60 HOURS: WATCHING A TV SERIES (AND WHY IT IS NOT WORTH IT)

In 2006 I published a monographic volume on The X-Files, entitled Expediente X: En honor a la verdad. I am practically certain that I was the first person in Spain to attempt to cover a whole TV series in a book with the intention of offering an in-depth analysis (accessible to the general readership) rather than just a guide with episode summaries (I did include that, too). If you’re curious the volume is here: <a href="https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437. The X-Files is still today my favourite TV series, and I still consider it much superior to others who are now much better known. Actually, I find that Chris Carter’s brainchild, which lasted from 1993 to 2002 does not even exist for my own students, born around the time it was launched. A pity.

The X-Files was 200 episodes long and amounted to 150 viewing hours. Others ‘x-philes’ like me can verify for you what a torture seeing the complete series was, as Tele5 cancelled it with no warning, and the final two seasons could only be seen on private channel Fox TV, or on the then new, extremely expensive DVDs. Flat-rate internet access was beginning as the series reached its end and I’m totally sure that The X-Files was a key factor in the popularisation of piratical downloading among us using ADSL services. This, as we know, is a practice that has totally altered the way we see TV series, which is no longer dependent on their being shown on TV at all.

Anyway, a lo que iba: the long struggle to see the end of The X-Files put me off watching any other TV series for a couple of years. Then Lost came, in 2004, and like millions around the world I bit the hook and followed it with a crazy passion until its horrendously disappointing ending in 2010. That’s enough, I vowed to myself: no more TV series for me, unless they’re done and over. Then, last academic year, an MA student handed in an excellent paper on the hero-villain Omar from The Wire (2002-8) swearing to me this was the one series I could not miss. The IMDB rating is 9.4, in the range of Game of Thrones (9.5), Breaking Bad (9.6) or The Sopranos (9.3). 60 viewing hours later I can say now that Omar is the only thing I truly enjoyed from the series.

It is not my aim to review here The Wire, nor to question the taste of those 133,284 IMDB users who have awarded it that impressive 9.4. No. I aim at questioning, rather, the current vogue for TV American series that, more often than not, turn out to be not that good after all. Arguably, the new wave quality TV series started with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1), which, in its turn, inspired The X-Files (Fox TV). The current boom, however, is usually connected with HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007). Indeed, HBO has produced many other successful series: from Sex and the City to current hits Game of Thrones and True Detective. It also produced everyone’s favourite, best-valued ever mini-TV series, Band of Brothers (2001). But is it all, really, really, as good as so many claim? Hasn’t HBO contributed to inflating this impression?

I have read many opinions in praise of The Wire (also HBO) claiming that it works like a novel. My own consumption of this series corroborates this, even though it’s been a bit accidented (I saw seasons one and two in Spring, not continuously, and then have binged on seasons three to five this August, at a rate of three episodes an evening). The question is that at the (fast) rate I read The Wire would be the equivalent of a 3,600 page novel, more or less. Band of Brothers, which I loved, was 11-hours long, the approximate equivalent of reading a 660-page novel. If you ask me, in the end what we consume with each TV series is one story, no matter how many subplots this has. And my watching The Wire has left me with the clear impression that for one story I’m not willing to use more than twenty hours any more in my life. Whether this is TV or print fiction (sorry George R.R.R. Martin).

At one point in which we were desperately bored (no Omar in that episode), my husband and I worked out that 60 hours amounted to about 30 films, that is 30 stories. Supposing we only enjoyed half of these, we would still have 15 stories to remember with pleasure. Life is short, there’s so much to see and read, why use 60 hours in one story if many more pleasurable ones could be accessed in less time?

When I give friends, students and colleagues my line about why watching overhyped (American) TV is wasting precious time they usually tell me that I don’t understand the pleasures of seeing these new-wave HBO(-inspired) series: the pleasure, they tell me, is in the process not in the end result. You don’t watch to reach a sense of closure but, simply, to watch. Fair enough. My answer is, then, that I’d rather watch comedy (say Big Bang Theory) as in that case I need not worry about narrative arcs extended among many seasons and years. Sit-coms have that: you can plunge in and out, never mind about who Ted Mosby finally met in How I Met your Mother (2005-14).

Conclusions? It seems I am going to stick to mini-series. I am actually yearning to see again the British trilogy based on Michael Dobbs’s novels House of Cards (1990), To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995), currently being remade (or plundered) by Netflix (yes, not even a TV channel but an internet streaming service). As for Breaking Bad, which I have not followed, and seemed next on the list after The Wire, well, I don’t know… Add to this that I have just given up on BBC’s Sherlock after the awfully embarrassing episode about Watson’s wedding (3×3).

It’s that kind of week in which I just want to read…

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