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Talk of TV’s golden age misses big picture

Quality shows abound, but so do Kardashians

Occasionally, a thought permeates the cultural ether and causes media elites — often belatedly — to simultaneously notice some trend or big idea.

A recent example involves acknowledging the burgeoning quality of television, and daring to broach whether TV has eclipsed its elder, bigger brother, movies, in cultural influence or quality.

So the New Yorker is sponsoring an event this week titled “Is Television the New Cinema?” And on the other coast, Zocalo Public Square is hosting an event this month asking “Is This the Golden Age of Television?”

Well, is it? And why do panels like these have to be framed in the form of a question, anyway?

Such queries have a tendency to simplify — make that terribly over-simplify — years of content evolution. Yes, there’s an embarrassment of TV riches right now, and a fuzzy batch of Oscar contenders. It’s complicated, however, distilling those elements into an “Is TV better than movies?” debate, the kind of phallic face-off tailor-made for a splashy Web headline and to catch the attention of Hollywood, which always appreciates putting things in “Who’s bigger?” terms.

Alas, however pithy the question, a genuine answer won’t fit neatly on a postage stamp.

For television, this indeed represents the best and worst of times — a Golden Age and Pyrite Period all at once.

Let’s dispense with the latter first. While the unscripted genre is too diverse to speak in sweeping generalities, it’s fair to say the basest reality TV shows plumb disheartening levels of abuse and humiliation, while spawning a generation of “stars” (see the Kardashians) whose only discernible talent is becoming famous. As evidence, flip through any copy of Us Weekly, preferably before eating.

Obviously there’s room for entertainment of both high and low varieties, though tellingly, ratings for programs represented on TV’s honor roll seldom rival top unscripted hits. This conveniently allows execs to hide behind the old “The public made us do it” excuse.

At the same time, it seems irrefutable there has never before been such an array or abundance of great dramas, flanked by enough first-class comedies to at least prevent that diminished art from being laughed out of the conversation.

Clearly, fans of great television — the kind that has, for many, replaced trips to the theatrical art house — owe a huge debt to HBO, which gave even elite snobs license to watch TV. The channel’s old “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” slogan perfectly captured this mentality, enabling New Yorker and New York Times readers (and critics) to proudly reference “The Wire” or “The Sopranos.”

In hindsight, though, the pivotal moment in the modern quality explosion can be traced to the introduction of “Nip/Tuck” in 2003.

Created by Ryan Murphy, the FX drama’s early years proved basic cable could aspire to a level of artistic ambition rivaling their pay brethren — while pushing content boundaries as vigorously as advertisers would allow. Programs like “Mad Men” and “Damages” followed, and network shows that would have once met untimely deaths (see NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” and “Southland”) found second lives thanks to cable.

Somewhat perversely, the TV movie’s decline also funneled additional resources into episodic drama, as channels like Showtime realized signature hits could lure viewers back week after week, unlike one-shot telecasts.

Of course, not every seed of “Nip/Tuck’s” legacy has been quite so creatively fruitful, as evidenced by the latest Murphy/FX collaboration, “American Horror Story,” which reflects TV’s anything-to-get-noticed impulses.

It’s also easy to forget there’s simply more of, well, everything — both good and bad, international (see “Downton Abbey”) and domestic. How could there not be, when earlier references to TV’s “golden age” denoted a time when greatness consisted of a mere handful of channels?

Ultimately, all today’s terrific stuff can’t reverse the first law of television — namely, gems will always be buried in mounds of dreck — but those with discerning palates, patience and a DVR needn’t look far to find tantalizing delights.

So yes, there’s plenty of gold spilling out of the TV, and more goodies to squander one’s time than ever before. Yet while the TV is literally bigger and brighter, an old adage still applies: All that glitters is not gold.

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