I suppose it’s unfair and prejudiced to dismiss works I’ve never tried to appreciate, but I truly cannot get into the current so-called Golden Age of dramatic television. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Good Wife, The Walking Dead, True Blood, True Detective, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, Girls, and on and on – I’ve hardly ever watched any of them. Even Sex and the City and The Sopranos were shows I only ever flipped past after a minute or two. I was raised to think that TV is mostly junk, the “vast wasteland” of Newton Minow’s famous appraisal. Seems like old habits die hard.
Critics say the new crop of cable dramas, like the aforementioned, are significant advances over the network programs of yesteryear. They are not constrained by commercial requirements (so no interrupting ads) or squeamish sponsors (so plenty of profanity, graphic sex and violence, and other “mature” subject matter). More importantly, their medium of cable allows for deeper and subtler character and story development, making them vehicles for talented writers and actors instead of mere ratings-obsessed programming executives. Thus Mad Men and The Sopranos are more like very long and very complex feature films, unfolding over numerous installments, rather than the familiar series of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s like Happy Days, Charlie’s Angels, or The Love Boat. Some improvement.
The thing is, there was already a broadcast genre that worked in that open-ended narrative format: the soap opera. In contrast, the old-fashioned weekly sitcom, crime, western, or medical shows were built around stand-alone plots that were usually established, developed, and resolved within the space of a single episode. Such structures were often contrived, of course, but they demanded a certain economy of delivery on the part of their creators, in much the same way that the best two-minute pop singles were often more memorable, musically, than any bloated concept album. Yet Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Veep, and their ilk strike me more as concept albums, or soap operas – drawn-out, needlessly elaborate depictions of very small stories, which could be retold much more succinctly.
Compared to ninety-minute movies, then, such “serial dramas” as are currently fashionable would seem to have the same inherent defect as that of graphic novels, French-language rock ‘n’ roll, or (if there is such a thing) radio pornography. Each is limited by its fundamental medium: the reader or viewer is constantly aware that the same thing is available in a more effective form. And the notion that breaking content “taboos” by itself makes for more powerful television has been stale since the third time Archie Bunker flushed his toilet. Nudity and dismemberment have been shown in films for decades. Just because the small screen has caught up is really no big deal.
At least one reason for the success of these shows has nothing to do with their artistic merits. The technological convenience of programmable digital video, as well as online resources like Netflix, allow viewers to enjoy entire seasons in one sitting – “binge watching,” they call it. Presumably, True Detective or The Good Wife or whatever can be better appreciated in big chunks whenever audience members feel like it, rather than once a week at a fixed time slot. In fact these series already face competition from their stylistic opposites: short, semi-improvised and semi-amateur Youtube clips, posted by two or three kids with video cameras. The next generation of spectators (and consumers) is less interested in lavish period pieces or labyrinthine whodunits than raw footage of something, anything, momentarily cool. So perhaps Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead are not so much bold advances on traditional TV but traditional TV’s dying flourishes. Not that I really care one way or another; whatever electronic entertainment is available, I still prefer books.