The end of the golden era?

21:18, Nov 19 2013

The Golden Era of Television has officially come to a close! Behold the new era, The Zombie Age of Television - where The Walking Dead reigns as king of the small screen, and every new show is doomed to walk the earth amid the moans of viewers who lament how everything is just so similar to something that was brilliant, but which just ended.

At least, that's what Andy Greenwald would have you believe. The resident TV critic at Grantland recently blasted the state of the industry as the year comes to a close, writing that:

Rather than innovating or acknowledging risk, ratings-obsessed programmers at even the most respected channels have fallen back into a disheartening pattern of pandering, copying, and outright cannibalism ... the Zombie Age is marked by a persistent, undeniable decay. Corpses are picked over. Ideas, once devoured, are regurgitated and feasted on again. A bold, forward-looking decade of risk-taking and reward has somehow left the industry in full-on retreat.

There's an undeniable security in sameness, but only within the pleathered confines of network executive suites is a strategy of not losing the same thing as winning. Everyone wants to believe that the next great era of television is just beginning. But it's possible we came in at the end.

I should say up front that I love Greenwald's work. But I think poor Andy is a little off the mark on this one.

For a start, I don't think you can compare one era of television to another. Unlike any other art form, television ages badly. You can still watch Die Hard or read The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and you can still enjoy them in the same way as those who watched or read them when they were originally released (1988 and 1979, respectively). Led Zeppelin are as popular now as they ever were during the sixties and seventies, and their albums still sound fantastic. Well, most.


But just tune in to Jones!, the nostalgia channel on Sky TV, and you'll see how well most television holds up. Television is very much of its time. The things that made All In The Family and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em so great have as much to do with when they were on as they do with the shows themselves. Even the best shows of yesteryear - Seinfeld or Mash, to name two - have aged horribly. We enjoy them nostalgically; they remind us of how we were when they aired.

On some level, it's also inherently unfair to compare one group of shows to another. Hey, I love arguing for one show over another as much as anyone - but to say that we're in a zombie age of television because nothing is as good as some imagined pantheon of recent shows (The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad) is reductive to the extreme.

Perhaps the problem is actually the opposite: what if television is too good?

Time critic James Poniewozik suggests that we're actually enjoying a period in which television is stronger across the board, that we're actually "getting more and more used to a higher and higher level of TV-making."

The point is: maybe the best TV today is not as good as the best TV of 2003. Or maybe it seems so because what it's surrounded by is better, more various, and sometimes just more competent-"second best" shows that would kick the tar out of 2003′s second best. There's less of an obvious chasm between the great and the awful. There's more parity-which is not nearly the same thing as more mediocrity.

In a way, television viewers now are blessed with an embarrassment of riches, a long list of shows that excel in one area or many, and which toe the line between drama and comedy with acrobatic precision.

Like many other critics and reviewers have noted, I'm having trouble figuring out my favourites for the year - Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Rectify, The Americans, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Shameless, Louie, Parks & Recreation, Sons Of Anarchy, Orange Is The New Black, Orphan Black, Masters Of Sex, Girls, Community ... that's sixteen shows right there, and I haven't even mentioned anything from England (Black Mirror, The Syndicate, Luther, Moone Boy), New Zealand (The Almighty Johnsons, Harry, Jono & Ben At Ten) or anywhere else.

So, with all due respect to Mr Greenwald, I deny the notion that we're at the dawn of some Zombie Age. I think television is stronger right now than it has ever been; it doesn't have a clear favourite like The Sopranos, sure. But there's a lot more to choose from, and many more ways to choose.

What do you think - is television as good now as it has ever been? Or is the Golden Age of television finished?

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