Television's Overloaded Sundays

On TV's biggest night, it's too much of a good thing

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

I should stipulate up front: If you want to read about a legitimate human problem, turn to another section of this magazine. People are suffering from war, illness and poverty, and their plights deserve our attention. That said, there's too much TV to watch on Sunday nights.

Yes, there's TV every night and every day. But since The Sopranos held the spotlight alone, Sunday has become the showcase for marquee series. This fall there's cable's most popular drama, The Walking Dead. Homeland, Boardwalk Empire and The Good Wife. Masters of Sex and sundry other boutique cable shows. The Amazing Race, 60 Minutes, Once Upon a Time, Revenge and Fox's entire animation slate. And that's not counting football, the odd Discovery and History megaspecial, Downton Abbey and Sherlock (in January) or Game of Thrones and the last season of Mad Men (starting in the spring).

Who has time to watch it all in one night? No one. That's kind of the idea. Sunday's embarrassment of TV riches is as much the product of technology as of creativity. Because you can now watch your shows on DVR, on demand, on Netflix, on Hulu and so on, Sunday is less an airdate and more a premiere date, like Friday for movies. TV executives know Sunday is overscheduled, but they program their prestige shows then precisely because that's when people are paying attention, buzzing, live-tweeting. You don't watch TV on Sunday nights so much as you acquire it. You back up your TiVo and load it with episodes like so many jumbo packs of tuna from Costco.

Then it's up to you to consume them before the expiration date. You strategize: one show live on Sunday, one on DVR after it, another the next night--all while the recorder sucks up more content each night, and, holy crap, here comes Sunday again. Stockpiles of perfectly good shows build up, watched only by the unloving plastic eye of your hard drive. See you in the next life, Eastbound & Down!

The idea of anointing a single night the Capital of Television is not new. In the 20th century, when after a long day of gathering berries and hunting mammoths people would watch live shows, NBC promoted Thursday as "Must-See TV." Ah, simple days of yore! You started your night with Friends and ended it with ER. Or you didn't. But either way, you went to bed and it was over, and you woke up in the morning with a clean slate.

Now that slate is never clean. If today's Sunday is "Must-See TV," that phrase is less promise than command, as in The Simpsons (Sundays at 8!) episode in which Homer was force-fed all-you-can-eat doughnuts in hell.

There's a cultural, even emotional difference between Thursday and Sunday. Thursday is a tie-loosening day of anticipation: one last night in before heading out on Friday night or away for the weekend. Thursday is the beginning of something; Sunday is the end. It's the melancholy waning of the weekend, the dread of Monday's alarm clock. It's stealing a little more time from tomorrow--one more hour, one more show.

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