James Werrell

How can we watch all those shows?

I’m wracked with guilt. The seventh season of “Mad Men” just ended, and I have yet to see a single episode of this groundbreaking series.

I’m aware that “Mad Men” is great TV and perhaps something even more than that. It could be the next evolutionary phase in entertainment, the small screen’s triumph over movies (except, maybe, when it comes to blockbusters like “Jurassic World”).

But it’s not just “Mad Men.” It’s also “The Americans,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Justified,” “True Detective” “Fargo,” “Transparent” ... the list goes on and on. And on.

All of these shows have been lauded by the critics. Most have been recommended by friends. I haven’t seen a whole episode of any of them.

My wife and I did watch all of “Breaking Bad,” occasionally staying awake for three or four episodes at a time. Brilliant! Loved every minute of it.

Of course we were playing catchup. The rest of the world had been watching “Breaking Bad” for years.

We now are watching “The Wire,” which premiered in 2002 and ran until 2008.

But as I noted earlier, my failure to keep up with any of the latest series making waves with viewers gives me guilt pangs. I’m at risk of falling into the culture gap and not being able to get up.

But then, how could anyone keep up? There is not enough time in a given day to watch all those shows, no matter how worthy they might be, even if all you did was sleep and watch TV (eating meals on the couch, of course).

“Mad Men,” alone, features 92 episodes. That’s more than 60 hours of viewing.

This presents a frustrating conundrum. Even the most dedicated viewers will have to make hard choices, knowing that in doing so, they are likely to miss “essential” shows.

In the days of network dominance of TV, the choices were much easier. You were limited mostly to what the three major networks offered. You set aside 30 minutes to an hour a week for each of your favorite shows, and if you missed one, you had to wait for summer re-runs.

When you watched popular shows such as “MASH” or “Dallas” or “Mary Tyler Moore” or “Cheers” or “Seinfeld,” you knew you were doing pretty much the same thing as millions of other Americans at exactly the same time. And you could talk about that common experience the next morning with your friends.

Nowadays, we all are niche watchers, viewing our own eclectic menu of shows whenever we feel like it. And what we watch may not correspond at all with what our friends watch.

But with choice comes responsibility. Keeping up with the latest series requires rigor and discipline. You can’t waste time on cooking shows, a ball game or a movie you’ve seen before.

God forbid that you should read a book!

However, let me be clear: I am not advocating a return to the days when the networks ruled. Network content was limited, and there was no nudity or profanity, which seriously limited the realism that could be achieved.

But the opposite is true of today’s streaming and cable cornucopia: There’s too much content, and shock value often is a substitute for quality. Nonetheless, the quality of some shows sometimes rivals that of great movies.

I guess what I need is something like ecclesiastical dispensation from the cultural overlords. I need permission not to have to try everything at the buffet but just to sample here and there, occasionally bingeing on what appeals the most.

I need to embrace the certainty that I won’t get around to watching some shows I should watch and to shed the guilt: “I know you viewed an old episode of ‘The Simpsons’ instead of the latest offering of ‘Orange is the New Black.’ But you are forgiven. Now, go and sin no more!”

But stay away from those cooking shows. They can be deadly.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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