REMEMBER WHEN watching TV used to be fun?
About a decade ago, following popular television meant keeping up with a handful of tentpole shows. As long as you took in the meth-cook madness of Breaking Bad, embraced the ’60s sleaze of Mad Men, and kept your goblet full for Game of Thrones, you were basically set.
Ah, yes, those were the days: Netflix was still in the fight for streaming dominance, big networks were in a post-Lost relevance recession, and Law & Order filled in the gaps.
Now TV is work.
You’ve already read about the number of services (Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, and so on) and the sheer volume of programming, but now there’s the issue of length. What was once the 22-minute-episode standard of The Simpsons grew into the 49 minutes of Breaking Bad and then ballooned into Game of Thrones’ 57-minute mini movies. (Inventing Anna, I want all those hours of my life back.)
You used to watch one episode a week and be caught up. Now you can watch weeks’ worth of TV and still never feel that way.
Which brings us to one of the fall’s biggest new debuts: Amazon Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Amazon’s latest epic is expected to become the most expensive TV show of all time, with an estimated budget of $1 billion.
But then there’s the soul-crushing rumor that each of the first few episodes could have a 90-minute run time—movie length.
Tania Yuki, the chief marketing officer of the media-analytics company Comscore, can explain some of this: With streaming shows not having to fit into a set 30- or 60-minute network time slot, there’s more freedom. “It makes sense to enable longer episodes, because once you have a captive audience, why not keep them as long as practical rather than risk them switching to another show?” Yuki says.
I guess it makes sense—for streaming services. But with so many sprawling stories, how do you keep up? Free time is fleeting, and the decision between catching upon this show, starting that show, or finally finishing up a third is an unnecessary (and, admittedly, silly) form of stress.
I talked to Daniel D’Addario, a chief TV critic for Variety, about all this—and he handed me the keys to freedom. “There’s so much TV that no one show is going to be a must-watch or must-discuss,” he says.
That’s right. Unburden yourself of the idea that you need to be up-to-date, because it’s now impossible to be.
“If you’re not instantly gripped by the idea of watching it or you don’t have time, just move on,” D’Addario says. Fans argue that a show “gets good in episode 4” or that “Season 2 is better than 1.” (Network TV didn’t require hours of buildup—it had to earn its keep, every episode, or risk cancellation.)
D’Addario recommends going Marie Kondo on your TV habits. If it doesn’t spark joy, zap it. If your inner dad can’t bear the idea of the drugged-out teens of Euphoria, then why bother? If you watch the first 30 minutes of The Rings of Power and it doesn’t compel you, let it go.
It’s not just that there’s so much TV, but that there’s so much good TV. Film stars are all in on streaming. Kevin Costner is unstoppable on Yellowstone. Ben Stiller’s directing on Severance makes the show. Kate Winslet carries Mare of Easttown. Sure, there’s a glut of schlock out there, but you can skip that, too. It’s okay not to care what anyone else thinks is must-see TV.
Still can’t figure out what to watch? Law & Order is now streaming on Hulu.
A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Men’s Health.
Evan is the culture editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE. He loves weird movies, watches too much TV, and listens to music more often than he doesn’t.
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