There Is No “Golden Age of Television”

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I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sick of hearing about the “Golden Age of Television.”  Like many other cultural tropes, the concept contains an element of truth, but the sheer repetition of the phrase has started to sound self-congratulatory, as if we were geniuses for choosing to live through such an epic era.

The recent conclusion of “Breaking Bad” and the impending finale of “Mad Men” have launched a thousand disquisitions on the current Golden Age of Television, which purportedly materialized when Tony Soprano began confiding in Dr. Jennifer Melfi.   According to the narrative promoted by Alan Sepinwall and Brett Martin in their respective books “The Revolution was Televised” and “Difficult Men,” television entered its Golden Age with the arrival of challenging and sophisticated dramas about morally compromised, frequently violent, antiheroes.

Certainly I appreciate the achievements of “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos,” but I wonder if Sepinwall and Martin aren’t overstating it a bit.  “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” would certainly match up with anything in the past 10 years, as would “Upstairs/Downstairs” from the early 1970s.  Even the “vast wasteland” era of the 1960s had “The Fugitive” and “The Twilight Zone.”

But more to the point, the idea that we are now living through a golden age overlooks the huge slice of television that focuses on comedy.  When it comes to humor, there is no such thing as a golden age of television because the entire history of television has been one long golden age.  There’s an almost unbroken string of sitcom excellence, stretching from “I Love Lucy” to “The Andy Griffith Show” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Cheers” to “Seinfeld” to “The Office” to “Modern Family,” with dozens of groundbreaking, hilarious shows in between.

The 1950s were once considered the original golden age of television, because of such respected series as “Playhouse 90” and “Kraft Theatre.”  But no one today would actually sit down and watch those shows for pleasure in the same way they would watch classic “I Love Lucy” reruns.  Humor remains universal and timeless, while dramatic acting styles come in and out of vogue.  What seemed exciting in drama 50 years ago seems dated today, and you have to wonder what our grandchildren will think of “Breaking Bad” and “Man Men” in the 2060s.  Will they seem as histrionic and over-the-top as the award-winning dramas of the 1950s do today?

The other variable that enters any discussion about the Golden Age of Television is viewership.  We have to account for the fact that the acclaimed series constituting the current Golden Age, notwithstanding the surprisingly large audience for the “Breaking Bad” finale, attract mostly niche audiences.  To be sure, these are attractive demographics – well-educated, high-earning viewers – but they are not the mass audience who watched “Roots.”

For all the hoopla about the “Breaking Bad” attracting 10.3 million viewers, that’s still less than the 12.6 million who watched the season premiere of “Duck Dynasty.”  If only the TV critics and the most discerning viewers are watching the best dramas, is that really a “golden age”?  In fact, you could make the case that the percentage of eyeballs watching quality drama has never been lower.

Indeed, the broadcast networks seem to have given up on the idea of delivering high-end dramas to broad audiences, somehow thinking it’s impossible without cursing and sex, which only cable can offer.   For all the talk about the Golden Age of Television, there has not been a great drama on network television since “Lost” and “Friday Night Lights” went off the air.

Once again, comedy is different.  Historically the best sitcoms have gotten the highest ratings.     Sure, there’s the occasional “Two and a Half Men” to prove otherwise, but the funniest sitcoms usually attract the highest audiences.  Even “Seinfeld,” an extremely quirky show about unsympathetic characters, managed to be a huge hit because it was so funny.  Again, that goes to the universality of humor.  Not only does humor not fundamentally change from era to era, it also seems to transcend age, race and gender.

Because high-quality comedies can still generate large audiences, this is one area where the broadcast networks can still compete – and even beat – cable.  Cable delivers challenging and offbeat comedies like “Girls” and “Louie,” (at least I think they are comedies) but the real action for sitcoms still remains on broadcast.  The networks seem to understand this too, given the number of new sitcoms they are premiering this season.

The truth is that the vast majority of television has always been mediocre (the same is true of film and fiction, by the way) but each era has delivered a handful of memorable shows.   “Golden ages” come and go but television — especially television comedy — endures.

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