Samuel Brace on the death of TV’s Golden Age…
It’s all over.
Television’s golden age is, it seems, gone. It’s done. Some will argue that it was never here at all, but those people are mostly ardent film fans who could never face that for a while, for a very short time, TV was better than movies. They were wrong. TV was better than movies. For about the past ten years or so, the best of television was really a sight to behold. The gates busted open by the likes of The Sopranos and The Wire, TV was something special. From Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, plus a whole load of other premium series, these shows could do something that others in the past simply could not. They could compete with cinema by being cinematic.
No re-invention of the wheel was made, what they did was obvious, it’s just that no one before had the audacity to take on the movies. The money was put up, more time was given, and drama of the highest order was presented to us through shows that looked like film. Eight, ten, twelve hour seasons that kicked movies in the ass and showed them how it was done. Nothing about TV’s rise has been at all nebulous. Film had — and still has — gotten away from thoughtful, intelligent, well paced drama, especially in the mainstream realm. TV took the reins, capitalised on the situation, and filled that void with gusto. They even started poaching from the cinematic talent pool, plucking cinematographers, directors, writers and even Hollywood stars to their cause. Perhaps culminating in one of the greatest one-off season’s in TV history, the Matthew McConaughey (at the height of the McConaissance) and Woody Harrelson starring, True Detective.
True Detective is actually quite the case in point of how and why this all fell apart. You see, the battle was won. These shows went out there and they blew us all away. It was remarkable and they knew it. They thrilled record audiences and stunned critics. Even the shows that were not raking in the numbers were still series of the highest quality, only buried by the mass of premium content just above them. These shows had won. So they stopped trying. They got comfortable with the success they had. They got complacent. And this, dear friends, is what killed the golden age. You can trace the roots back to shows like Lost — a lesser example in terms of critics (though still well thought off) — a show that took the world by storm and provided quality drama, only to get comfortable with what they had achieved and thusly screw it all up. True Blood was also guilty of this. This was a show so well visualised, so vivid and alive, the HBO drama that was on at the right place at just the right time. True Blood had won. But True Blood got complacent. They stopped reaching for the stars, they stopped doing what they were doing in season one, and they burnt it all down. This show is now remembered as a joke.
This exact thing is happening on the larger scale. TV thinks it’s won. They think they have the recipe down; the cold, intense, violent, dark, moody drama. Put it on Sunday night and what could go wrong? Well, all of it really, because you ruined everything. AMC is guilty of this as anyone. Who could really blame them. When between 2007 and 2010 you debut Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, you must think you’ve got this whole TV thing down. You must think that you have magic in your fingers and that pumping out hit dramas is the easiest thing in the world. They were wrong. Mad Men and Breaking Bad were helmed by the best, they never faulted (perhaps MM just a little), but The Walking Dead took the nose dive in the most dramatic fashion I can remember. That show was gold in the early years. It was exciting, dramatic, beautiful visually, commercial, it had everything… and then it lost it all. It went from being a genuinely superb show, one of the best around, to being borderline unwatchable. I’ve now given up on it.
AMC, like the rest of the industry, haven’t realised this however. They keep renewing TWD, they made the most redundantly mediocre spin off possible, and now pump out shows with the same tone over and over again. Thinking that they know exactly what they are doing and that if they put that saturated lense on something moody it will equate to outstanding television. They are wrong. They all are. Yes, AMC has Better Call Saul but that is the spawn of Breaking Bad, made by the same people. Talented people are talented. Even AMC couldn’t screw that one up. The same can’t be said for HBO however. After the majesty that was True Detective season one, they made a second… it wasn’t half the show that the first was, even with the same writer and a very talented and glamorous cast. Some of its failures can be attributed to time constraints put on its creation, all that work on one writer is a lot to ask, but don’t tell me arrogance and the resulting complacency didn’t have a part to play, because of course it did.
It’s all coming to an end now. Some of the champions are still fighting on. Game of Thrones being the last of the titans — though with its end in sight — will leave the state of TV affairs in a pretty bleak state. The Leftovers is fantastic. House of Cards, excellent. There are good shows out there. But this is the beginning of the end, folks. The last remnants of a golden age. AMC will continue to pump out shows like Preacher, which I don’t want to judge too much on one episode, but it seems like more of the same — mediocre, which is just as bad as being awful. The Americans will continue to be decent, without setting the world fire, spoiling its potential. Netflix will give us some very good to brilliant shows, shows that will entertain for sure. But none of this is GREAT. And yes, we can’t have great all the time, we have indeed been spoiled of late, but greatness won’t come back if people don’t demand it. To become complacent, to be content with the very good or the fine, is to settle for second place, and to settle for second place, means the death of this oh so glorious era.
The shows of the past decade have made a mockery of what we thought TV could be. These shows dreamed big and kept us from the cinema. They provided us with not just an alternative to the movies, but with a superior option. Sure the best of film will always beat the best of TV, but film doesn’t care about that right now, there are only a handful of people that are even trying to create greatness. But unfortunately, TV doesn’t care about that either right now. They think they have won. They think this thing is all figured out. They don’t understand that this has all gotten stale, and they won’t understand until we stop watching mediocre TV. If we tell them that Fear the Walking Dead is as good as Better Call Saul, that’s what they will think. If we tell them that The Flash is as good as Game of Thrones, that’s what they will think. If we tell them The Walking Dead season six was as good as The Walking Dead season one… that’s what they will think. We have to provide them with a scale of quality and hold them accountable. We can’t let shows get complacent. If a series starts to dive, abandon it. Be cutthroat. It’s hard and I admit to sometimes sticking around for too long when a show is obviously done, but we have to try. The golden age can come back, but not if we con ourselves into thinking TV is still as great as it was even a few short years ago. Enjoy these scraps left over of a better time, but don’t kid yourselves. They blew it all up.