Remember when people at parties started talking about television the way they once talked about movies? It was the late 1990s, early ‘00s – the dawning that we were enjoying of what came to be known as a “Golden Age of television,” a term repeated so frequently that critics began to shun it as cliché.
“The Sopranos” was on. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was on. Later it was “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” “Mad Men.” There were those many years of time and typing frittered away figuring out “Lost.” After a while, you realized you couldn’t plan anything on Sunday nights – everyone suddenly had to leave by 8, and TV was the reason. Casual acquaintances kept insisting that you start watching a new drama about a meth maker in Albuquerque or this other drama about a female CIA agent who was bipolar. Hyperbole took over; every show became the best show ever.
In other words, viewers certainly know what a Golden Age of TV is supposed to feel like. The question now is whether or not we’re still in it.
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TV’s one-hour dramas now come one right after the other from a variety of sources, and they’re all high quality from a technical perspective, thanks mainly to groundbreaking programs that were on a decade or so ago, which raised the bar overall. But it’s time to admit that we’ve now deeply settled into a Silver Age of TV that might last a long while.
With an increase in expectations and a glut of new programming, we’ve become accustomed to shows that are, at their best, pretty good instead of brilliant. The fact that there are more dramas in production now than ever – for broadcast, cable and premium channels and streaming services – killed off the Golden Age instead of prolonging it; in the Silver Age, pretty good is good enough, so long as you can convince a handful of influential viewers that they’ve found their new favorite show.
Take the case of Matthew Weiner’s partly cloudy, Emmy-winning “Mad Men.” The show, in its last season on AMC, is one of the last survivors of TV’s triumphant era. We have watched it slowly descend from its greatest seasons down a rung or two, to a state of being, well, pretty good.
Its ratings have never been terrific, certainly not when compared with AMC’s wild success with “The Walking Dead,” a show that is perfectly suited to the Silver Age’s demands for action, gore and characters who all but take a Day-Glo highlighter to the script to mark up the major themes for you. (“The Walking Dead” has so perfected the art of remaining pretty good that you don’t dare miss it.)
Watching “Mad Men” and admiring “Mad Men” and partaking in the hype of “Mad Men” is what the Golden Age of television was all about. Now, in the Silver Age, “Mad Men” is fading away as beautifully – even indifferently – as one would expect.
In the Silver Age, every network, channel and online service would like to get a lock on the Big Important Drama market, which means that the threshold for cancellation also changed – and in some cases vanished. Following HBO’s lead, cable networks and streaming services follow an etiquette of patron-like patience, willing to renew an underperforming drama for a second and even third season while it finds its rhythm and its audience.
Some other recognizable traits of the Silver Age’s pretty-good programs: Sex scenes performed standing up against walls or upon desks and tables (anywhere but bed); shocking plot twists; period details that are adored by the camera but not in a way that intrudes on the narrative (as in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”) unless the point is to very much intrude on the narrative, because the time period practically is the narrative (as with AMC’s twin underperformers, “Turn: Washington Spies,” set in the 1770s, and “Halt and Catch Fire” set in the 1980s).
After a while, nearly every show has a way of feeling like the same show. Someone is on your case to watch them (a friend, a relative, a TV critic), and you promise that you will, the next time you get the flu or sprain an ankle or otherwise find the hours upon hours.
The hallmark of Silver Age TV viewing is the feeling that you are always behind.
The Washington Post