Every Saturday night for the last two months, the most compelling TV has played out on Instagram Live. Verzuz, a song-battle series started by producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, is one of the driving engines behind appointment viewing under lockdown. Already, T-Pain has squared off against Lil Jon. Nelly and Ludacris have traded regional pop hits. In the days leading up to the Jill Scott-Erykah Badu bout, black Twitter morphed into a smorgasboard of memes. When R&B legends Teddy Riley and Babyface finally came to a head (after a string of technical difficulties cut the first match short), the meeting carried Super Bowl-level significance, exceeding half a million viewers—including former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Verzuz is not television in the traditional sense—the weekly stream is essentially a competition between two musicians (producers, songwriters, or rappers) to decide who has the superior discography—but it does incorporate all the hallmarks of great TV: the mind-tingling minutiae found in a music docuseries, the comforting goodwill of family sitcoms, deliciously home-baked reality show drama. (The latter is always supplied in the comments section from other celebrities.) On average, Verzuz streams pull in anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 viewers—an serious number, considering people could be doing literally anything else with their free time—and the hype around the series has been nothing short of volcanic.
The weekly music competition is just one way television is being reassembled under quarantine. Culturally, what the pandemic has made clear is that some of the best TV is not on TV anymore. Depending on your internet diet, that’s been the case for a while now—Insecure and High Maintenance were darling web series long before they were given prestige treatment on HBO. Today we live in and across screens; they’re our chief form of communication, our main points of access. They’re the gateway into and out of the world. Our appetites for entertainment have rapidly changed; TV naturally adapts in response. The limits of quarantine have made this change especially palpable, especially exciting.
These very circumstances have resulted in a small entertainment renaissance. What is happening in this moment is a reengineering of our expectations around TV: how we define it, what it looks like, where we experience it and for how long, as well as what it’s ultimately capable of. The next phase of TV won’t be steered by one company or ethos—sorry, Netflix—but it will reflect a patchwork of what we are witnessing in small brilliant bursts across video-centric social platforms: the hypnotic efficiency of TikTok, the impulsive, DIY nature of Instagram Live and Snapchat. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, everyone is turning the camera on themselves. The TV set is broken. These are the new prime-time channels.
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Understanding this shift requires that you toss out whatever grizzled understanding you have of television and how TV shows are made. Studio-backed programs aren’t going anywhere—I’m not sure I’d survive without Atlanta, Barry, Los Espookys, and Queen Sugar—but it’s important that we make room for TV that is more structurally loose and nonconformist. Television that you wouldn’t think of as TV.
Since early April, I’ve spent the bulk of my nonworking time one of two ways: on TikTok or secretly thumbing through Instagram. (I swore to never get back on the app, but I have to find utopia where I can these days.) Some mornings begin with a shot of self-help programming, of which Tabitha Brown has become an indispensable balm. With a following north of 3 million, her TikTok videos meld the best of the genre: uplift, realness, and honey-dipped hard truths. A clip about fresh pressed juice becomes a moment of needed encouragement. “Tell yourself ‘Today I’m being good to myself,” Brown says in the video before taking another sip. “I don’t care what the day brings.’” Watching seven or eight videos in succession is not that different from the self-improvement TV Netflix markets to global audiences with Queer Eye and Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Even as the formats are disparate—highly produced half-hour segments, as opposed to an off-the-cuff moment before or after a meal—the results are strikingly similar. Suddenly the day feels a little less impossible to take on.
Brown has creator-compatriots of all sorts—each with their own swaggering brand of original programming. TikToker Boman Martinez-Reid makes reality-style quarantine parodies on par with the best of Bravo programming. Leslie Jordan’s Instagram confessionals also have become must-see TV, averaging around 1.4 million views per clip. Some of today’s buzziest dramas don’t even boast those numbers; by comparison, Season 3 of Westworld drew around 800,000 people per episode. “He has an instinctive grasp of the vlogger aesthetic,” The New Yorker wrote about Jordan in April, “and the droll affect of Truman Capote after a few martinis.”
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Even among friends and secret Instagram crushes I’ve seen a shift in how they communicate—with no hesitation, I devour their Stories, clip after clip after clip, watching as they discuss government failures or ramble about the latest Verzuz. One influencer I originally followed for free fitness advice (hey, trainers are expensive in New York) has since added new programming; he exclusively uses Stories to record his infant son, who, in a surprise shift from bit player to leading role, has become the only reason to watch his videos. Once his son is asleep, the videos deflate considerably and have less action; it’s mostly him smoking weed and eating ice cream. I consume all of it with a kind of giddy abandon. I sometimes think that if Brown, Martinez-Reid, and Jordan command prime-time slots in this new TV era, the Instagram Stories I obsessively watch are akin to cable networks—smaller in viewership but profoundly entertaining all the same.
During a birthday Zoom call in March, a friend mentioned how our relationship to content would be radically different on the other side of the pandemic. Hearing it then—”the Other Side”—it felt so far away, so imposing and unseeable, but I can’t escape the feeling that what we’re experiencing now, this boom in freestyle short-form content, is the very beginning of that. It’s already happening. We’re becoming TV—an endless form of entertainment for one another. And even when this is over, when we regress to a version of our former selves, many will stay plugged into this new way of life, this transformed mode of communication. All we have are our screens. All we have is each other.
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