(Un)fashionable television and the new golden age

We’re in a Golden Age of television. Film is slowly becoming more and more intolerable, drowned out by sequels and too much loyalty to supposed successful formulas (Avengers 2, Lord of The Rings 5, Star Wars 7…). We’re now more likely to knock over half a season of the latest Emmy-Award winning hit then slump our way over to Event Cinemas to pay $50 for the privilege of being served the latest piece of Hollywood blockbuster bullshit. And there’s a reason for that. Television is better.

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There’s a lot of reasons for it, but a
primary cause is the rise of cable television in the States. In particular, HBO and Showtime, which were deemed once to be on the fringes of television, have grown up to lead the way for a new wave of TV with FX, AMC and others following in its wake. In very roughly chronological order, these shows happened and changed everything: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, The West Wing, House, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Louie, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones…insert your personal favourite here.

We’ve gained a lot, but what’s been lost?

Well, for the most part, the sitcom. (And don’t suggest Big Bang Theory. In my experience, comedy should be funny.) Modern FamilyThe Office30 Rockand Parks and Recreation have set a new standard and tone. Nobody could really beat Friends, so we re-invented the wheel. These comedies are acerbic, built on the contemporary taste for the awkward, and the documentary style of filming gives us something that the deliberate staging of sitcoms never could: a deeper sense of the real.

For the contemporary drama, however, we seem to have lost a sense of innocence. Adult drama is incredibly binary: it’s either ultra-light, tasteless reality television, or hardcore sex and blood filled romps with themes of evil, adultery, murder, and substance abuse. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there’s a category of television that’s almost untouched: the contemporary and meaningful drama that’s about real people, with real struggles. A celebration of the normal.

Glee comes close, but it’s burdened by, you know…all the singing. Family dramas have either become too sentimentalized to be meaningful (Brothers and Sisters, Parenthood, etc), or too trashy to be of interest to anyone but young women (One Tree Hill, Greek, etc). I’m talking about critically acclaimed, good-hearted family drama. Friday Night Lights is one of the best contemporary examples of this. Having just blitzed through the five seasons, I’m left with that rare mourning for a television show now gone. It did what all good television strives to do: create and nurture compelling characters that slowly become part of your life. I love The Walking Dead but I’m not going to enter into a mourning period when it ends.

But for the entirety of its run, Friday Night Lights was burdened by low ratings. Despite receiving mass critical acclaim and loyal fan support, it was so deeply unfashionable that it continually struggled to survive. Built around the lives of a small-town Texas football community, it wasn’t about drug dealers, had no nostalgia for the past (ala Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire), and while tackling many of the same concepts as Glee, it was about a deliberately poor, very middle-class, non-singing group of young people. It always refrained from sentimentality and preaching, but managed to touch on major issues implicit within the US education system and growing up working-class in the Southern states of America. Sadly, the show was too real, too ‘normal’ to be considered truly ‘edgy’ or thrilling, and suffered for it.

On the flip side, it seems like a great time to be writing and creating shows about fantasy or science fiction worlds. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead prove this point. But these too are signs of a particular fashion. Bloody, sexy, and remarkably adult, there’s very little room, apparently, for the rollicking bollocking adventure television of Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Buffyor X-Files fame. The one exception to this rule is Doctor Who, an explicitly BRITISH show that is unburdened by the fashions of Los Angeles. The proof?Firefly. A wonderful American sci-fi show that’s literally worshiped by legions of fans. It lasted fourteen episodes.

Bottom line? I love television. But I can only watch one episode of Breaking BadGame of Thrones or Walking Dead at a time otherwise I lose the will to live. This is better than Keeping Up With The Kardashians, where I lose the will to live two minutes into your average episode. I want light, but meaningful. That’s what I want to watch at the end of a work day.

Clear Eyes. Full hearts.