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The new telephiles

Why TV's treasures, available anytime and (almost) anywhere, can now be appreciated like great films or fine art

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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Some friends in Vermont are ensconced in “Six Feet Under.’’ They’re not “catching up’’ on the funeral-home family drama; they’ve only just discovered the old nugget, which ran from 2001 to 2005, and they’re thinking a lot about the dodge-and-dart of death, the twisted wonder of psychiatrist parents, and ecstasy pills in an aspirin bottle.

Likewise, right now a work friend is all about “The Larry Sanders Show,’’ Garry Shandling’s brilliant skewering of late-night TV that may be even more relevant in the Leno-O’Brien War era than it already was when it began airing almost two decades ago, from 1992 to 1998. She’s a little obsessed with this prescient gem, and maybe she’s now seeing our office as an amusing cauldron of insecurity, ego, and self-parody. I can only imagine.

And eight years from now, or maybe 15, someone is going to discover “Breaking Bad’’ for the first time. The Emmy-winning AMC drama is now in production and heading toward season 4 this summer, but some future power-watcher is going to unearth the gem about a mensch who makes meth and get totally steeped in it. “Breaking Bad,’’ a current cultural touchstone, will be a brand new revelation to them.

These people are gold miners. They’re treating TV series the way we once treated movies — as unrestricted by dates, pried out of time. They are digging up good serial storytelling from the libraries, digital or otherwise, and digging them.

For years now, DVRs, discs, and On Demand features have loosed TV shows from their prime time “appointment TV’’ shackles. Now, with the growing popularity of streaming — through the likes of Netflix, HBO GO, Amazon, and Hulu — more and more first-rate old series are instantly available on your TV, computer, tablet, and smart phone. (Facebook, too, may be getting into the streaming game, according to reports.) When it comes to mining, all of the traditional rules and limitations once attached to TV shows hardly matter.

Also irrelevant: The social network. As they time-tunnel through past decades, gold miners are completely ignoring the social aspect of TV. They’re walking around with unique thought balloons floating above their heads, peopled with the Bluths from “Arrested Development’’ and Andy Millman of “Extras,’’ while the world around them talks about the Nielsen hits, the new Showtime series, “American Idol,’’ and editions of “The Real Housewives.’’ They’re having pod experiences, alone, or with their spouses, friends, or families.

Gold mining flies in the face of the state of most small-screen “content’’ in 2011. On the one hand, we’re always plugged in to the Web, all in real time together when it comes to Twitter andFacebook, which will tell you that an entry was made only “seconds ago.’’ When news breaks online, it breaks at warp speed. We watch shows on TV, or on the Internet, and we chat about them online immediately after they end — or, just as often, while they’re airing. Meanwhile, gold miners chip away in their own timeless universe, plucking out nuggets from days gone by, loners in the world of buzz, at least when it comes to the connoisseurship of their favorite old series.

Miners can always seek out fan sites for the old shows they’re watching, if they’re looking, say, to process the death of (spoiler alert!) Caesar on “Rome.’’ Just as there are movie lovers always ready to talk about “Days of Heaven,’’ for example, or “The Godfather’’ trilogy, there are always fans looking to obsess over TV classics like “Freaks and Geeks’’ and “Oz.’’ There are cinephiles, and there are telephiles. But such miners only connect with show chatter out of time — they are detached from the pop zeitgeist.

The advantages to gold mining are great. If you’re a selective person, waiting years to watch a show allows that show to stand the test of time. You’re probably choosing the shows because, unlike, say, “S.W.A.T,’’ they’ve maintained their reputations across the years. “The Wire,’’ for example, is the kind of series that has stayed vital in its afterlife. Each year, people who like challenging TV, including college professors and students, find that five-season show and embrace it. Currently, I hear from viewers about “The Wire’’ almost as much as I hear about contemporary shows — it’s remarkable, really. I need to guard my spoilers for a show that aired from 2002 to 2008.

Another plus: pure viewing. It’s impossible to watch anything these days without getting tainted in advance by ad slogans and infotainment media stories and water-cooler word-of-mouth. By the time we actually watch an episode of a show or a movie, we’ve been set up — for disappointment most often, or for exceeded expectations. Gold-mining viewers stand a better chance of finding the bliss of the unmanipulated, unadulterated experience, where they don’t have others’ voices in their heads while they watch. They aren’t succumbing to buzz, or reacting against it; they’re refreshingly ignorant. They’re somewhere outside the timeliness of the publicity machines.

And of course, gold miners are free of that strange guilt and frustration that accompanies falling behind on a show that’s now on the air. They can watch 10 episodes in a weekend, no need to chase and collect and watch episodes as they are strewn across a season. Also, if they’re watching network gems such as “The West Wing,’’ they’re often free from having to fast-forward through commercials — an interruption that forces you to drop the show’s flow in order to work your remote control.

Are gold miners even “TV viewers’’? Yes, they are. Once upon a time, TV series were like live music concerts. The river passed by — the show “aired’’ — and we stood watching and listening. And once it passed, it was gone for good, flowing from our screens, a discrete experience in time. Now, you can return to TV shows whenever you want. You can browse the Great Whenever for the best stories — and TV’s creative teams know that, and often try to make shows that will thrive after they air.

TV has become a timeless expanse, and there’s gold in them thar hills.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.