Dramatizing Transience: How TV Reflects Our Shifting Concept of “Home”

As technology continues to muddy the boundary between home and work, it’s dragging TV along with it.

Since millennials are already denigrated as selfish, egotistical monsters eating up the world’s precious supply of avocado toast, I may as well admit that the technological shifts in the consumption of television over the past decade have felt suspiciously timed to my generation’s development. If you’re in your late twenties, like me, throughout high school, TV remained relatively fixed; you’d still sit down every Monday night for that new episode of Everwood. Things started to get weird in college, with the arrival of Netflix’s streaming service and a host of legally questionable sites like Megavideo and Project Free TV. Then college ended and you were truly untethered — just as TV was spinning further and further out into the void, increasingly detached from the calendar or the clock.

The erosion of the concept of a stable home is a reality that spans generations as well as borders, and it’s a situation that TV is reflecting in ways both subtle and overt. For most of TV’s short history, characters on any given show generally performed variations on the same basic situations in the same few sets. But rising budgets and an industry that feels continued pressure to crank out TV shows that look like movies have changed this set-up, maybe for good.

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Transience is a growing marker of contemporary life. As British author Charles Leadbeater writes in Aeon, “Fears that we are losing our place are rife. We live in a restless, rootless world that prompts nostalgia, a yearning for an impossible return to an imagined home.” That kind of nostalgia often manifests itself in visions of home and hearth, of families gathered around the dinner table or settling down to watch TV on the living room couch.

But over the past decade, advances in technology have changed our viewing habits. With DVR, we didn’t have to worry about rushing home to watch the new Sex and the City. DVD box sets meant you could devour all five seasons of The Wire even if you missed its initial run on HBO. Cord-cutters gave way to cord-nevers. The meteoric rise of streaming video makes every viewer her own programmer.

As technology continues to muddy the boundary between home and work, it’s dragging TV along with it. And the same technological changes that have transformed the way we consume television have given rise to changes in the shows themselves. This past year has seen a host of shows, many of them new, that dramatize the anxiety of belonging and the pursuit of identity through the search for a home.

The CW’s musical-comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and OWN’s Greenleaf both begin with a journey to a new home and a fresh start. Dramas like WGN America’s Underground, HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Starz’s Outlander sendscharacters scrambling in all directions on simultaneous journeys to and from home.

Some of 2016’s most memorable new series stood out because of their relative lack of a fixed setting. On FX’s Atlanta, creator/star Donald Glover plays an underemployed college dropout trying desperately to get his rapper cousin’s career off the ground. Effectively homeless, he spends much of the first season roaming around the show’s title city. TBS’s Search Party also sets its lead character loose in the city, this time New York, as Dory (Alia Shawkat) uses the disappearance of an old college acquaintance as an excuse to pump meaning into her own life.

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There were shows that took place entirely on the road, like Showtime’s Roadies and TNT’s Good Behavior, and others that moved between far-flung locations, like Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, USA’s Queen of the South, and Netflix’s BoJack Horseman — which spends its third season following the title character on an exhaustive Oscar campaign that takes him all the way to the deep ocean. Shows as distinct as The Leftovers, Archer, Outlander, and Halt and Catch Fire seemed to deliberately disorient viewers by opening their latest seasons in new and unfamiliar cities.

On Showtime’s The Affair and Amazon’s Transparent, real estate takes on allegorical significance as family members shuffle between houses and apartment buildings. NBC’s The Good Place moves the search for belonging to the afterlife, where mansions tailor-made to each inhabitant’s preferences lie in wait. The CW’s Jane the Virgin has fastidiously documented its central lovebirds’ house hunt, prompted by the birth of their first child.

The fourth season of The Americans, on FX, ratcheted up the tension over the Jennings’s secret identities as Russian spies raising an American family in Washington, D.C. The season finale dangles the possibility of Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) returning to the Soviet Union with their children — only one of whom knows the truth about who her parents are, and in turn, who she is.

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As the way we watch TV moves from a fixed time and place to a rather more haphazard viewing schedule, it’s oddly soothing to see characters experience the same kind of whiplash. HBO’s shiny new toy, Westworld, drove its human and robot characters mad with a quest to the center of a maze that turns out to be symbolic: As Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Ford reveals in the finale, Dolores’s (Evan Rachel Wood) season-long journey brings her to an understanding of her own independent consciousness rather than a physical manifestation of home.

The year’s most satisfying comment on our quest for “home” came from Netflix’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, which promised to return viewers to that snow-capped utopia of Stars Hollow, the fictional Connecticut town where the original series is set. But the sequel refuses to pander to our collective nostalgia, suggesting that most of its characters are stuck in a rut, reliving their glory days and trying to figure out how to get back what they lost. Rory (Alexis Bledel) spends the series’ four 90-minute episodes shuttling between London, Connecticut, and New York, crashing with friends and lovers and refusing to admit she’s “back” in Stars Hollow.

In many ways, TV is synonymous with comfort (or complacence, depending on where you stand): You come home at the end of the day, flop on the couch, change into sweats, and put on your favorite show. But as TV series increasingly echo the global reality of transience, they’re starting to question the true source of that comfort. Is it the beloved family den, its cheery knit blanket forever draped over the couch like a promise of domestic permanence? Or is it more abstract — the comfort of knowing who you are?