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Between Netflix, Amazon and Disney Plus, TV is starting to feel like homework

Commentary: In the battle between what you should watch and what you want to watch, it's hard to choose sides.

The Politician

Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Platt.


When the 2020 Golden Globe nominations were announced Monday, I read through the list of nominees for best television drama and realized I hadn't seen a single one. 

Succession, Big Little Lies, Killing Eve, The Morning Show, The Crown. Regardless of how wild Twitter got every time Big Little Lies aired, or how much buzz the new cast of The Crown gets every season, I've managed to avoid each of these shows.

For every single one of them, I've had a moment when I've asked myself -- in the car or while making dinner and listening to some pop culture podcast -- should I watch this? Do I need to watch this? 

These days, we have an embarrassment of rich options when it comes to television. Between cable and ever-multiplying streaming services, watching TV could be anyone's full-time job. In November, both Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus launched. HBO Max and Peacock are on the way, too. And unlike in the olden days, there's new content coming out constantly. I counted north of 300 Netflix originals in TV Guide's roundup for the year. Once upon a time, seasons ended in May, and you'd have to live through the summer drought, making do with reruns and reality shows. 

It's almost ridiculous to complain about such a glut.

If you're the sort of person who likes keeping up with the shifting pop culture landscape, watching TV is turning into a task. For sure, there's an element of FOMO -- fear of missing out -- at work here, but FOMO is only phase one. What happens when you've already MOed? 

When there's more to consume than time to consume it, it's easy to fall into an internal negotiation in which you have to evaluate what you should watch versus what you want to watch. And in this fast-paced age, the former can win out at the expense of the latter.

Tough choices

I'll give you an example. About a month ago, during an endless scrolling session on Netflix, I passed by The Politician, a quirky Ryan Murphy show starring Ben Platt, about a high school senior with a bulletproof plan to become the US president  one day by first becoming class president. I'd heard positive reviews. My favorite pop culture podcast, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, mostly liked it, with its stylized dialogue and Wes Anderson-y sets.

Sitting on the couch, though, I started calculating whether it was worth investing time in the show because I'd missed the all-important discourse window. If I was late to the game, was the game worth playing at all?

Turns out it was. The Politician was a bit uneven, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was weird and colorful. Platt made a character who should mostly be unlikable-likable enough. The soundtrack was littered with artists like Chvrches, Sufjan Stevens and Joni Mitchell. I got a kick out of the wannabe political machinations of teenagers and ogled the show's bottomless supply of expensive blazers and high-water pants. When I finished the season, I kept thinking about the show, and what's more, I'm looking forward to what's next. 

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And I almost bypassed it. I almost missed something I loved because I thought watching it late somehow made it worth less -- as if reading tweets and think pieces is the main reason anyone would watch something. 

The whole experience made me question why (or for whom) I watch what I watch (subtracting the shows I watch because they are relevant to my job). 

There are times when saying no to a show is easy. I hear everyone on Succession is utterly awful, and you know what? I'm tired of awful people. 

There are other times saying yes to a show is hard, too. HBO's Los Espookys has been sitting on my to-watch list for months. I am genuinely excited about a show on a platform like HBO that's primarily in Spanish. And yet, somehow I manage to find other things to watch first, like Patriot Act, the latest season of Queer Eye or the final season of Silicon Valley. 

This push and pull might best be exemplified for me by the Star Wars marathon on Disney Plus I undertook at the end of November. The week before last, I got knocked out with a brutal cold and spent about four days shuffling from my bed to the couch and back.

With not much else to do, one night, I decided to rewatch the original Star Wars trilogy. Why? I love them. And because I've seen them, watching them is less work than watching something new, like Los Espookys. The next night, I watched the prequels. Why? I hadn't seen them. In the past I haven't been particularly motivated to, but this seemed like a perfect opportunity to finally take a look at a longstanding blind spot. The next night, I watched The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Why? Because Rise of Skywalker comes out soon, and I want to be ready. Also, I like both (yes, BOTH) movies. As for The Mandalorian -- who among us isn't lost in Baby Yoda's eyes?

The simple decision of what to watch is anything but simple. 

None of this is to say that I wish there were fewer options. Certainly, I am totally in charge of what I watch and when. So if I never get around to watching Barry, but mainline the third season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, it's on me. 

Still, I can't help but think leaning a little harder toward what I want to watch versus what's going to furnish me with some hot-take tweets is the way to go.

If nothing else, Sufjan Stevens and maroon blazers should always take priority.

Originally published Dec. 10.