Television’s Bronze Ages

Bonanza-Cartwrights

One of the most clichéd observations about contemporary television is that we’re blessed to be living in a new Golden Age of TV. And as sick as I am of hearing it, who am I to disagree?  If you define a Golden Age as an era when there are many excellent shows, then we are clearly enjoying one; viewers can’t even hope to keep up with all the shows they want to watch.

But to appreciate a Golden Age, it helps to understand the “bronze” ages too: those periods when TV wasn’t good enough to even be considered silver.  These were periods when the programming was tired and unimaginative, and it was a drag to watch TV.

The bronzest of the Bronze Ages were the 1960s: the period in which television was famously identified as a “vast wasteland” by FCC Chair Newton Minow.  I’d nominate the 1961-62 season as the single worst season in TV history.   The year was dominated by bland westerns (“Wagon Train,” “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke’) and middle-of-the-road variety shows (hosted by Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore and Mitch Miller).  Only two series redeemed that year: the eerie “Twilight Zone” and the charming “Andy Griffith Show.”

There’s always a danger of “presentism” when judging the cultural tastes of the past.  After all, who are we to second-guess what our ancestors watched?  But in the ‘60s, most people knew they were watching junk.  After all, they had just lived through the original Golden Age of Television in the 1950s, which featured hilarious comedies like “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners,” zany sketch shows like “Your Show or Shows” and “Texaco Star Theatre,” and innovative dramas like “Kraft Television Theatre.”

The ‘60s were bland because the creative brilliance of the ‘50s had been tamed and bureaucratized.  The three networks had a monopoly on TV programming, and each wanted to appeal to the largest possible audience: in other words, the lowest common denominator.  No one wins brownie points for innovation and good taste in an environment like that.

Some of the most idiotic shows in TV history (e.g., “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island”) blossomed during this period.  Yet as the decade wore on, interesting new shows also debuted (i.e., “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Fugitive”); by 1970, TV was poised for another glorious period.  In the early 1970s the CBS Saturday lineup itself constituted a new Golden Age of Television with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All In the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”

And so the cycle has continued since then: periods of innovation and imagination followed by stagnation and lowest common denominator.  The great shows of the early 1970s gave way to pabulum like “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Barnaby Jones” — and then at the end of the decade, another creative upswing with innovative shows like the prime-time soap opera “Dallas,” and the sensitive sitcom “”Taxi.”

The arrival of cable networks like HBO and CNN and, especially, competition from the new Fox network in 1986, broke the programming monopoly of the big three networks and forced them to compete with more cutting-edge programing.  Not surprisingly, the late ‘80s and early ’90s offered some of the best shows in TV history.  And in truth, since then there has never been a year without at least a handful of great shows.

Yet I’d like to propose one last Bronze Age of Television.  The 2000-2001 season offered numerous excellent shows, but few of them with outstanding ratings: “NYPD Blue,” “The Sopranos,” “Everyone Loves Raymond,” “Malcom in the Middle,” etc. In fact, the top-rated shows that year set a worrisome pattern.  The number-one rated series was “Survivor,” the first true reality TV show.  “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the first prime-time game show since the 1960s, was a top-20 performer on five different nights of the week.  Procedurals such as “CSI” and “Law and Order,” the very definition of comfortable, unchallenging television, also dominated the ratings.

Whether consciously or not, the new millennium was the period when the networks began to cede the market for quality dramas to cable, where sexual content and swearing flourished. There were some last great hurrahs for the broadcast networks in the 2000s, including “Lost,” “24” and “Friday Night Lights,” but today the source of great TV drama is cable or the Internet.

So here we are today in the current Golden Age of Television.  FOX CEO John Landgraf recently turned that famous complaint by Minow on its head.  Instead of complaining about a vast wasteland on TV, Landgraf lamented that there was TOO MUCH TV.  That seems like a strange thing to worry about — except when you remember that every previous Golden Age has ended with a letdown of general mediocrity.  Are we poised for that now?

As Landgraf notes, there is not enough talent to go around to produce 400 good scripted TV shows.  Networks might be tempted to fall back on proven but tired formulas.  I hope we don’t fall into another Bronze Age and have to look back on the early 2010s as the good old days.

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