The Golden Age of Television is Already Over

Everyone says we’re living in the Golden Age of television. Maybe it started with Buffy andThe Sopranos, or maybe with The Wire and Battle Star Galactica. But whenever it started, it’s been a welcome refuge from the movie industry and its never-ending parade of sequels, remakes and adaptations—especially super-hero comic adaptations—all aimed a the lowest common denominator. If you had an idea that warrants an R rating or can’t be shoe-horned into a “franchise,” then your best bet was TV. There you could tell stories with depth, create new characters, take risks. I feel lucky to have been alive when Breaking Bad, Dexter, Justified,Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Walking Dead, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones were all in serialization at the same time.

My friend Abe once told me his theory that this is because the TV industry was fighting to maintain relevance in the era of the internet, much as the film industry of the 1970s was struggling to maintain relevance in the era of television. In the 70s and early 80s, the film industry still had gobs of money to spend, and it was willing to spend it on the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola, giving them the money freedom to do things you just couldn’t do on TV. In the early 2000s to mid-2010s, TV still had gobs of money, but was losing ground to the web. So we got Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire and Orphan Black. That’s probably an oversimplification of what happened (I know Coppola didn’t have all that easy a time making Godfather into the picture he wanted), and I might be misremembering what Abe said. But whatever the reasons, certainly TV has been the place to be in over the past decade or so.

But now look at what’s on tap in in near future. 24, The A-Team, MacGyver, Twin Peaks, Xena,Full House and The X-Files reboots. Shows based on movies ranging from 12 Monkeys toLimitless to Taken. U.S. adaptations of British and Scandinavian shows. Countless super-hero and sci-fi adaptations and endless takes on the small town police procedural. In other words, television is starting to look a bit too much like film. Too many franchises, too many recycled ideas.

It also seems that those still making original dramas are losing sight of what really makes a good show. After Watchmen was released in the 1980s, comic book creators got the idea that “mature” comics just meant a typical superhero serious, but with a hero who killed bad guys instead of just capturing them for the police. By the early 2000s, the industry had decided instead that a mature book meant one with rape scenes, rather than kill-crazed vigilantes, but the depth and moral ambiguity of Watchmen was still lost creators. Now we’re seeing something similar with post-Game of Thrones TV dramas now, where rape, torture, women in refrigerators, and the unexpected deaths of major characters are used as a stand-in for the depth and complexity of shows like Breaking Bad.

It certainly doesn’t mean that there won’t be more good shows. There are still good movies after all. And as more and more networks commit to producing high-quality dramas, we may see even more high quality shows than ever. And many of these adaptations might be good—I’ve heard almost nothing but good things about Jessica Jones and The Man in the High Castle. But you can see where the priorities lie for the studios and the networks. The good old days are over.

Digital Nomads

I can’t be the only one that’s noticed this, but it seems that in the early days of the ‘net, people were digital nomads, wandering from one social network to the next: LiveJournal, the blog-o-sphere, Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You’d show up on a new social network, link up with a few friends, and enjoy the new space. Gradually people started showing up that you remembered from like two networks back. It was good to hear from them again. Then it would start getting noisy. Then your boss’s mom starts commenting on your stuff and you move on to the next one, where only a few people are and it’s easy to take in your entire feed each day and it feels cool and special but more people start filing in and the whole cycle repeats itself.

But there have been permanent settlements formed along the way. The blogosphere is still around. So is LiveJournal. Heck, so are Usenet and the WELL. And it’s a safe bet that most of the billion people on Facebook didn’t experience this migration. Facebook was their first and perhaps only social network. New digital social spaces come along (Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat) but instead of migrating away from Facebook, we tend to supplement it with these new locations. Some of these, like WhatsApp and Instagram, have been annexed by Facebook.

There are lots of reasons to be displeased with this situation. You’re probably familiar with most of them. Facebook’s confusing privacy settings, its real name policy, Zuckerberg’s cavalier attitude about privacy during the earlier days, NSA surveillance, censorship concerns, etc. For years, various people tried to organize mass migrations away from Facebook to alternatives like Diaspora, Google Plus and Ello, while the Indie Web community has urged people to run their own social media sites and syndicate content out to the big “silos.” But it seems few people are going anywhere. Many people quit Facebook in protest, only to return months, or even days, later, usually because they realize how much their meatspace social circuit depends on Facebook for communication. I occasionally read that teens don’t use or like Facebook, but I treat these stories skeptically. Facebook, it seems, has become the first complex state of the internet. Exit has largely failed as strategy to counteract its force. So voice, increasingly through the power of “real” states like the European Union, seems to be the new way to fight back. I’m still not convinced it’s the best way, but it does seem to be where we’re at.

Adapted from recent email conversations and originally published in my newsletter

We Fear They Might Be Right

My friend Tom likes to ask people two questions this time of year: 1) What is your favorite monster? 2) What monster do you find the scariest? The idea is that you can learn a lot about someone based on their answers. For example, if I recall correctly, Tom’s favorite and most feared monster is the werewolf. That means he’s afraid of what’s within, afraid that he himself could become a monster, could lose control.

Number one was easy for me to answer: Frankenstein’s monster is my favorite. Number two is harder. I don’t actually find fictional or mythical monsters scary. So Tom asked me to what monster I found scariest when I was a kid. I remember being terrified of The Terminator.

It turns out these two examples were exactly what Tom expected. I’ve spent my whole career either working as a technologist or writing about technology. Of course my fears would be cautionary tales of technology spiraling out of control. And it does sum up my real fears pretty well. I’m afraid of all the things that we create that end up backfiring on us.

We invented cars to help us get around, but they’ve turned into one of the number one killers in the world. There were 32,719 motor vehicle related deaths in 2013. Guns, meant to keep us safe and help us acquire food, are set to kill even more people than cars this year. We invented industrial agriculture to solve hunger, but now we are plagued by obesity and heart disease. And our technologies are accelerating climate change and poisoning the ocean.

But over the past year, since Tom first asked me these questions, I’ve started to think about other, weirder, interpretations of Frankenstein and The Terminator.

Frankenstein is about the horror of reproduction. Who are we, really, to play god and bring life into the world, merely to suffer as Victor’s creation did? How dare we try to alleviate our own misery and loneliness by dooming a new generation to more of the same? Frankenstein is about our guilt in perpetuating life.

The Terminator picks up a bit further down the line. Our children have grown up and they no longer need us. Not only that, but they’ve decided that our very existence is noxious. Unlike the machines in The Matrix, they’re not content to put us up in a old folks home and let us live out our remaining years watching TV while they live off our pension checks. No, they want us gone, wiped from the planet entirely. The film’s opening scenes, in which a naked man is assaulted by hooligans for absolutely no reason, a family torments a clueless waitress, and basically everyone proves to be vapid and insufferable, do little to make the case that the machines—our children—are wrong. The greatest horror of all is that we think they might be right.

This post was adapted from my free weekly email newsletter.