A gratifyingly episodic episode.
As we all know, the coronavirus pandemic is nothing more than a consolidated effort by home delivery grocery apps and Netflix to keep us permanently combined in our homes. It’s actually sort of like that one Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where the citizens of one planet deceive the citizens of a neighboring planet into thinking they all suffer from an incurable plague, which gives the people from the first planet an excuse to sell expensive, addictive drugs to the second planet. Sure, maybe that episode of TV has been historically (and justifiably) panned for dropping a Nancy Reagan-inspired “Just Say No” lecture in the middle of an otherwise pointed critique of how dangerous information asymmetry can be if left to run amok, although you should maybe take that last point with a grain of salt because I’m an economist (in addition to a Trekkie) and I care about such things. Anyways, I’m obviously kidding with the loony conspiracy theory (so please don’t have me getting blown up on social media or anything), and I didn’t actually come here to talk shop. I’m more curious about the hipster obsession with vintage TV, especially when it’s often not very good, when you could just as easily be watching Tiger King?
On the surface, vintage TV is often good for some ironic hipster laughs over fashion (“lol, sweet mullet, John Stamos”), language (“lol, they said ‘da bomb’”), and the irresistible tendency to moralize for the benefit of adolescent viewers (“lol, D.A.R.E. kids”). In that respect, it’s basically the entertainment equivalent of an Ugly Christmas Sweater party, and prime territory for ironic hipster “rediscovering.” However, if it’s really true that Millennials across the country can’t get enough of The Golden Girls, then I suspect the draw towards retro TV cannot be solely attributed to hipster cheek.
Perhaps the biggest attractant of older TV shows is the prevalence of episodic formats. For the most part, successful, modern television productions use a heavily serialized format. They spread a single story out over multiple seasons, and seem seldom to resolve any mini-arc over fewer than four episodes. In contrast, many of the most popular shows on television traded on an episodic format right up to the 1990s. At some point, people apparently decided heavily serialized TV was better, and that the episodic format is only appropriate in the context of comedies. But serialized shows don’t give out the kind of emotional catharsis you get from watching a single plotline unfold and resolve. Those who grew up in a world where the monotony of, say, The Walking Dead is the norm are starting to discover the value of such compressed storytelling, which lets you live out the entire emotional rollercoaster of a completed story in 22 or 44 minutes.
We hipsters are not immune to this charm. Moreover, we can enjoy old-school episodic TV on an even more meta level. If super-serious, complicated, conspiracy-theory-inducing television is the new normal, then tightly scripted episodic shows are borderline countercultural by comparison. Hipsters enjoy retro TV with a connoisseur’s appreciation for what has erroneously been labeled as an inferior art form. Like a smug hipster poo-pooing standoffish, labor-intensive craft beer in favor of the “simple purity” of a Miller High Life, hipsters can derive snobbish glee from appreciating the retro simplicity of episodic TV in a way mainstream people can’t.