By: Mike Visconti
This past Sunday night at the 67th Emmy Awards, we saw a changing of the guard. But we also saw a nod to one of the most prosperous eras of television. It’s been stated that there has never been as much good television being produced as there is currently. In fact, we may have crossed over the line of too much television to watch and keep up with. Never before has there been such a plethora of enticing and riveting TV options to choose from. The new rage now is the original programming put out by the likes for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. This truly is a television golden age. But has to best already washed over us like a wave that continually comes ashore so frequently that you don’t stop to notice that the best it had to offer is gone?
The Third Golden Age of Television, if you are curious as to what this is, let me enlighten you. The advent of TVs being a common household fixture came along in the mid-1950s. Soon after the serialization of TV shows took a hold. Shows like I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffin Show and The Twilight Zone offered episode after episode that formed season after season. The concept of TV and the First Age of TV was born. Eventually leading into the late 1970s and all the way through the 1990s was TV Second Golden Age. Shows veered from a familial format and drifted into the workplace and begun to tackle bigger issues, drugs, murder, adultery etc. Staple shows like M.A.S.H., The Rockford Files and St. Elsewhere centered on the workplace format. Eventually the content moved to more exciting occupations in ER and NYPD Blue. Eventually audiences were brought into the living room with the birth of sitcoms, Seinfeld and Friends being the juggernauts in the 1990s. But everything changed on January 10th, 1999. HBO debuted The Sopranos.
The Sopranos kicked off what would be about a 15 year run of television brilliance. As they built a bigger and bigger brand all the while capturing the attention of not only the audience but the most talented auteurs in the business to cross the film line and dip a toe into the TV pool. But what separated this era from the previous two? The complex male anti-hero was introduced, and Tony Soprano was the first in a long line of captivating leading men. The current Mount Rushmore of Television; Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men, all have the same overriding theme, the male anit-hero. And it is no coincidence that they all hail from the Third Golden Age. Never before had audiences been subjected to the lead character being such a deeply flawed individual, and they made us ask the question, were they were inherently good or bad? After awhile, we stopped asking, because we didn’t care if Tony killed his cousin, Don cheated on his wife or Walter killed for his family. The drama was too good. The themes that were first only available to movie audiences were now being presented to the viewer on their couch. Themes such as organized crime, racisim, women in the workplace and the hypocrisy of our social and political institutions were now can’t miss television. And one by one, all the staples of the Third Golden Age have moved on and ridden off into the west. What once once a prosperous fountain on content, soon began to fade away.
Mad Men was the last of these pantheon shows, they completed their final victory lap in 2015. I said earlier that we have perhaps witnessed a changing of the guard. The HBO juggernaut, Game of Thrones won not only the Best Drama award but also the Best Writing for a Drama Series. Mad Men only garnered a long awaited and most deserved, Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series award. Jon Hamm finally hit one out of the park after striking out his first seven times for the same nomination. Mad Men has been long hailed as the best-written show on TV by the likes of industry experts; Alan Sepinwall, Chuck Klosterman and Andy Greenwald. For them to lose out to Game of Thrones, while great on its own, signals that perhaps there is a burgeoning culture shift of TV autuership from both the audience but now more importantly, the academy who votes for these awards. Now it should be noted that this was the first year that the Emmys opened up voting from a select council of TV critics to everyone who is associated with the TV Academy; actors, directors etc. Sure everyone is supposed to watch all the nominated TV series or at least the episodes in which they where nominated for but can we truly count on that? Shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead still boast the same themes of the Third Golden Age but now they are breaking all the rules while doing it. They have taken the big screen blockbuster and funneled it into our living rooms. For anyone who has watched The Walking Dead Governor-led assault on the jail or the landmark episodes of Game of Thrones Blackwater, Watchers on the Wall or Hardhome, can attest it felt more like a movie than a TV show. There are certain TV structures that most shows usually abide by, but these shows have shown us that they are too big to care and the ratings and awards they have garnered show us that the public agrees with them.
And perhaps this is where TV is headed. The movie industry has now moved away from the plethora of options it put out until the late 1990s, to its current day status of blockbusters from Marvel/DC, high-end biopics and the low budget indie films seem to be the only ones that make it to the big screen. Much like American middle class, the movie middle class seems non-existent. Will TV follow suit? I’m not sure, but, the landscape is certainly changing. In 2015 we are seeing more and more Marvel/DC based shows. The most under-appreciated TV audience out there, the black audience, is finally getting its due with primetime shows targeted at them. And the ratings don’t lie, Empire and Ballers have set records at both Fox and HBO. But the biggest change seems to be the rise of the mini-series oriented shows (American Horror Story and True Detective), otherwise known as the limited series. Where slow-arcs and potential long game plays don’t matter because each story is confined to the season. The original programming of Hulu, Amazon Prime and Netflix have been the trailblazers as of late. Netflix has been the front-runner after their wildly successful attempts of Orange is the New Black, House of Cards and Narcos. No longer is the television universe subject to the Sunday night must watch TV shows. Now we as an audience are compelled to binge-watch television. And this shouldn’t surprise you that in our age of information when instant gratification in everything is at our fingertips, why would our television consumer-ship be any different?
So while the academy and general public consumption point toward a new age, a 4th Age of TV to follow. At least we know that, and it seems weird to call it this, “the old guard of TV” will still live on. Yes streaming services is the future but these platforms will also include those “Pantheon” shows in Netflix or HBO GO, just so you can binge watch those as well. So next time you surf Netflix to see how Narcos Season 2 is, give Mad Men or Breaking Bad a try. Because who knows, next time it might not be there, and that would be a damn shame.