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I replaced Netflix and HBO with network TV for a week, and my brain is different now

ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC have stopped trying to compete head on against prestige cable and streaming rivals, counter-programming with time-warp comfort food that can be soothing.

I replaced Netflix and HBO with network TV for a week, and my brain is different now
[Photo: Thomas J. O’Halloran/Library of Congress]
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I was paralyzed by indecision recently, stuck between the rock of that Al Pacino Nazi-hunting show from the company that sells me groceries, and the hard place that is a surreal spin-off of a former Adult Swim series from the company that used to mail me DVDs.

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That’s when I realized I could use a break from TV decisions.

The last time I took such a break, a year ago, I just watched whatever Netflix told me to watch for two weeks, and ended up getting familiar with a whole lot of Netflix original movies.

This time, I thought I’d surrender myself to the formerly dominant form of entertainment that Netflix helped stick a fork in over the last decade: network television.

Back in the ’80s, network TV was everything. It was what you were watching if you were watching TV. So many people tuned into the finale of MASH, for instance, that the New York City waterworks were reportedly abused when they all took simultaneous bathroom breaks during commercials.

The past couple decades have seen an increasing erosion of network TV’s sovereignty, though. Nielsen ratings among adults 18-49 for broadcast TV dropped about 35% between 2014 and 2019, thanks to cord cutting and the rise of streaming. Everybody with the means to subscribe to premium platforms, or a moral gray area around torrenting, can watch whatever they want to watch, whenever they want to watch it, on a variety of devices big and small. It’s almost hard to believe now that in previous generations, families would gather around a living-room TV set together at night and simply watch What Was On.

Or maybe it’s just hard for me to believe, as a snooty television gourmand who reacts to the sight of his uncle watching Tom Selleck’s Blue Bloods ‘stache during family holidays as if hearing the screech of an AOL CD-ROM blasted out of an airhorn. Even though the overall network TV audience size has shrunk dramatically in the 30 years between the debut of Roseanne and the latest season of The Conners, millions of people still tune in faithfully, other options be damned.

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I hadn’t ignored network TV altogether in recent years. Outliers like The Good Place, Bob’s Burgers, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine continue to emerge ever so often and pull me into their orbit. But I wanted to see what it would be like to immerse myself fully, and see all the shows my elitist eyes would never in a million years intentionally alight on.

I saw a fuzzy pink Minion with popsicle fingernails reveal herself to be Chaka Khan.

I saw a group of Star Wars stormtroopers line dance to “Old Town Road.”

I saw a container full of bull semen fly out of a burning barn and land next to Rob Lowe’s feet, prompting a person nearby to remark, “Welcome to Texas.”

I saw Ellen DeGeneres lead contestants through a game of Taboo where if you accidentally give away the hint, a cannon shoots goop directly into your face.

This February, I spent one week watching nothing but network TV, and here’s what happened.

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Everything is the same and everything is different

Watching network shows again feels like swathing myself in a cozy, familiar blanket. It’s a soft parade of uniformly telegenic people in clothes that always fit perfectly, bantering like aliens who grew up watching only Friends and ER. Nothing bad can happen to me while these sitcoms and dramas are on, twirling through the latest iteration of an ancient dance. Everything is alright, and if it’s not, it’s surely headed for a quick resolution.

Even though the networks still take big swings—like with Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, a quirky show about a woman suffering through a music-related mental-health crisis—the bulk of programming exists in a safe, unbroken space. It’s one flashback after another to a pre-irony period where nobody had ever heard jokes before. Tim Allen is still on TV, as the titular Last Man Standing, and he is still spouting dialogue that stretches the sound of how people actually talk to fit the decrepit contours of network sitcom banter:

“Carol mentioned the brainstorming session, huh?”

“She mentioned the storm, not so much the brains.”

Bazinga!

In a subplot on 9-1-1: Lone Star that would absolutely crush in 1995, Rob Lowe experiences sexual side effects from a medical treatment and gets very sad about it—oh no!—until he’s cured by a sexy sushi date. Once his date, who Lowe picked up in a Sephora, realizes that “someone got a visit from the boner fairy,” she says, “Check, please!” to nobody, the scene ends, and I am back in high school again, happily not talking to my family who is sitting on couches on either side of me.

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This network TV experiment happened to fall during the week of Valentine’s Day, and I forgot how network TV shows all converge around each holiday. Of course, I remember that some shows have seasonal theme episodes, but I usually only see them much later, and one at a time. It’s strange to watch show after show either shoehorn Valentine’s Day into a plot or wrap a whole episode around it. The cumulative effect is a flavor of that MASH finale connectedness. Network TV wants to be a page in our calendars, a step in our routines. We’re all celebrating Valentine’s Day together, just as sure as we’re all watching Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector. We’re all the same.

Everything on network TV is as it once was: The cadences are the same, the patter is the same, the fantastically unlikely “relatable” situations are the same. Inject them all into my veins.

The woke and broke hall of mirrors

Beyond the general time warp effect of watching multiple network-TV hours per night, I found some surprising signs of progress. Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre’s latest is about a heavyset man dating a woman way out of his league (finally!) . . . but that woman happens to be an immigrant nurse from Nigeria. Not only does Bob Loves Abishola put the charming Nigerian actor Folake Olowofoyeku front and center, Lorre hired black female staff writers such as Ibet Inyang to give the show more dimension. He’s come a long way since the Charlie Sheen/tiger-blood era of rampant homogenous misogyny.

Network TV has a lot more diversity than I was expecting altogether, and not much of it even feels like it’s bursting a forehead vein trying to make a statement. If there’s a Ryan Murphy show called 9-1-1: Lone Star, of course there’s going to be a trans male firefighter (played by real-life trans actor Brian Michael Smith), but there are also several shows like the Fran Dresher vehicle Indebted that casually have an LGBT character in the ensemble. There’s even more neurodiversity than I expected, with the bizarre detective show Stumptown featuring an actor with Down syndrome (Cole Sibus) in a role that doesn’t draw attention to his condition. (At least not in the episode I watched.)

Although I’m familiar with Black-ish, the mothership Mixed-ish spun off from, I was still happily surprised at how hard the latter show goes in its messaging on network TV. The Tracee Ellis Ross-produced sitcom has a lot to say, beyond the sitcom-y conventions it’s grounded in. I outright gasped at what the show uses its Valentine’s Day plot-peg to get into. “Black girls have a preciously small window to actually be seen as girls. This dates back to slavery, when they were meant to have children as early as possible,” Ross narrates over an animated depiction of slavery. “Which might be why a Georgetown study found that adults think girls as young as five need less nurturing than their white peers.” Holy. Crap.

Surprisingly less progressive, on the other hand, is Ellen’s Game of Games, a show for people who simply can’t get enough of Ellen DeGeneres dancing and who also miss Double Dare. The first game of games on the episode I watched is called You Bet Your Wife, in which two men make wagers on how “smart” they think their wives are, under penalty of those wives being dunked into a vat of goo from a great height like a teabag. Already, I am cringing so hard my teeth grind, and then comes the first question: “How many shampoo brands can your wife name in 30 seconds?” Cool! One need not be a scholar of Mary Wollstonecraft to catch a whiff of “Women be shoppin'” in this game. What are we even doing here? Whoever green-lighted this misfire should be dunked in the goo-vat too.

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The performance of reality

Reality shows have always been more about the performance of reality than reality itself, but never more so than with the hosts of reality competition shows. In a stunning feat of artifice, they have to keep up the appearance at all times that they’re having the most fun a person could have. It’s manufactured revelry, a celebration of nothing.

“So happy to be part of this amazing party!” says guest judge Leah Remini at the top of The Masked Singer.

“It really is a party!” says judge and noted anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy.

“Ahhhhh!” says Ken Jeong, who loses his entire mind whenever anything at all happens, ever, on The Masked Singer, a show about screaming and Yo Gabba Gabba costumes, which is apparently expanding into its own Masked universe.

Reality-competition hosts have an unofficial secondary role, I realized after watching them for several hours. They’re the modern-day equivalent of laugh tracks. Their reaction is intended to demo what my own reaction should be. A lot of the effect comes through editing, where a shot of a hooting Ken Jeong (easily the most surprise-able judge on this or any other show) can be inserted after any frame.

The biggest reaction I had to any reality-competition show was when a title card came up during LEGO Masters for executive producer Brad Pitt. Who would’ve thought?!

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During the credits, host Will Arnett announces that the show is “a new kind of competition, pushing the limits of imagination.” It is indeed a new kind of competition. A lot had to happen to get to the point where we have competitive Lego-building on TV.

On the episode I watched, duos of Harley Quinns, pale beardos, and Tammy Faye Bakker clones build space-themed Lego creations, which Arnett and guest host Mayam Bialik then destroyed. The challenges take between 15 to 18 hours to build, and I would watch an entire show about what Arnett—who is clearly embarrassed to be here, but perhaps not enough—got up to in his trailer around hour 14.

“It’s time for your build to meet the bat . . . man,” says Arnett, who voices the Lego Batman, before taking a “spacebat” to one of the Lego builds.

Cut to Ken Jeong from The Masked Singer, somehow, peeing his pants over this joke.

Or maybe I just imagined that part.

Despite my negative tone, I have to say: It was legitimately fun to see what the contestants came up with on this show, and the slo-mo shots of Lego destruction lit up my dopamine center. Also, I like that Lego Masters promotes creativity rather than reality-competition show fame. It seems like something one might watch with their child that ends up with both parties going nuts at the Lego store and building something cool together.

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If only Lego Masters wasn’t guilty, as is every other reality-competition show, of milking every ounce of potential drama from the proceedings.

The scandalized reaction shots that followed one guy telling his teammate, “I feel like you don’t understand Lego,” felt like a Christopher Guest movie played absurdly straight.

And speaking of drama . . . .

All the drama you’ve been craving

What seems to have happened in the decade or so since I last tuned into a network hourlong drama, is that the executives tried to duplicate the mind-bending, cliff-hangery fun of Lost in any number of ways, all of which failed spectacularly, until the only option left was to flood the zone with cop, doctor, and firefighting procedurals and call it a day.

Most of these shows seem to take place during the daytime, flooded with sunlight, as if Total Recall-ing into viewers’ subconscious the feeling of having got outside a bit more that day. There’s just something about seeing a bunch of highly competent people having their morning coffee and wisecracking to a bouncy score that makes you want to kick ass at your own job . . . or maybe enroll in the police academy!

The first hourlong show I watched was Chicago Fire, not to be confused with the other current firefighting show, Station 19, which we know is set in Seattle from exterior shots of the Space Needle. Chicago Fire is part of an interconnected universe of shows whose sole distinction is being set in Chicago. At one point, a character makes a stop at Chicago Medical and I can’t tell whether the character he’s talking to is the star of that show, and if I’m maybe witnessing the greatest crossover event of the century. I’ll never know: I would rather die than watch Chicago Medical too. Please deposit my corpse in front of Chicago Mortuary.

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It’s hard for me to imagine voluntarily choosing to watch these shows after having seen Watchmen or Ozark or Luther—or any other recent non-network hourlong that is complex and riveting.

Then there’s This Is Us, the blockbuster that has revived the family-focused drama in recent years. All I know about This Is Us going in is that it is going to make me cry. With that in mind, I’m neither surprised nor moved when the recap of the previous episode features a) a blind baby almost, but not quite, seeing for the first time, b) a grandmother learning she has a cognitive impairment, and c) a young girl telling Milo Ventimiglia, “Daddy we have a problem.”

Oh my god, what is it? Is it “dying”? Is she going to die?

“I want a mommy story,” the little girl says once the episode starts. The problem was that only daddy is around to read to her that night. I’m a little shocked when it turns out mommy isn’t dead.

Mommy is played by Mandy Moore, who later appears in wildly insufficient aged-up makeup to play mother to the adult version of that little girl, 39-year old Chrissy Metz—who in real life is four years older than Mandy Moore. How has only this show’s tearjerker status reached my attention before now, and not this madness? When Mandy Moore’s character tearfully reveals to Chrissy Metz that she is getting dementia, though, I understand.

While I didn’t exactly enjoy This Is Us, I did find myself momentarily sucked in. Sadness festival aside, the show’s time-shifting structure keeps you on your toes. And it was while I was watching this show that I realized I had been kind of mercifully kept off of my toes for the entire week.

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Network TV is deliciously undemanding. You can play Candy Crush or online shop or get a snack at any time and not miss a thing, and all the while feel like you’re in the company of friends. A lot of prestige TV shows want to dazzle you—but also challenge you. They work hard to establish a unique identity and prove it’s still possible to see something you’ve never seen before. Watching the next Russian Doll, Euphoria, or Killing Eve—and participating in the conversations around them—is fun and satisfying, but it’s also exhausting.

Sometimes you just want to lie down and be counted, to sit in television’s warming glow and feel comfortable. That’s when network TV will always (probably?) be there for you. Come on in, the water’s still nice.