TV of extremes
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad.
One of the best ways to gauge whether a TV show is for you is by checking Twitter. Social media users, of course, are discerning and rational, and the Twittersphere's reaction to a television program tells you a lot about how good that program is, and whether or not you should check it out.
For example, Breaking Bad is a quite well-known show many people find rather enjoyable. You can really get a sense of Breaking Bad by following the #BreakingBad hashtag, which breaks down into three main categories: ''OMG #BreakingBad!''; ''#BreakingBad WTF?''; and ''ohmygodohmygod ohmygod #BreakingBad''. The message comes through pretty clearly: Breaking Bad is doing some messed-up stuff, and a lot of people have very strong feelings about it that can be expressed only via strings of letters.
This is the way television has gone. Our generation has been blessed by television of stunning beauty, lofty production values, razor-sharp writing - but perhaps more than anything, our generation's TV is the TV of extremes. The permissive society, combined with the anything-goes ethos of pay TV giants such as HBO and Showtime, has produced a plethora of programs that seek to paralyse viewers with shock in every episode, leaving them slavering for more and diving for the smartphone to transmit their WTF to the world.
Walter White's latest atrocity, Dexter's latest good-serial-killer-versus-bad-serial-killer predicament, Brody's latest evil plot that nobody believes in because Carrie is crazy: they are what we long for, to satisfy our ever-elevating craving for a thrill fix.
I blame Jack Bauer. Not that 24 invented the WTF moment, but it perfected it. Within 24 real-time hours you would see chemical weapon attacks, presidential assassinations, actual nuclear explosions and a tally of broken fingers and bullets in thighs that kept mounting until eventually Jack was made director-general of the US Federal Finger-Breaking Thigh-Shooting Bureau.
Since then, TV has been slicker and more cinematic, but also more determined to freak us out on a regular basis and leave us gaping in amazement at what has just transpired. Which is, of course, a good thing. Everyone would rather watch a show in which people are always having drug deals go wrong or finding their loved ones impaled on crucifixes than the shows we had in the old days, which, from memory, were mostly about lawyers discussing tax minimisation. The modern era of WTF TV is a golden age.
But I fear that, like the seemingly endless run of Boy Meets World, we could end up with too much of a good thing. We are headed for a WTF arms race. All the other shows, seeing Twitter explode with OMG over Breaking Bad, will see it as their sworn duty to one-up it. So we'll see Boardwalk Empire introduce biplane dogfights. To which Mad Men will have Don Draper join the Manson Family. To which Downton Abbey will put Maggie Smith on rhinoceros-back and have her storm parliament with her loyal animal soldiers. Where will it end?
So perhaps we need to pull back a bit. Appreciate quiet, subdued TV as well as fierce, ballsy, explosive stuff. Because if we keep going down the WTF road, you just know the Glee kids are going to end up fighting the Taliban. So, on second thoughts, forget what I said about pulling back.