, ,

This article at Buzzfeed is a lengthy hit piece on NYTimes’s embattled TV critic Alessandra Stanley, who struck me as a hack long before the current “Angry Black Woman” meltdown. Essentially, she is mainly remarkable in how she really does not understand modern TV — nor cares to.

Any understanding of the latter-day TV world has to begin with the late-90s revolution spearheaded by two opposing fronts: the surge of high-quality serials pioneered by HBO, and the equally remarkable rise to dominance of the reality show, on the networks as well as basic cable, especially MTV.

Prior to this, TV shows on the big 3 (later big 4) networks were forced to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, which meant even serious dramas such as NYPD Blue, as well as smarter comedies like Seinfeld, had to be “dumbed down” sufficiently to reach the mouth-breathers who today would be tuning into Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. In particular, NYPD Blue, considered revolutionary for its time, comes across as downright simplistic compared to later cop shows like The Wire and True Detective.

But the explosion in the number of channels in the 90s allowed for more niche programming, which led to a remarkable divergence in programming: the more high-brow, high-quality shows on HBO and, later, on AMC and other rivals, including occasional network TV examples; and the low-brow, content-free dreck designed to let you essentially shut off your brain for 43 minutes, mainly reality TV supplemented by the CBS lineup of Chuck Lorre laughtrack “comedies” and all the CSI/NCIS procedurals. The original NCIS, the #1 scripted program on television, has an opening sequence that looks like it time traveled here from 1988 — probably not an accident.

And we have to understand — for as much as we mock and loathe Storage Wars or Big Bang Theory, these shows are absolutely necessary to allow for the development of great shows the like which we would have never seen in 1988. By sucking away the low-IQ crowd, as well as people who see TV as a way to simply shut down their brains after a long day at work (a completely defensible position, by the way), they allow the other shows to develop without having to pander. (Well, with much less pandering anyway… executive meddling is still a thing, if not as heavy-handed as back in the day.)

This is not a new observation, but the AAA-quality programming we have grown spoiled on these days, from the Sopranos to Breaking Bad, as well as well-written single-camera comedies from Scrubs to Modern Family, simply would not have been possible in the era of the Big 3. Imagine The Good Wife with a talking monkey and a heartwarming Very Special Episode every few weeks — that is what it would have looked like if it had come out 30 years ago.

In any event, the out-of-touch Stanley remains completely oblivious to the post-90s rules of TV. But this is hardly unexpected. She works for the same paper that employs Thomas Friedman, David Brooks and Maureen Dowd — basically, the paper requires you have no knowledge of what’s happening on Planet Earth if you want to work for them. Stanley’s exposure as a hack is hardly unexpected. But the incident serves as a reminder just how good we have it with TV these days.