It thus occurs to me that I really ought to say something in this space regarding the only piece reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader about which I’ve had second thoughts–of a sort. In 2001 I published an essay in the Sunday New York Times called “The Myth of Classic TV” (they called it something else, but I restored my original title when I put it in the Teachout Reader). In it I wrote:
As it happens, only thirteen episodes of The Sopranos are aired each season, and the series is expected to have a fairly limited run. More typical is St. Elsewhere, which ran for 137 consecutive episodes, each of which grew organically out of its predecessors. Such long-running series can only be experienced serially, which for all practical purposes means during their original runs; once they cease to air each week in regular time slots, they cease to be readily available as total artistic experiences, and thus can no longer acquire new viewers, or be re-experienced by old ones. This is why there is no such thing as a “classic” TV series: we never see any series enough times to know whether its overall quality justifies the multiple viewings which are the hallmark of classic status. (Needless to say, I’m not talking about those fanatical cultists who have seen each episode of Star Trek a hundred times and can recite the dialogue from memory. To them, my heartfelt advice is: get a life.) [but, of course, Teachout said it anyway!]
[btw, emphases added]
Some think The Sopranos will break this iron rule of ephemerality. I understand that a great many videocassettes of the first thirteen episodes have been sold, presumably to latecomers who weren’t subscribing to HBO in 1999 and wanted to find out what they’d missed. But if you aren’t already watching The Sopranos, you’re probably not going to start now, unless you’re prepared to sit through reruns of 26 additional episodes between now and next March, when the fourth season begins. Nor are even rabid fans likely to watch The Sopranos from beginning to end more than once. Who has the time?
Since I wrote those words, the DVD has replaced the videocassette, innumerable TV series of the past have been released either in their entirety or in large chunks, and the most popular of these box sets rank among the hottest items on the home-video market. ...
So why did I fail to foresee the explosion of interest in TV series on video? I don’t have an easy answer to that one, but I suspect I made the biggest mistake a cultural critic can make, which is to confuse himself with the public at large. [emphasis added
And yet here we are at the fiftieth year since Star Trek began and Star Trek Beyond hit theaters this summer. Let's float this idea to explain why Terry Teachout turned out to be wrong about classic TV but in spite of the fact that I think one of his key arguments against why there "should" be classic TV in theory is completely plausible. Teachout made the case that the reason we can't assess classic TV as classic TV has to do with the inherently immersive and open-ended nature of the medium. You can't distill 137 hours of narrative into something that lends itself to genuine criticism, can you? You can do this for novels and for film and for epic poems because these are, by nature of their medium of reception, more easily subjected to some kind of critical analysis.
Ergo, The Sopranos and other shows that have short seasons and a few seasons' worth of story can be subjected to criticism in a way that Days of Our Lives could not, even if every critic on earth thought that a series in which Stephano dies no less than twenty times were worth discussing critically. How do you attempt to assimilate literally half a century of continuous narrative in the form of television episodes? Well, even within the industry these shows are not regarded as Art.
If decades after it aired we're not still discussing St. Elsewhere or Hill Street Blues that suggests the nature of the medium is ephemeral. What may signal that a show makes an impact is whether a show thrives in box set sales, perhaps. Or, maybe we should take a cue from how not to Terry Teachout this and propose that the shows that gain dauntingly loyal cult followings and spin off shows should tell us something. If the continuation of a series by way of spin-offs within TV and translations into the big screen are indications of "classic TV" then the cult following rather than the critical consensus by itself, will probably tell us what classic TV is. Sticky wicket there, because there's a sense in which what makes for "classic TV" is partly (but only partly) a decision of market activity.
But here, too, Star Trek suggests otherwise. The show was a cult classic and the original series (which I still like to watch now and then) seems indisputably classic TV now.
But this introduces a really awkward possibility for film critics. If the classics of TV demonstrate their classic nature by being transformed (yes, that pun is as intended as you might think it is) into big screen narratives then Transformers is more classic TV than Hill Street Blues. A classic gets defined within TV not merely by longevity but by its capacity for cultural saturation. So Scooby-Doo is more classic TV than The Wire. MacGuyver is more classic TV than Breaking Bad. Star Trek is obviously more classic TV by now than Game of Thrones will ever be, not just because it so obviously is classic TV but also because it was conceived as a televised narrative to begin with, not as an HBO prestige drama adaptation of pulp fiction fantasy with high-brow TV critic cred.
Any television program that becomes a classic has probably, by the nature of its medium and broadcast time, become something Jacques Ellul would probably call a feat of integration propaganda.
PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN'S ATTITUDES
Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
Integration propaganda aims at stabilizing the social body, at unifying it and reinforcing it. [emphasis added] It is thus the preferred instrument of government, though properly speaking it is not exclusively political propaganda. ... this type of propaganda can also be made by a group of organizations other than those of government, going in the same direction, more or less spontaneously ...
The most important example of the use of such propaganda is the United States. Obviously, integration propaganda is much more subtle and complex than agitation propaganda. It seeks not a temporary excitement but a total molding of the person in depth. Here all psychological and opinion analyses must be utilized, as well as the mass media of communication. It is primarily this integration propaganda that we shall discuss in our stud, for it is the most important of our time despite the success and the spectacular character of subversive propaganda. [emphasis added]
Let us note right away a final aspect of integration propaganda: the more comfortable, cultivated, and informed the milieu to which it is addressed, the better it works. Intellectuals are more sensitive than peasants to integration propaganda. In fact they share the stereotypes of a society even when they are political opponents of the society. Take a recent example: French intellectuals opposed to war in Algeria seemed hostile to integration propaganda. Nevertheless, they shared all the stereotypes and myths of French society--Technology, Nation, Progress; all their actions were based on those myths. They were thoroughly ripe for an integration propaganda, for they were already adapted to its demands. [emphases added] Their temporary opposition was not of the slightest importance; just changing the color of the flag was enough to find them again among the most conformist of groups.
And so we can read how a writer like Richard Brody can afford to be a bit condescendingly cynical about the longevity of the Star Trek franchise in a way that he might not be about the films of Godard. In his somewhat brief write-up about the recent Trek film there's no point where Richard Brody steps back to suggest that the political and social ideals of Star Trek are at any point wrong, silly or stupid; he only more or less implicitly indicates that perhaps Star Trek is too silly and stupid a franchise with which to serve as advocacy for ideals he would, simply by virtue of being a film critic writing for The New Yorker, hold sacred. He can afford a bit of cynicism about the pop culture and even about America, but not the ideals themselves.