Can Television Shows Become Classics?

Will pop culture produce classics?

Posted Apr 13, 2011

Popular culture has the bad reputation of being disposable junk that is used and forgotten. In 1954 when the Marxist critic Theodor Adorno dismissed the medium of television he didn't even reference the titles of shows, never mind the names of the shows' writers and producers.1 We've come a long way in our appreciation of television since Adorno, but still the vast majority of television is disposable. Can some of it, though, survive to become classic?

Television sitcoms tend to be eminently forgettable. Even very good ones don't usually last. Cheers was a great show and held on in syndication for a time, but now it has practically disappeared. Gone even more quickly are shows such as Wings and Mad About You-well-loved and critically-acclaimed in their time but gone and forgotten now. By contrast, consider Seinfeld. I'm ashamed to say that in the beginning I used to watch Home Improvement instead of Seinfeld. But, as a friend of mine says, Seinfeld is like coffee; it's an acquired taste that we all somehow acquired.

Seinfeld was the best sitcom on television, and its departure has left a void that no other sitcom has been able to fill in the years that have passed. Generally speaking, comedies don't age well over the long run because they are dependent on manners and norms that shift and change and so quickly become out of date. This has happened to some extent with Seinfeld, but the show remains massively popular. Quality is the main reason. I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and M.A.S.H. had similar success in syndication for the same reason, quality.

Dramas, dealing in more serious and perennial issues, should last better than comedies. In fact, this seems to hold true for certain series as a whole but not for individual episodes of a series. For example, Law and Order episodes are disposable in the sense that people watch them and forget them. Even people who religiously watch every episode of Law and Order would be hard pressed to tell you what their favorite episode is. Contrast that with The Simpsons; even casual fans can tell you their favorite episode. Perhaps surprisingly, comedy survives better in syndication during the short run than does drama. Law and Order constantly airs in syndication, but it succeeds in syndication because people who have not seen the original airing of an episode are glad to watch it in syndication-it's "new to them." A major exception to the reasons drama survives in syndication is science fiction drama, like Star Trek. Here a cult following that likes to watch episodes multiple times keeps Star Trek and its ilk viable in syndication.

In contrast to Law and Order, most of the people watching comedies such as Seinfeld in syndication are watching shows they've seen before (often multiple times). Somehow, many of the jokes are still funny every time you hear them. They don't "get old" for members of the original audience, even though the same jokes will age badly over the long term as new generations encounter them. It's like going to family reunions or reminiscing with old friends and telling the same old stories about the old days that still get a laugh

There is another reason why some shows fail to survive in syndication. In the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle endorsed the wisdom of Solon, that no one should be judged happy before he dies. While that is a pretty extreme view, it makes some sense when applied to television series. Ending well means a lot to life after prime time for a television series. Seinfeld and M.A.S.H. ended well and continue on. Cheers ended well but has largely disappeared. Lost ended badly and will likely fade from memory. The Sopranos ended very badly, drawn out several seasons longer than would have been ideal on the promise that there was a big ending in mind all along. Clearly the promise was a sham. If The Sopranos had ended after its third or fourth season it might be regarded as the greatest television drama ever, but its tired final seasons and series finale make the judgment of "greatest" impossible.

Homer (the Greek) and Shakespeare are classics, but in the very long run even they will be forgotten. They are not disposable, but neither will they be everlasting. Arguably, The Iliad and Macbeth were the pop culture of their ages. Time will tell whether the pop culture of our age yields such enduring classics. If it does, though, another Homer (the Simpson) will likely be among them.

1. See Paul A. Cantor, "Is There Intelligent Life on Television?"

Copyright William Irwin