Television

Why Golden Ages Are Highly Questionable, As Are Their Conclusions

Simon Baker in CBS's 'The Mentalist'

The Mentalist: Is it an "old-fashioned" harbinger of bad things to come, or does Simon Baker have nothing to apologize for? CBS hide caption

itoggle caption CBS

It's hard to resist the urge to make pronouncements at this time of year: it was the year of [blank]! It was the year when everything was about [this] and we forgot all about [that]! All hail the arrival of [currently popular thing]! Next year, you will be hearing a lot more from [person]!

Unfortunately, while this leads to lots of interesting observations about the year gone by, it also leads to a lot of misfires, including Jeff Jensen's Entertainment Weekly piece about how television's "second Golden Age" came to an end this year.

Jensen's basic argument is that after an unspecified first "Golden Age" of television — which he only says was "a long time ago," there was a long non-golden period, and then we entered a second "Golden Age," apparently with the arrival of The Sopranos in 1999, when cable allowed experimentation that was nonexistent on network television.

This is already problematic, since it ignores the entire mid-'80s uptick in quality dramas that brought Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere, and lots of other ensemble workplace shows, and it ignores the fact that experimentation with boundary-pushing substantially predates The Sopranos, dating back to at least NYPD Blue in 1993.

There's no question that The Sopranos represented a watershed moment in television — none at all. But it was a logical progression out of escalating expectations for scripted series as the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series stopped going to things like Marcus Welby, M.D. and The Waltons and started going to things like Picket Fences and The Practice. Television was getting better at finding the spaces between warm family fare and escapist cop shows and soaps before HBO got involved.

The hazards of conflating business with pleasure, after the jump...

Even more curious is some of what Jensen includes in his "Golden Age" description. Among other things, he mentions both Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, which is just silly. Both have been, at times, effectively diverting and soapy, but neither is great, Sopranos-style art, and there is no loss of quality on Grey's Anatomy that could possibly have anything to do with whether a medium is enjoying a Golden Age or not. Yes, the show is currently featuring a storyline involving sex with a ghost, but it's all a matter of degree.

(Rather startlingly, Jensen calls CBS's solid The Mentalist "conspicuously old-fashioned" while calling Grey's "edgy," which would seem to suggest he has missed a lot of old episodes of General Hospital.)

Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives were incredibly significant shows in the history of the last ten years or so of television, but that's for business reasons, which aren't the same as the relationship of anything to a Golden Age. Those shows, along with Dancing With The Stars and Lost, rescued ABC from near-irrelevance and sharply changed the business landscape of television, but they weren't quality milestones.

Jensen also notes the endings of shows like The Wire and The Shield, both of which enjoyed healthy runs (The Wire, despite low ratings, ran for five seasons, and The Shield for seven). Shows do have natural lifespans — ironically, The West Wing is part of Jensen's Golden Age, and is a perfect example of a show that stayed around far too long and would have had a more purely admirable run had it quit sooner. Successful conclusions to long-running good (if underappreciated) shows don't seem to portend anything particularly depressing, since there's no way to avoid them.

The other element of Jensen's argument is the premature death of good shows that haven't had the kinds of extended presences of the ones mentioned above — he mentions Pushing Daisies, which is marvelous, and the end of which is absolutely a sad note. But good shows dying on the vine happens all the time, no matter what age we are in. It would take paragraphs upon paragraphs to lament all the wonderful shows that died between 1999 and 2008 during this alleged Second Golden Age, but to name a few of the ones I miss the most: Sports Night, Freaks And Geeks, Veronica Mars, Joan Of Arcadia, and — oh, right — Arrested Development. Good shows not catching on is an absolute fact of life in television, and the fact that it continued this year means absolutely nothing on its own.

What television is experiencing is a Splintering Age. As we said in one of our first posts ever, big hits now are small potatoes compared to big hits of the past, because people simply have more choices. Audiences for everything are smaller, because the menu has expanded so much. And yes, the great majority of television is not that good, just as the great majority of books aren't that good. (Walk into a large bookstore and spend some time pointing at random, and you'll see what I mean.)

But there continue to be good shows for people who seek them out, whether you like edgy cable dramas (Dexter, Damages, Mad Men — who can declare the end of a Golden Age while there's still Mad Men?), good comedies (The Office and 30 Rock get the most mentions, but How I Met Your Mother and Samantha Who? are also very good), network dramas (Friday Night Lights is about to return in January to NBC, The Mentalist on CBS is a solid crime procedural and the hit of the fall, and Lost is on its way back as well).

It's very true that the writers' strike sharply disrupted the rhythms of some shows (The Office seemed wonky for much of last year) and was a death knell for others (Pushing Daisies never recovered from its long hiatus). A strike by the Screen Actors Guild, should it happen (though it's looking increasingly unlikely) would do the same.

But television looks, at the end of 2008, no more or less golden than it was a year ago or two years ago or five years ago; it's just more and more dense. It's a wide landscape of stuff you probably don't care about, dotted with good shows and studded with a handful of gems, with the biggest difference being that there are so many choices now that you have to look harder and harder to find what you want. But once you do, getting your hands on it is easier and easier: find it online, find it on DVD, find it on demand, or record it on your DVR, which is about two percent as time-consuming as it was to remember to set a VCR.

Good shows vanish, bad shows show up to replace them, everyone wails, and we move on. What's purely diverting lives or dies on its power to divert, while those who work to challenge assumptions and provoke thought face the same uphill battle they always have, on television or anywhere else. There was no original Golden Age, there was no Second Golden Age, and there is no End Of The Second Golden Age. There's lots of good stuff, but if you want to see it, you have to look. It doesn't always find you the way it did when there were only three networks.

And so, this year ends, not with a bang, but with a splinter.

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