My first favorite television show starred an imaginary purple dinosaur who is a proponent of peaceful conflict resolution and a stellar singer.
Needless to say, my television tastes have evolved since the mid-90s. As a member of the youngest generation that still remembers floppy disks and halfway rewound VHS tapes, my timing for this TV golden age was a bit awkward. Apparently while I was busy watching "Recess" and "The Saddle Club*," TV was transforming from a “vast wasteland” into a veritable smorgasbord of high quality shows.
When I finally jumped into the big kid TV game (thanks, "Mad Men"), I found that I really loved it. Long twisting plotlines, ridiculously developed characters, risk-taking narrative style…TV has it going on. But, why exactly do I love some shows and can’t stand others? Netflix has been trying to crack the data and intuition method for TV tastemaking for years with mixed success (see “practically bingeproof” "Marco Polo"). For this Little Data project, I wanted to see if I could find out what exactly my favorite TV shows have in common.
In order to better understand what I loved about TV, I started creating a pretty massive spreadsheet of the shows admire. I started small and eventually expanded the list to include 27 of my favorites across genres, budgets and languages.
It was ugly, but as a tool it helped me start to understand the correlation of the categories that showed interesting trends (number of seasons, popularity on IMDB, award winning) and those that weren’t (age and race of lead, setting, length of show). From there it was relatively easy to begin putting together a series of graphs on the emerging trends in my data.
I used a variety of graph types (scatterplot, circle packing, timeline, pie), but unified them with a few consistent elements. I used the same audience sized circles in three of the graphs and kept my rating of the show (represented by color) throughout all of the graphs, making it easy to compare without referring back to a key.
I have a serious costume drama bias. I’ve expanded the traditional definition of costume dramas to include shows with beautiful costumes, amazing cinematography or otherwise stylish overtones. One standout, "Empire," has become a who’s who of the art world, the walls of the sets are littered with the works of contemporary artists like Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas, alongside paintings by Gustav Klimt and Claude Monet.
Just give me a strong female lead already. Interestingly, only 18.5% of the shows I love have male leads. That isn’t because the TV landscape is primarily made up of female leads (quite the opposite). It’s because of the sheer number of high quality shows produced over the last decade, I’m able to pick and choose shows that feature all kinds of women — from political genius Olivia in Scandal to reality TV antihero Rachel in "UnREAL."
I love shows that are cut tragically short. Sometimes the good shows really do die young — and boy do I have a soft spot for them. Some were cancelled because they didn’t get enough seasons to get boring, and others because they were too niche to find an audience. The result is shows that will break your heart with their loose ends, but inspire to imagine all kinds of possibilities for their wide open futures — at least until the movie comes out.
Genre-bending, yes please. The most interesting part of this chart is what you can’t see: how long it took me to decide where to place these circles. That beautiful ambiguity TV writers love to wax about actually makes it really difficult to place these shows in neat categories. I like dark dramedies like "Orange Is the New Black," politically infused comedies like "Parks & Recreation," and somehow-still-very-funny shows about not quite dead people like "Pushing Daisies," "Buffy" and "Dead Like Me."
Thanks to this Little Data project, Netflix has a serious heads up on how to create the perfect show for me — just create a beautifully produced genre-bender helmed by a complicated heroine and then cancel it midway through the second season. Should be easy.
This project also made me realize how much of the 2000’s best shows I have yet to watch (ahem, "The Sopranos," "The Wire"). I’m playing catch-up on what TV goddessEmily Nussbaum has called "centrally and importantly the first decade when television became recognizable as art, great art: collectible and life-changing and transformative and lasting.”
The long hated on “chewing gum for the eyes” has grown up. Television is now just another medium for art. Oil painting wouldn’t have been taken seriously either if it’s primary application was trying to sell breakfast cereal and dish soap.
*Don’t worry, there are plenty of nostalgic Tumblrs dedicated to the TV I used to watch on Saturday mornings if you missed it.