The Golden Age of Television is Already Over

Everyone says we’re living in the Golden Age of television. Maybe it started with Buffy and The 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 the 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 to Limitless 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 series, 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 on many creators. Now we’re seeing something similar with post-Game of Thrones TV dramas, 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.