Remember when Game of Thrones ended, and people—OK, mainly TV critics—insisted there would never be another television show with the same cultural footprint? A consensus emerged in the media: The Game of Thrones finale heralded the end of an era. We would never again see a show quite so big, so popular, so zeitgeist-defining. It was the “last show we’ll watch together.” It was “the last popular TV show” and “the last great blockbuster TV show.” Even WIRED got in on the action.
That was weird, man.
Four years later, all that proclaiming about the death of the great big TV show looks rather premature. On Sunday, HBO is airing the first season finale of The Last of Usan adaptation of Naughty Dog’s incredibly popular video game of the same name. While the show has not yet achieved the ratings-supernova status of the final season of Game of Thronesit is a major critical and commercial hitone already generating the type of fervent online discussion presumed endangered around the time Daenerys took her infamous heel turn.
The Last of Us star Peter Pascal is currently experiencing (enduring?) a stint as television’s heartthrob of the moment, so much so that CNN recently referred to him as, ugh, “the internet’s ‘daddy.’” When The Last of Us played a Linda Ronstadt ballad from more than 50 years ago in a particularly touching episodeits Spotify streams spiked 149,000 percent by the next day. People are planning mushroom-themed finale watch parties. I’m sure the Halloween costumes next year will be something to see.
The straight-out-the-gate success of The Last of Us should, I hope, kill all that “the monoculture is dead!” chatter once and for all. This conversation happens every time a splashy final season wraps up, but it reached an especially screechy pitch with the end of the dragon show. (With any luck, it’ll kill the phrase “the monoculture” too. The agricultural term doesn’t make much sense as a metaphor—shows are one huge crop?—and barely works as a portmanteau of “monolith” and “culture.” Saying “watercooler TV” is far more straightforward.)
As long as we have television, we’ll have TV shows that people obsess over and gather to discuss, whether they do it while drinking weak coffee in an office or on Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok. Game of Thrones was not the last of anything, just like Mad Men wasn’t the last of anything, just like Breaking Bad wasn’t the last of anything, just like Lost wasn’t the last of anything, just like The Sopranos wasn’t the last of anything, just like The damn Lone Ranger wasn’t the last of anything. Even during the first season of Covid-19when offices emptied and actual watercoolers glugged alone in abandoned hallways, we had intense communal reactions to Tiger King and The Last Dance. Part of the reason losing live sports for a time that year was so deeply jarring was because watching them on television together remains such an integral cultural experience.
Have television viewing habits changed in the past? Yes. The rise of cable programming splintered viewership away from the major networks; the rise of DVR and DVD boxed sets meant audiences no longer had to keep appointments to watch their favorite shows, and they were able to watch them in order more easily. (This, in turn, helped nurture highly serialized storytelling.) Netflix’s habit of dropping whole seasons at once turned binge-watching into a commonplace hobby.