In the age of "Peak TV", having a critically acclaimed or highly viewed show isn't all that counts anymore. While it may be the biggest metric for one of the big networks, Nielsen ratings are quickly becoming irrelevant as streaming services and next day watching take over. Even Emmy and Golden Globe Awards don't necessarily reflect the traditional mark of a successful show. (Has anyone other than me watched Gael Garcia Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle?)
Instead, with so many offerings on so many different platforms, many of which don't even share the viewership numbers (looking at you, Netflix), the only way to really distance yourself from the pack is to get trending. This accomplishment is so fleeting, however, and often can't come close to the impact and exposure of the "Must See TV" days of yore. This challenge holds true for movies, music and most other forms of entertainment. It feels like if you want to get people talking, you have to surprise drop a visual album or throw a massive launch party at MSG, at bare minimum.The monoculture just doesn’t exist anymore.
All of this just makes the feat accomplished by "Hamilton" and "Game of Thrones" this spring even more impressive. These two juggernauts have done more than win awards and change their respective mediums. In fact, they've done something far harder; they've captured the zeitgeist and defined a cultural moment.
That said, there isn't much similarity between the two shows other than their newfound cultural dominance. "Game of Thrones" has been building up to this for years. Now in its sixth season, the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's sprawling fantasy epic series has relied heavily on the "anything can happen" world of the books. However, last June showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss finally caught up to Martin's famously slow pace and are now operating on his vague plot ideas alone. What this means for viewers is that everyone is on the same page, book reader or not, and the result has been a sense of palpable excitement from across the globe at 9 EST every Sunday night.
Every Monday thousands of click bait articles, show recaps, Reddit threads and GroupMes are abuzz with the shocking revelations of the last night's episode. After veering into original idea territory out of necessity, the show has prioritized shock value and visuals over writing, much to the disappointment of some viewers (like me). However, though it lacks the crisp dialogue of a show like its 10 p.m. HBO counterpart "Silicon Valley," it more than makes up for it with the exhilaration of having a "cinematic" experience on the small screen. "Thrones" has also benefited from binge-watch culture, a phenomenon that didn't exist in the era of "The Wire" or "The Sopranos," two equally prestigious HBO products that, while beloved, never reached the stature of "Thrones" in the cultural consciousness, probably in part because once you were behind you were behind for a while.
Unlike some of its peers, "Thrones" has actually taken advantage of this viewer tendency in a way not many shows can—spoiler wary fans watch ASAP while those wanting to be involved in the conversation breathlessly sprint through 60 hours of programming. Some even eschewed Game 7 of the NBA finals, a truly perishable product, for the Battle of the Bastards. So great is the viewership machine that we fans are forced to put on our sensory deprivation goggles if we are forced to delay our viewing. In the era of “watch when I want” television, "Game of Thrones" has reintroduced immediacy and looked good doing it.
Meanwhile, Hamilton has experienced a rise to prominence that Broadway hasn't experienced in a very long time. Winning 11 Tony's was just a formality and icing on the cake, as Lin Manuel Miranda's musical about the forgotten founding father has already sold out for months and months, leaving tens of thousands of fans (like me) to enter the daily lottery or sleep out for cancellation tickets.
H-Ville, the shanty town in front of the Richard Rodgers theatre, may not seem like much to Dukies, but let's not understate how nuts it is that tourists are coming to New York and spending days of their vacation on the sidewalk waiting for tickets to a Broadway show. Miranda has been elevated from Tony winner to an eventual McPEGOTer*, and since he just composed some songs for the newest title in the Disney Princess library, Moana, as well as the new "Mary Poppins" movie, the O doesn’t seem like a stretch. Add to that appearances for the entire lead cast on every stop of the late night talk circuit, the virality of its “Ham 4 Ham” series and the talks of a movie adaptation, it’s hard to see how the culturally woke wouldn’t be at least fully aware of its scope.
What’s remarkable (and remarkably different) about this achievement is that Hamilton has managed it despite the most predictable ending in history, one that is written in every single high schooler’s US history book. While "Thrones" relies on shocks and suspense, Hamilton, like its namesake, relies on the power of speech. Miranda’s book is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing I’ve ever seen**, taking characters that have been dead 200 years and breathing new and exciting life into them. I won’t write anymore about the merits of the musical, the rest of the internet has taken care of that. But whether you like the premise of the show or not, you can’t deny its impact. Hell, even my brother, who goes to the Singapore American School, was playing "Hamilton" songs when I arrived home at the end of the semester, and I hadn’t even told him about it. So yes, while monoculture it may not achieve, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, when a friend of mine considered painting the playbill logo on her formal date’s cooler, I knew Hamilton was having its cultural moment.
Miranda, Benioff, Weiss and, to a lesser extent, Martin, are drinking in rarefied air. Gone are the days of "Thriller’s" 65*** million sales or "MASH" and its 121 million viewers, sure, but in their place have emerged "Hamilton" with its hundreds of thousands lottery entries and "Game of Thrones" being mentioned by millions on Twitter. Going forward, the two phenomena provide different ways to achieve the same result, though it’s likely that neither will be replicated. The monoculture is increasingly fading, and so those wishing to write the next "Hamilton" or direct the next "Game of Thrones" must be more innovative than ever. Good luck, and who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to bring back the monoculture. After all, what is dead may never die.
* MacArthur Genius Grant, Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. Only Richard Rodgers and Marvin Hamlisch have achieved PEGOT status.
** Not literally, I don’t have that kind of money
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*** Some estimates say up to 110 million sold