As viewers we are continually told that we are living in a golden age of TV. We have more, better shows than ever before – at least if you believe the critics. However, with so much quality on our screens how do we divide a ‘classic’ TV show from one that is merely good.
Italo Calvino famously did this when discussing classic literature but the modern mind is as likely to value The Sopranos as Sophocles. With this in mind, Hook decided to try and create a 10 point manifesto that helps define some of the key points underpinning classic TV content.
We feel these rules are broad enough to go beyond adult scripted drama and comedy, paying homage to programming including the best of kids skewing shows (Adventure Time anyone), and big, loved formats.
Of course, this is an emotive topic, and these points are intended to provoke discussion and debate. So please let us know what you think.
What makes a classic TV show?
1. Classic content invites the question ‘what did you think of …’ not ‘have you seen’
The best shows have a unique flavour, and significance that mean they are not just watched, they are dissected and discussed. Consequently, when discussing a show, a viewer will assume that a fellow watcher will have an opinion.
2. A classic TV show is a treasured and valued experience whenever it is watched, whether that be when it is initially aired or at a later date (when the viewer has the chance, or the mental space for it)
A great show lives outside of time. Watching should help shape our experiences and understanding of the world in several ways ranging from: models of behaviour, language and expression; to paradigms of beauty and style.
3. Classic shows have an influence. This can be either in the way they tangibly imprint themselves on the imagination (and are explicitly referenced); or the way they hide themselves in the layers of the individual or collective subconscious (and influence behaviour and thought by stealth)
It is easy to think of shows such as Friends that have endured and seeded their character archetypes and catchphrases across a range of generations. However, great shows aren’t always so obvious – Adventure Time showcasing the power of subversion in kids TV; Tony Soprano demonstrating that tough guys need mindfulness too; Great British Bake Off reminding viewers that there is a nice side to life in the UK (even if festooned with Union Jack bunting) “A classic show can always take viewers by surprise”
4. A classic TV show is one that – when watching for the first time – still manages to give the viewer the sense they are re-watching something true and vital they have seen before
From Downton Abbey to Line of Duty, the most successful shows are instant classics. While referencing known themes and genres, they still deliver a captivating and exciting story that remains unpredictable yet ultimately familiar to audiences.
5. A classic has never exhausted all it has to say to viewers
These shows may not necessarily have the lengthiest run, but they do continue to offer us new perspectives each time we watch. Friends, though still tremendously popular with viewers, is now provoking debates around race, privilege and misogyny.
6. A classic TV show constantly generates a cloud of critical comment and column inches around it, but – through its quality – is bigger than the discourse around it
A truly classic show will create a buzz with audiences, causing both individuals and media titles to follow and discuss its key events. However, a classic will live beyond this initial commentary to create a lasting impression on viewers’ lives.
7. Classic shows are ones which, the more we think we know hearsay and critical commentary about them, the more surprised we are by their originality and quality when watching for the first time
No matter how many times you hear a recommendation to watch a show, sometimes you will actively resist the hype and make up your own mind about it without even sampling an episode. But even after years of avoiding a show (one of our colleagues first watched Fleabag only last month, and loved it), a classic show can always take viewers by surprise.
8. A classic programme comes to represent an entire universe: whether broad, (such as Westeros) or enclosed (The First Dates restaurant) that we believe and invest in
Watching TV, if nothing else, is a great way to escape daily life and immerse yourself in a fictional world, similar to reading novels or playing video games. So any classic show needs to invite viewers into its world to ensure emotional involvement in the characters and events of the show.
9. A classic programme is something that you cannot remain indifferent to or impartial about – they lead viewers to define themselves either with or in opposition to the subject matter and protagonists
In order to create a conversation around a classic show, it needs to force viewers to have an opinion. Whether that be Game of Thrones or Gavin and Stacey, everyone who watches these shows has their own thoughts on the show, including favourite characters and storylines.
“In order to create a conversation around a classic show, it needs to force viewers to have an opinion”
10. A classic is a piece of content that endures as a background noise, even when it is totally at odds with the reality of the time in which it is viewed.
A classic TV show needs to be simultaneously timeless and nostalgic, allowing viewers to watch over and over again. This can be a high-octane drama, but more often it’s a sitcom/ dramedy that can play in the background. In what world will an eccentric yet distinctly typical family like The Simpsons or the trials and tribulations of twenty-somethings in Friends not resonate with audiences? These are the shows that remain true classics no matter when they were first shown.
What do you think?
So these are the 10 elements that I think are present in every classic TV show… but (to paraphrase Big Lebowski) that’s just, like, my opinion, man.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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