The days of “Playhouse 90” have long been held as the golden age of television drama, but a quick look at the current landscape reveals a resurgence rivaling those early TV offerings.
There was a lot of chatter — some positive, mostly negative — when, in late June, Oscar opened up the best picture race to 10 nominees (a return to the heyday of 1939-1942). Yet there was hardly a peep when the TV drama race saw seven noms vying for the big prize this year. That’s because all the shows seem to be worthy candidates, and there are even some notable series — including “The Shield,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Rescue Me,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “ER” — that didn’t make the expanded cut.
“I hated to see ’24,’ which had one of its best years, ‘True Blood’ and ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ left off that list,” says Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today. “It’s a testament to just how packed the drama competition is that you can have a solid list of nominees and still have more candidates that could have easily been included.”
“Lost” exec producer Carlton Cuse believes dramas have never been better, and he points to movies abdicating their role as the place to see substantive work.
“Now it (the theatrical film biz) is the purview of comicbooks and teen movies, so writers interested in more serious pursuits migrated,” Cuse says. “Television picked up the slack.”
The proliferation of basic and pay cable channels created a space for inventive storytelling that might never find a spot on a broadcast network television schedule.
The list of drama nominees includes series filled with fringe characters — a serial killer and a meth dealer exploring morality, a polygamist sitting in his own zone of normal, a drug-addicted doctor slipping out of reality and a 1960s ad exec haunted by his past.
“Cable expanded the dating pool. If a network turned you down, there were places to go in cable,” says “Lost” exec producer Damon Lindelof. “The idea of what a hero is has been changed, and taking a bad cop or a serial killer and then making them the protagonist had not been attempted.”
The goal of cable, of course, is not seeking the broadest possible audience, but luring viewers to a universe populated by hundreds of channels.
“FX can put on a show like ‘The Shield,’ which had a fervent but smaller-than-network-sized audience, and it works for them,” Cuse explains. “This allowed cable networks to do edgier and riskier shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Damages,’ which took a creative spin on a (traditional) legal show. ”
Often, when broadcast has taken the risks, it has paid off. “Breaking Bad” creator-exec producer Vince Gilligan goes back to “The X-Files” and believes the seeds for good recent drama germinated in the ’90s.
He looks to 1994 — when “The X-Files” was just coming into its own, “NYPD Blue” was shooting across the Fox lot, and “ER” changed the way dramatic stories were being told — as a turning point for network dramas.
“Networks put on really good dramas, and that continued through cable,” Gilligan says. “I’m impressed with the quality, which has been the case for a while now, but now we also have a quantity of good dramas on the air.”
Not that long ago, it appeared the genre was all but dead. Broadcast networks took over those slots with newsmagazines, edging out hourlong dramas. “I lived through the experience of almost no dramas on TV,” says “Mad Men” creator-exec producer Matt Weiner. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think the cable market had the biggest impact. Whenever you give free control (to a writer), you’ll get 50% failure and 50% chance of something extraordinary.”
Fear of failure, Weiner says, prompts the broadcast networks to stay conservative in their program choices.
“There is no room for orange sherbet on network TV,” Weiner continues. “If you took ‘L.A. Law’ to the network right now, they would put it on (the cable side) because it had an edge they don’t do now.”
Lindelof reflects on the time when selling a show was limited to broadcast and a handful of premium cable outlets, primarily HBO.
“When HBO passed on ‘Mad Men,’ that would have been the end of it, but now with the dating pool expanded, you can go to other options like TNT and AMC, which recognized the unique voice of ‘Mad Men’ as having value to them.”
FX programmers pursued some of the edgiest dramas they could find: “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me.”
“Everything they put on was fantastic and caused conversation, which is just what they needed,” Cuse says. “Obviously, they knew how to pick good shows.”
When ABC wanted a watercooler show to rival those on cable, the network took a chance with “Lost.”
“Our success allowed others a shot. It’s like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, leapfrogging over the other to create good television,” Lindelof says. “CBS tried with ‘Swingtown.’ They could have done a better version on FX, but I give the network points for trying.”
And while, for some, the “golden age” will always be the “Playhouse 90” era, “Let’s just say it’s a good time to own a television set,” Weiner observes.