by a tiny pie slice of that audience.

Fifteen years from now, if someone were to ask the same question I did about shocking TV moments, how likely would the answer come back as "Who drew the dicks?" or "Who is the Turd Burgler?" The mega-hit TV show is gone and with it is our shared fury at moments like Ross insisting he and Rachel were on a break, our shared shock when Captain Picard became a Borg, our shared delight in seeing Mulder and Scully kiss.

The cultural touchstones are getting less broad, and until I got a day long demonstration of how so many people's formative TV passions overlapped, I don't think I appreciated what we're in the process of losing.


  1. Surprised I didn't see any mention of The Red Wedding. I think that might be one of the only "as it happened" modern shared TV moment.

  2. Also back then you could not DVR the shows or go watch them on Hula the next day or catch up on the show on Netflix like you can now so tv was more important to catch when its Live..

  3. Also back then you could not DVR the shows or go watch them on Hula the next day or catch up on the show on Netflix like you can now so tv was more important to catch when its Live..