The Golden Age of Television

Wednesday, June 16, 2010
I like television. I'm not talking about the mindless pablum that passes for network television, with a few notable exceptions - I'm talking about the series or miniseries being produced by the pay channels that have changed the tenor of television forever. Band of Brothers. Oz. Dexter. Six Feet Under. The Sopranos. And what is probably the best television series ever produced, The Wire.

I've always been a big reader, and in the last year or two my consumption has increased significantly due to the inclusion of audio books as an additional media. I'm a bibliophile. So I know I'm committing some egregious sin here by saying that some television shows produced in the last ten years or so have been at least as good as a number of books I've read lately. I like shows where the characters are complex. I don't mind the use of archetypes, but people have many layers, and including characters that have both faults and virtues makes stories more interesting. I think the pay channels such as HBO and Showtime have done a fabulous job of using the freedom of their medium to accomplish this. Because they're serialized rather than stand alone episodes, these shows offer an opportunity for complexity in both plot and character development that has more in common with a full length novel than a movie or traditional television. Pay channels also have the opportunity to produce shows that address scenarios that would not have been considered "appropriate" 60 years ago. This freedom has resulted in an amazingly diverse group of stories to choose from.


This is the golden age of television. Now where's that fourth season of Dexter?

9 comments:

Phiala said...

Criminal Minds.

Eric said...

I don't disagree... but....

I don't have cable, so the TV I watch is on DVD. And what am I watching right now? Primarily, I'm almost done with the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and have the second season sitting on the table waiting to be removed from shrinkwrap), a sixty-year-old show that had a lot of fun pushing scenarios that might not be out of place in an episode of The Sopranos or Dexter, albeit with much less onscreen blood or adult language.

What's funny about this is that the fact that those scenarios were rulebreaking was sort of addressed by the show itself: a bonus feature with the first season explains that part of the reason for Hitchcock's infamous, impish intros and outros was that the network's Standards And Practices (perhaps driven by FCC regulations) prohibited showing, for instance, a crook getting away with a crime. AHP's response was to poke a hole in it by making a joke of the convention (e.g. an episode in which a murderer escapes might close with Hitch solemnly informing the audience that the criminal was subsequently caught and brought to justice--for an unpaid parking ticket).

The real point is that I agree that TV is largely better than it ever has been, in large part because the format has changed to allow extended plot arcs and writers have learned how to use the evolved format. (A limitation on TV before the '80s was that home recording was essentially nonexistent and the syndication market was more important to a show's financial success--so episodes had to be made so they could be watched in any order or (in the case of soap operas) story arcs had to be drawn out so a viewer could miss several episodes and still pick up the threads very quickly (hence the glacial slowness and repetitive plots of traditional soap arcs). But (a) there's still nuggets of gold scattered throughout and (b) it's not all gold now--the dominant television format isn't the cerebral adult-oriented serial, but the cheaply-produced reality show. So I guess I'm also saying that while the best television might be better, the worst television is, well, worse, isn't it?

Maybe it can all be reduced to Sturgeon's Law again?

Eric said...

Oh, postscript: no sin in pointing out that some shows now are as good as novels--it's cool that TV has evolved from "like movies, only shorter and with commercials" to "like novels, only visual and sometimes with commercials," which, as you point out, is what's happened.

Janiece said...

So I guess I'm also saying that while the best television might be better, the worst television is, well, worse, isn't it?

Oh, Christ, yes. Reality television has to be the biggest pile of steaming, stinking poo ever created by the human race. I truly don't understand how people can watch that shit. I can feel my brain cells dying just (inadvertently) watching the commercials.

Stacey said...

I do admit to liking *some* reality TV. I like Deadliest Catch and I enjoy watching Kathy Griffin making a fool of herself on My Life on the D List. I do like a good messy house and eventual cleanup.
I do read quite a bit and can polish of several books in a weekend. However, now that I'm in school the reading has changed and the subject matter isn't always something I want to read, so a little mindless TV to zone out to is kinda nice right now.
I do like House, the Closer and Saving Grace. I like the puzzles on the first two and enjoy the debate about religion and God mixed with a puzzle on the last. Ok, gotta go study now....

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

While I agree with you on 'Oz' (and those other two remarkably underrated HBO series', 'Carnivale' and 'Rome'), I can't agree with your timeline.

The REAL golden age was in the '60's: Twilight Zone. Outer Limits. CBS Playhouse. That was when acting was center stage (no pun intended), and story was everything.

(Reality TV is neither TV, nor reality. It's just a symptom of the further decline of American culture).

mom in northern said...

What happened to good comedy show? And I don't mean SNL...

mom in northern said...

What happened to good comedy show? And I don't mean SNL...

Anne C. said...

Judy, I believe the good comedy shows are highly specialized (not to mention, RARE). I hear good things about Big Bang Theory and Community (I think that's what it's called), but I'm not a big consumer of American comedy.