×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More TV

  • Robin Roberts Omarosa

    Disney Makes Big Play to Stay in NFL's TV-Football Game

    Robin Roberts is moving this week from mornings on ABC to primetime. And while the shift is temporary, the business machinations behind it are likely to continue. Roberts, best known for her regular appearances on “Good Morning America,” will serve this Thursday as an important presence during two nights of ABC’s coverage of the NFL [...]

  • TV Review: ‘Motown 60: A Grammy

    TV Review: ‘Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration’

    If nothing else, CBS’ “Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration” special alerted America to the continued vitality of Smokey Robinson as a contemporary performer. Ten months from turning 80, the singer’s performances were focused and controlled as he weaved his sultry vocals through classics he wrote — the ballads “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby,” chief among them. Producers [...]

  • Telemundo Has 'Game of Thrones' Hopes

    Telemundo Has 'Game of Thrones' Hopes for 'La Reina del Sur' Season 2 Premiere

    Call it Telemundo’s “Game of Thrones.” The Spanish-language network is hoping for a blockbuster premiere tonight for the long-awaited sophomore season of “La Reina del Sur,” the crime drama starring Kate del Castillo that ranks as Telemundo’s most-watched original series ever. “La Reina” was a massive hit for Telemundo when it aired in early 2011. [...]

  • Florence and the Machine

    Florence & the Machine Premiere New Song on 'Game of Thrones'

    [pmc=related] If the voice singing the song during the end credits of “Game of Thrones” tonight sounded familiar — or unmistakable — yes, it was Florence + the Machine. The group’s version of the original “Game of Thrones” song “Jenny of Oldstones” debuted during the closing credits of this season’s second episode, following a rendition [...]

  • Game of Thrones Fan Theories

    Best Fan Theories for the Final Season of 'Game of Thrones'

    After eight seasons, “Game of Thrones” fans will finally see if their long-held theories will pay off. Dozens of important characters and a complex plot have made diehard viewers try to foresee plot twists for years. With the original R+L=J theory confirmed, meaning that Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark were the real parents of Jon [...]

  • Abigail Disney on Bob Iger

    Abigail Disney Calls Bob Iger's $65 Million Compensation 'Insane'

    Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger’s total compensation for Disney’s fiscal 2018 was a whopping $65.6 million. Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Disney co-founder Roy Disney, calls that sum “insane.”  While speaking at the Fast Company Impact Council, the filmmaker and philanthropist insisted that this level of corporate payout has a “corrosive effect on society.” Disney took [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content