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Is the Golden Age of TV over?

By Willa Paskin
Slate.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/01/16/37/1eTKFW.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Ursula Coyote - AP
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/01/16/37/sBD1f.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Frank Ockenfels - AP
    The departure of “Breaking Bad,” staring Bryan Cranston, left, and Aaron Paul, has left TV occupied by many wan copycats.

Since the 1999 premiere of “The Sopranos,” a cri du coeur that TV really could be as ambitious and serious as its writers wanted to make it, the antihero has been inextricably associated with great television. But in the past few years, the archetype has started to sour, and this year, I think, completely curdled.

Walter White died and revealed the field behind him to be occupied by a bunch of wan copycats. Shows such as “Ray Donovan,” “Low Winter Sun,” “The Following,” “Hannibal” and “House of Cards” (yes, that’s a fighting list) followed “The Playboy Club,” “Boss,” “Magic City” and “Boardwalk Empire” in following the great “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” making for a lame cohort of paint-by-numbers Prestige TV.

A little ethical dilemma here, a little male hierarchy there; a little of Don Draper’s sex appeal here, a little of Tony Soprano’s menace there; add as much grisly violence as whatever network you’re on will allow and, voila, something dull and pretentious: a garbage monster looking for an award.

But I look out at the TV this year and I see something else: Not just those brain-dead shows – “The Walking Dead,” for one – dragging themselves across the ground moaning, but the vital series leapfrogging over them. TV that’s healthy, not inbred.

This year burst with series percolating on the themes of antihero TV – violence, amorality, likeability, gender dynamics – in new ways, from new angles, with new characters and different genres: shows such as “Scandal,” “American Horror Story,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Top of the Lake,” “Rectify,” “Key & Peele.”

Other series tweaked those themes in less aggressive but still effective and pleasurable ways: shows such as “The Americans,” “Game of Thrones,” “Broadchurch,” “The Fall,” “Sleepy Hollow.” This year also had plenty of shows that were true to “The Sopranos’ ” real spirit: exploring something different, something we hadn’t quite seen before – shows such as “Enlightened,” “Bunheads,” “Girls” and even “The Fosters.” And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost every show I have just name-checked is about a woman. Sometimes new just means giving a voice to 50 percent of the population.

Taking television seriously

And yet there is still general consternation about taxonomy, about whether this Golden Age is over, was already over, will soon be over. And this to me is what is really interesting about the Golden Age: not whether we are in it, or out of it, in a silver age, a rainbow age or something better or worse, but why we – TV critics, writers and ultra-informed consumers – are so interested in labeling what is happening (or just happened).

TV has come a long way very fast. People still sometimes snobbishly declaim to me that they don’t have a television, but it happens a lot less than people apologizing in hushed tones for not having watched “Mad Men” yet. Obviously, people making polite conversation with a TV critic at a party is a skewed sample population, but the speed with which the “idiot box” has become a part of high culture is staggering, if not yet complete.

One thing that happened in this past decade-plus is that TV got very good. And the other thing that happened is that TV became a certain kind of cultural product, for a certain class of cultural consumer; the exact person who once would have smugly declared TV was something she would never deign to watch.

The Golden Age terminology helped change that. In addition to being a description, “the Golden Age” is a tool: a tool for canon-building. It’s a phrase that highlights and circles, says here, something really special is going on. And the really special thing going on was not just the shows but a wholesale cultural climate change, a collective decision that TV itself was worthy – worthy of our leisure time, our attention, our imagination, our conversation, our bingeable hours.

As a TV lover I am beyond grateful for what the Golden Age has wrought, not just the wonderful TV but the widespread belief in and practice of taking television seriously. But I think TV is ready to go without its Golden Age training wheels. The worst shows of this year were the ones trying to be like the Golden Age dramas, while the best were just trying to be themselves.

Paskin is Slate’s TV critic.
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