TV’s Golden Age Not Necessarily Over Just Yet

8 Nov

The Four PIllars

Andy Greenwald wrote an article on Grantland which probably wasn’t intended to be trolling, but it came off that way to me, and I felt the need to refute it, particularly because people constantly make arguments like this, if not as specific as this in particular. His argument in short is that television’s “Golden Age” is over. I’m very skeptical of the concept of a “Golden Ages” in general; it reeks of nostalgia for times that weren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other, but seem that way in memory, but I’ll follow along. I willing to accept in principle that certain eras aren’t necessarily as good as others, and that all seasons of television are not equal. However, I think both that his argument in broad strokes is wrong and that the claims he makes to get there are wrong a swell. I’ll break it down in further depth below, but quickly, the biggest issue is that his judgment of the entire previous golden era is particularly rendered less valuable because he’s only judging by using the shows at the very top. He then goes out to knock the “medium-level” shows he calls them in this era, without naming the examples of medium level shows that made the Golden Age great.

He uses what I like to call, or will probably start calling after this, the Four Pillars of TV Greatness (TM). These four are in order of airing: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. They’re four undeniable great shows, and if you asked for the greatest dramas of all time, there’s a better than even chance they’d finish as the top four of any poll of enough critics or knowledgeable TV viewers. He talks about a Golden Age, but to be clear, he’s talking about these four shows.  He speaks as if he means to cover a greater swath, as if those four just provided cover and inspiration for a flourishing run of good-but-not-as-good shows beneath their wings, but not a single other show is named after the those four, and while there are others that could easily qualify (Deadwood and Six Feet Under, at the least), I think it’s important to mention that these are the ONLY FOUR he mentions to represent what he describes as the Golden Age.

Greenwald then goes off and reels off several current shows that don’t meet his standard for Golden Age inclusion, whether because they’re simply not as good (Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Homeland, and outside of Homeland’s legitimately brilliant world-class first season, you’ll get no argument there from me) or much more strangely because they are great but they’re genre show, in the case of Game of Thrones (and to a lesser extent Orphan Black), which somehow don’t qualify as Golden Age-worthy because they contribute to other negative trends in television, regardless of their own quality.

The show he most associates with this gilded age of television is The Walking Dead, which he backhandedly notes that even though he’s not a fan, he acknowledges it’s the most important and influential show of the past five years. Without speaking on the quality of the show, on which I stand somewhere in the middle, I disagree strongly with his assertion. While that same statement may yet be true in five years, it really isn’t; Walking Dead’s influence is only beginning to be felt as we still wade our way out of the Age of the Antihero, which still, though waning, dominates television (three of the Four Pillars are antihero shows – The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, along with Boardwalk Empire, Justified, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, and plenty of lesser fare). Honestly, whether true or not, this is really off-topic from the central argument so we’ll move back in that direction.

Greenwald goes on to talk about how networks aren’t taking chances anymore, and that’s surely true, but that was also very much true five or ten years ago. None of the Four Pillars were network shows. Four shows got through the cracks and struck gold. He claims it’s systematic failure that as many quality shows aren’t coming through the pipeline, but I’d claim it’s just odds and not enough time.

Let’s not forget as well that one of the Four Pillars is still on, with two seasons to go, and one ended a mere month and a half ago. Game of Thrones is an admittedly great show, and I’m not sure why it’s a knock that it’s a genre show or that it’s based on source material, especially just because in influences other less good shows (first, something every new and interesting show does, second – is it a knock on Pearl Jam that so many lousy bands were influenced by it?). Shows come in waves, and influence of the biggest and best play a large part, for better or worse. Mad Men was very much influenced by The Sopranos. Greenwald complains about a prestige mad libs, and he’s by no means incorrect, but that’s also exactly what Mad Men was. You can give Mad Men credit for inventing that formula, but as mentioned, it stole plenty from The Sopranos.

Logical complaints aside, I’d argue that he’s not looking closely enough to find the good stuff. Last Spring alone saw the debut of four new dramas, each with the potential to be great, and although the odds are against any of them becoming an all-time great, that’s true for any show, and promise is really all you can ask for.

Rectify, the best, airs on Sundance channel, and stands in particular contradiction to Greenwald’s claims as it doesn’t fit into any of the boxes Greenwald is complaining about. Rectify is about a man exonerated from death row after twenty years imprisoned back into the small Georgia town in which he grew up. It’s a small show in the way Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are big, and it’s exceptionally, moving, human, beautiful and heartbreaking in different degrees.

The Americans admittedly kind of fits Greenwald’s prestige formula, but it transcends it, and even Greenwald acknowledging The Americans as the best new series of last year.

Orphan Black, Greenwald already acknowledged as well as an excellent show, and, though it’s a genre show, it certainly doesn’t fit into either the prestige or the bigger is better formula.

Hannibal, admittedly, it less new and interesting than the other three, and probably will end up as good and not great, but it’s especially notable for its gorgeous cinematography and its compelling psychological battling between protagonists Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter which elevate a cop show above the norm.

Remember, if we’re to match his Golden Age, we only need four. My point is not that these four shows are great and replacements for the Four Pillars, but that if even one of them can become great, than really all we need is one new great show each year. I could name lots of good but flawed shows a la Boardwalk Empire from the Golden Age – Lost, Alias, The West Wing, True Blood, 24, and more but it doesn’t matter, because there were some great ones. Now, some people may like some of the good ones better than others, but that’s always the case. Additionally, people will and have always copied successful shows. Lost spawned a thousand attempts at supernatural mystery shows, not one of which has really become successful (Heroes was the closest) and The Sopranos has directly led to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and less directly many others.

There’s no reason to believe that the Golden Age is over because there are a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. There are always a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. All there have to be is a couple great ones. There are, and there’s no systematic reason that a few more won’t appear in the coming years.

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