The golden age of TV is dead; long live the golden age of TV

The golden age of TV is dead; long live the golden age of TV

There’s been a gradual, yet growing sense in the last year that the golden age of TV, so named for the recent decade-plus of dark, cable antiheroes and intricate serialization and laugh-a-second comedies, is coming to an end. I’ve seen this crop up in more and more places this summer. Hell, A.V. Club contributor Ryan McGee tried to classify whatever we’re in right now as a “Silver Age“ a few months ago. The primary idea driving this is that Mad Men will be halfway through its final season, and Breaking Bad will be long over by the time I write a fall TV season preview next year, and those two shows are some of the last remaining links to the age The Sopranos kicked off. (Indeed, a former Sopranos writer created Mad Men.) There are still antihero-driven shows out there from the good—Boardwalk Empire—to the bad—Ray Donovan—but the dominant form of the TV drama is slowly moving away from dark men in dark times doing dark things. The mood of television is downright sprightly at times, and that doesn’t fit with what our current idea of good TV is all about.

To which I say, good. The golden age of TV is dead. Long live the golden age of TV.

The dirty little secret here is that essentially every decade except the 1960s has been proclaimed the “golden age of TV” at one time or another. The traditional golden age has always been the ’50s, when a young medium filled up with experimentalists and bright minds hungry to break into either writing for film or the stage and saw a possible back door via the anthology dramas proliferating on TV at the time. It also came ready-stocked with radio stars, who had spent years cultivating personas that sprung fully formed onto the TV landscape. Another thing in the favor of the ’50s is that it’s so hard to gain access to many of the programs from that era. Give or take an I Love Lucy, many of the shows from back then have fallen out of general circulation. Not being able to see something makes it easier to remember it as better than it was.

The ’60s are often seen as a phantom zone for good TV, though this idea is inaccurate. (It’s largely driven by the fact that the “vast wasteland” quote originates in that decade, and it was the first decade the true cultural significance of television became apparent, for good and ill.) In the ’70s, a five-year stretch allowed for many of the greatest sitcoms of all time to reach the air, including shows that challenged conventional ideas of what good TV could be about and some that put the sorts of characters who had never been at the center of TV shows in the past at the center of their own TV shows. (Sound familiar?) By the end of the decade, this had mostly receded in favor of broader shows, aimed at the lowest common denominator, but such bold and daring sitcoms as Soap, Barney Miller, and Taxi made it to the air, while PBS imported some of the best British dramas ever produced for an American audience. 

In his book Television’s Second Golden Age (published, amusingly enough, in 1997, just two years before The Sopranos remade the TV landscape), Robert J. Thompson argues for the ’50s as the first golden age and the ’70s as a potential second golden age before casting his lot for the ’80s as the actual second golden age of TV, thanks to the proliferation of intelligent, adult dramas that told serialized stories and didn’t have things finish up at the end of each new episode. Shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere codified new rules for TV drama, which were then exploded by everything from Moonlighting to Thirtysomething. And if comedy was your thing, the ’80s were no slouch on that score either, from major hits like Cheers to minor cult sensations like Frank’s Place.

Thompson places the end of the second golden age in 1994, with the launch of ER, which crystallized many of the things Hill Street Blues had begun. What he ignored at the time was that TV drama was increasingly moving away from the workplace—which he assumed to be the center of most good dramas—and into more intriguing and experimental places. The ’90s were the first decade that the “TV is better than the movies now” talk popped up (as pointless and misleading as that perennial argument can be), complete with a cover trend piece in Entertainment Weekly to solidify this idea in the conventional wisdom. Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, The X-Files, Homicide: Life On The Street, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld all pushed TV in new directions, and all felt wildly different from what had come before. There was plenty of good, conventional TV, too, from King Of The Hill to Friends to, yes, ER. And then in 1999, The Sopranos landed and changed everything.

So which of these decades—the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, or the 2000s—produced the “best” TV? That ultimately depends on what you’re looking for from good TV. There are shows that I treasure from every period, shows that I find vastly overrated from every period, and sneaky little cult successes from every period. A fan of multi-camera sitcoms might overrate the ’70s and underrate the ’00s, while a fan of darker dramas or the cable method of shorter, self-contained seasons might overrate the ’00s to the detriment of everything else. There is no single decade, no one prospective “golden age,” that did everything well.  Television is a medium driven by immediacy, and yesterday’s groundbreaking show starts to feel quaint a few years after it airs. Or, put another way, Hill Street Blues can feel glacially paced to modern eyes. Even The Sopranos is starting to show its age. 

Proclaiming whatever the current decade is as “a golden age” for TV thusly serves two purposes: It legitimizes a medium that will always come under a certain amount of critical suspicion, and it allows the modern viewer an escape hatch that suggests all that came before whatever’s currently popular must be poor, rather than created in a time that requires approaching its art with a different point-of-view. Think about how crazy it would seem to say that film or literature is going through a current golden age—even if you believe that to be true—and that this necessarily means there’s no good reason to go back and see the best films or read the best books from before the eternal now. To say we live in a golden age is a form of self-flattery, really; it’s best for history to make such proclamations, and maybe the Robert J. Thompsons of 50 years from now will wonder what we were all going on about.

But that’s not what you care about. What you care about is whether the golden age of TV—which by now is such received wisdom that I may as well just go for it or keep tilting at windmills—is over and done with. To that, I say, “Sure.” But also, “Why not keep up the tradition?” Why can’t we be living in a new golden age right now? Why can’t the 2010s make up their own golden age, this one centered around community-driven dramas and weird, quirky comedies that almost seem like independently funded performance-art projects as much as anything else? We are at the end of the golden age for shows about dark, serious antiheroes, to be sure. But that’s okay. We can build a new one atop its ruins.

I suspect there’s another thing driving the end of the golden age of TV narrative: Paradoxically, there’s too much good TV on right now. One of the nice things about the golden age of TV was that there were always maybe 10 shows on at any given time that one had to be reasonably conversant in to feel caught up. This created a kind of divide between what was perceived to be “the good stuff” and everything else. This is not to suggest that divide was wrong. I’d rather watch any given episode of The Sopranos than a random episode of a CBS crime procedural produced during that show’s run (and I genuinely like the early seasons of C.S.I.). But it always carried with it a certain self-fulfilling prophecy: The best shows were on cable; the best shows had shorter orders; the best shows were dark dramas and wacky single-camera comedies. The best shows, in other words, were the many children of The Sopranos and Arrested Development, the series that sprang up because those shows blazed so many trails that others followed, then branched off and made trails of their own. 

This was all well and good, but it became ossified, until the airwaves were filling with programs like Go On or Low Winter Sun, series that had seen those earlier shows and thought copying the surface would be enough to make “good TV.” At the same time, everybody else in the industry was learning from those shows and getting better and better at incorporating their DNA into other programs. An important early indicator, I think, was The Good Wife, a show that had thoroughly digested lessons from a bunch of cable shows but successfully blended them with a straightforward legal procedural. That series also remembered one of the chief benefits of the American network television model: When you have 22-26 episodes to produce, you can take chances on episodes that try different things structurally, as The Good Wife has so many times (most recently in season four’s thrilling “Red Team, Blue Team”). The tight focus of a cable series is amazing, but it also leads to a lack of rabbit trails, and sometimes, the best TV is found on those rabbit trails. (Again, I invoke The X-Files.)

So what we have now is the end of a golden age, only because there’s so much good TV that it’s become all but impossible to keep track of it all. And it’s popping up all over! Big networks have one of the best possible takes on the post-9/11 security state—Person Of Interest—and a moody examination of emotional intimacy between two men, one of whom just happens to be a famous fictional serial killer—Hannibal. The cable networks that drove much of the prior golden age have wildly divisive takes on a generation of young women making their marks on unforgiving urban landscapes—Girls and the Cold War that is the American marriage, The Americans. Cable networks you’ve never heard of have my pick for the next SopranosRectify—and moving, sincere examinations of teenage girls’ emotions—Bunheads. Then there are streaming services and boutique channels, bringing in knockout imports—The Fall or Moone Boy or Borgen—and coming up with their own amazing shows—Orange Is The New Black. There’s a show on Mormon-themed BYU TV that I’ve been told by multiple people is pretty good. Have I seen it? Not one frame. Will I seek it out? Yes. And I haven’t even mentioned webseries.

Right now may be the end of one way of thinking about TV, one way of understanding what makes the medium have so much potential, but it’s also the full flowering of that potential in multiple places. Don’t like any of the shows listed above? That’s absolutely fine, because there are almost certainly six others out there that are directly pitched at you, made in so many different formats it’ll make your head spin. There’s never been a better time for television since I began paying serious attention to it 15 years ago. It just means leaving beaten paths and striking out for new, more fertile shores than the ones we’ve just abandoned. Would I call that a golden age? Ask again in 30 years.

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