Part of me loves the writers' strike. Free from the need to keep up with midseason replacements and ongoing shows, free from the slight undercurrent of stress unique to those whose livelihood depends on being in the know -- the fear that you're missing something -- we drink deep from the season sets on DVD that have been sitting on our shelves for months. Big Love season two. The Wire season two. Extras series two -- which means we finally get to see in context the celebrated David Bowie sequence, probably the funniest three minutes of television produced in this millennium.
Last night we watched (and Noel blogged) the writerless return of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to late night. It's cruel to put anyone, even someone with the well-honed improvisational skills of a Stephen Colbert, on television for 22 minutes these days with nothing on the teleprompter. Maybe a host with the affability and genuine interest in his guest of a Johnny Carson could thrive without written material, but when you do a fake news show on the fly, what you tend to get, over time, is Dennis Miller forgetting that he's supposed to be sarcastic.
My biggest worry over the absence of scripted television (and awards shows) is that we have nothing to bring America together. I tend to appreciate mass culture for creating a glue, however mushy and bland, that holds together many disparate American communities and classes. We intellectuals like to scoff at its lowest-common-denominator mediocrity, but what else can create common ground at the water cooler? Not music anymore. Not books. Movies and television, the gathering places of our mass media, limited in number and parceled out week by week, month by month, in the ever-changing menu at the only diner in town.
I'll be glad when the strike is over and I can go back to sharing a nightly experience with folks holed up in their respective living rooms all over the country. Meanwhile, I can at least stop feeling guilty about a few shows I failed to watch in real time in the last few years -- a pleasant penance, if a belated one.