Friday, August 29, 2008

The Golden Age of TV

I don't watch that much TV. And I especially watch virtually no TV as it comes on the TV; I'm a Netflix TV guy. But even I have a few things to say about TV, as the new seasons start up and everyone notes, once again, that they're going to suck. I have no doubt that most of them will suck, and I certainly don't pay attention to what new sitcoms are going to be paired with Two and a Half Men. But in case you hadn't noticed, we're living in a golden age of TV. I'm probably not the go to person to talk about this, since I'm nowhere near as up on TV as I should be - I haven't seen a single episode of The Sopranos. But I have recently started filling out my knowledge of recent TV successes with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, Deadwood, Dexter, and others.

The thesis of this post is that TV sucks, and by TV I mean the regular normative kind of TV: the kind of TV where every episode is exactly the same, follows the same formula, has no overarching storyline, has virtually no character development, etc. There was a time (aka the 50s) when the American mainstream wanted a reassuring and repetitive commercial art form, and they got it, and for some reason we've been stuck with it ever since. Occasionally, something great happens within this formula (like The Simpsons or Futurama) but regular, TV-TV usually delivers things more along the lines of Full House or CSI: Miami. I know both of those things have their fans, but they're not for me.

TV was pretty much this from 1950 through 2000.

But now we're not stuck with TV-TV. The revolution happened, and it happened by drawing elements from outside of TV's long and boring history of non-experimentation (for the most part, it also happened on pay channels, which is not a big surprise). Here's the ideas from outside of TV that I think have had the greatest impact toward making TV not suck.


1.The Godfather, Parts 1-60
Apparently, we had to wait 30 years for someone to realize that you could take a long-form, gritty, deep crime story, ala The Godfather, and tell it on TV, where it might be less gritty but could be even deeper and longer. Crime sagas were just begging to be epic TV shows told over years of deep and engaging episodes with an ongoing storyline, but no one did a good job of it until lately (various police procedurals, from Hill Street Blues onward, tried a version of this, but it rarely went outside the police procedural genre). And now we're practically drowning in (recently concluded) crime shows with an epic, overarching storyline. This is the genre that started the TV revolution, with The Sopranos, and if it's hit a low ebb now, I've still got years of DVDs to get through.
This Brought Us: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Dexter

2.Christopher Guest on the Small Screen
In 1999, Larry David, the creator of the repetitive, bland, unfunny, and well-beloved show Seinfeld, did a one hour HBO mockumentary called Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was a TV special, shot with a single camera and treated as if it were a documentary about Larry's life. As a fake documentary, it represented a bold and different way of doing comedy. Well, the idea was bold and different for TV - Christopher Guest had been doing it on the big screen for decades, and Woody Allen invented it in 1969 with Take the Money and Run. Seriously, Woody Allen invented it 40 years ago and it came to the small screen like five years ago. Still, I'm glad it finally came, and it's responsible for the best of TV Comedy.
This Brought Us: Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office [UK], The Office [US], Arrested Development, 30 Rock

3.Did You Know Brian K Vaughan Writes for Lost?
The American people have told us at the box office, over and over again, that they have a taste for genre entertainment: science fiction, superheroes, neo-noir, etc. And in the comics world, those genres are being practiced with enormous success, particularly since they have a weapon movies don't have: the cliffhanger. Pair an exciting detective, science fiction, or superhero story with the cliffhanger, and then put it on TV, and you've got yourself a TV show only slightly less addictive than crack. It's no surprise that, when Lost started sucking, they hired comics writer and cliffhanger master Brian K Vaughan to right the ship (spoiler: he didn't).
This Brought Us: Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars


4. This car has a dent in it. And another dent here, and another dent here.
Quirkiness sells. It sells tickets to Wes Anderson movies, tickets to Napoleon Dynamite, advertising time on NPR's This American Life, books written by David Sedaris, and thousands upon thousands of "vintage" T-Shirts at thrift shops (awesome!) or Urban Outfitters (posers!). People love watching awkward and slightly weird characters have disjointed but ultimately charming adventures. And it didn't occur to anyone to put them on TV? I think Seinfeld might be as close as it gets, pre-revolution...yuck.
This Brought Us: My Name is Earl, Monk, Flight of the Conchords, Six Feet Under

As near as I can tell, those are the big four. But I know that I left out a lot of great shows from the revolution, and I probably left out a lot of influences from movies and other media that helped bring about the revolution. And since I'm not the most TV savvy guy in the world, I need your help: What shows and trends did I overlook? Post a comment and put me in my place.

36 comments:

Arilou said...

I've made the exact same argument, although you could also call this the Dark Ages of formula sitcoms and network television. There's great stuff out there but it's almost entirely on cable. I disagree with your categories a bit but I'm just here to mention another one:

Period Pieces - the giant budget epics with outlandish casts, costumes, and sets. They were way too expensive to make until HBO came along. I'd include Band of Brothers, Rome, Deadwood, The Tudors, and the Lonesome Dove series.

Graham said...

Arilou, I completely agree with you that this Golden Age of television has coincided with a dearth of decent "regular" programming. I personally don't like sitcoms, but people who do were very pleased with the 90s, and things like Friends and Seinfeld. Compare that today, where one of the best rated sitcoms is 2.5 men, and we're in bad shape.

You're absolutely right, period piece should have been a category. Good call. Deadwood, I think, works there as well as in longform crime drama.

darkcitydame4e said...

"I don't watch that much TV and I especially watch virtually no TV as it come on TV..."

Personally, I hope to become a "Netflix" darkcitydame4 myself!... Television?!? What is Television?...Oh! something that is "portal" for all of my films on dvds.

Graham said...

I just realized that I didn't know where to put Mad Men, so I left it out. Obviously, it's another period piece. Arilou strikes again.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ah, but wait: what do (most) of these shows have in common?

An antecedent in Twin Peaks. It didn't do pseudo-doc (though it did open up the limited style of most TV drama) but it brought violence, quirk, continuing storylines (outside of out-and-out soaps), surrealism...

I think The Sopranos would have taken a very different tenor without Twin Peaks, and that Lost would be almost inconceivable (I believe JJ Abrams has said as much).

And to toot my own horn: I'm doing an episode-by-episode breakdown on my blog.

(Another thing Twin Peaks brought to the small screen: sharp directorial style. That still hasn't entirely caught on, but you can see it in certain episodes of Sopranos, among other series).

Of course I'm even less of a TV guy than you, so I should probably stop pontificating now.

David Janove said...

This American Life is on Public Radio International, not NPR.

Graham said...

David, I guess I appreciate you reading so closely, although I'm surprised you took the time to note such a minor "error". I would much rather discuss TV than public radio syndicating organizations.

While I understand that NPR, APM, and PRI are separate organizations and technically competitors, I have always and will probably for some time continue to refer to them collectively as NPR. NPR is just what people call public radio, and rarely will you find anyone interested in the specifics of who produces, syndicates, and/or distributes the material that appears on their local public radio affiliate. I, personally, have no such interest.

Anonymous said...

Most of the shows mentioned are on cable- at least in the beginning, Cable was separate from TV.

I've given cable several chances and it's failed every time- if I pay for it I want it to be perfect, and it probably won't ever be. As far as TV goes, this is the Excrement Age of TV because the networks have been ruining their shows for 10 years with their logos constantly on the screen, and have since added even more on-screen garbage during the show as well as doubled the amount of commercial time from a few decades ago.

I can't wait til the analog stations go off the air so I don't have to see TV get even worse than it has- I won't be bothering with digital- the picture on it can be beautiful but who cares when they intentionally put their logos on it?

Anonymous said...

So, you don't like to watch tv. You had never seen any episode of The Sopranos. You think that Seinfeld was repetitive and lame. Men, i think you're stupid. Or maybe just retarded. I don't know how IMDB put this incredible peace of shit in their links today. Maybe you just pay, or maybe you're sleeping with someone in the staff.

Graham said...

Anonymous 1: I'm young enough to not remember a pre-cable time, and my family never had just Network, so I don't distinguish between FX and Fox as "TV". And although a lot of these shows are from HBO and others, they're still TV. This post was partially about me being frustrated that people still consider TV and the Cinema to be separate things, and trying to show how they've bled into each other. But we do agree on one thing: today's Network TV is the worst it has ever been.

Anonymous 2: I'm sorry you don't feel like the IMBD hit list is up to its usual standards. Men, I probably am a peace of shit. I'll tell the IMDB staffers I'm sleeping with not to do me any more favors.

MovieMan: I neglected to get to your comment earlier. I should start by saying that you're doing prodigious work over at your blog, so much so that I can't even keep up with it. An episode guide for Twin Peaks would be welcome.

Although Twin Peaks does represent an early version of TV excellence, I don't think it fits in that well with the Golden Age. Sure, it's got all the hallmarks (quirky characters, overarching crime storyline, the occasional cliff hanger, and the others you mention) but I don't feel that it had an impact on today's TV. It wasn't a progenitor of the revolution, but just ahead of its time.

Spede said...

You've left out House completely. Isn't Dr. House a little quirky? The hospital TV show has existed forever, but never has there been such a dominating leading role in a hospital show.

Graham said...

Yeah, I did leave House out, mostly because I didn't feel like it was that big of a spin on the old hospital formula. Although House has a huge role, and Dr. Cox doesn't, House's mannerisms and temperament are pretty much a complete ripoff of Dr. Cox from Scrubs. And while Scrubs isn't an ordinary sitcom, I'm not sure I consider it part of the revolution either.

DaHumorist said...

I find it hard to read an article and take it seriously when the writer actually calls Seinfeld "unfunny". The entirety of the article and the site who employs the writer of the article loses all credibility. I stopped reading immediately. Simply ignorant.

Steve said...

Twin Peaks doesn't have an influence on today's TV? Are you 12? (Your Seinfeld comment makes me think you might be) Have you ever watched Twin Peaks? It was the first show with feature-film level production values. This immediately places it as an influence of every show you mention in this blog. Not to mention Lost and The X-Files which would never even exist without it.

Graham said...

Steve, I don't understand how having feature film production values on TV makes it so influential. It had those production values in 1990 and 1991, and no shows on TV had comparable production values for a decade after that. Did those production values go into hibernation?

I'll repeat what I said (and you're welcome to disagree): Twin Peaks had all the hallmarks of the golden age, but if it helped bring the revolution about, it took an incredibly long time for it do so. I assume this is a ratings thing; since it ended up not being that successful, no one tried to duplicated it.

In fact, pretty much everything you and MovieMan have mentioned about Twin Peaks showed up in The Prisoner in the 60s. Does that mean The Prisoner is part of or directly responsible for the revolution?

Of course, Twin Peaks had an influence. I never said it didn't; you just said I said it didn't. But I don't think it was the direct inspiration for any of the trends of the Golden Age, nor was it part of the Golden Age. It did everything the Golden Age did, but before viewers and executives were ready for it.

Evan Derrick said...

Yup. The Prisoner had all of the stuff that Twin Peaks had, a good 2 1/2 decades earlier.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what you said, but when you call Seinfeld bland and unfunny, I can only raise an eyebrow.

MovieMan0283 said...

Re The Prisoner someone was just telling me that the other day. I haven't seen it but I'll have to check it out now.

Re Twin Peaks' influence, don't take my word for it - I think a lot of these show's creators have credited its influence themselves. Certainly Abrams (he'd be remiss not to, as Lost basically amounts to "Let's do the Twin Peaks thing but not upset our audience in the process" - which has been a mixed bag for them but seems to be working out right now). But also David Chase repeatedly. Keep in mind a lot of the creators of today's series were young turks then (well, sort of - Chase was already in his mid/late 40s) and took a lot of inspiration from it.

I mean really, those crazy dream sequences in the middle of a Mafia show - one almost expected the litte man in red to come out dancing on the Jersey docks.

MovieMan0283 said...

Oh, and Graham, how'd you get on the imdb hit list? Looks like it may have been a mixed blessing but still...

MovieMan0283 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MovieMan0283 said...

Last comment to clog up the thread (for the time being) but your comment about the delay in Twin Peaks' influence reminded me of a quote about The Velvet Underground & Nico. Not many people bought that album, it was said, but every single person who did formed a band.

Rachel said...

Where does it say that you have to enjoy Seinfeld to give your opinion regarding television? I guess I didn't get that memo. Last time I checked it's a matter of taste, meaning not everyone has to love it. And I never much cared for Seinfeld either.

Graham said...

Rachel, thanks for sounding like a reasonable person on the Seinfeld issue. I'm certainly not going to back down on the issue now, but I never would have stuck that line in if I'd known how much it would upset people. I do consider the fact that I love Curb Your Enthusiasm but dislike Seinfeld to be the key to this whole thing: the exact same idea, done in a pre-TV revolution manner, strikes me as bland and repetitive, but when it's done on HBO with edgier talent, I love it.

Movieman, You threw a lot at me, and I'll try to get to it. But for now: grading papers.

Sam said...

" I think Seinfeld might be as close as it gets, pre-revolution...yuck."
I'm sorry, but that comment alone proves that you are not a TV saavy guy......

A Braunsdorf said...

One word "Wiseguy". Completely responsible for bringing long arcing stories to primetime dramas. They've not done a good job of bringing it to DVD, but it's watchable that way. Watch the first season and tell me it ain't so.

Anonymous said...

You prefer "My Name Is Earle" to "Seinfeld", which you find bland and unfunny. So much for your credibility as a commentator/critic of television.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this guy has every right to have opinions, even though he doesn't like Seinfeld. However, the fact that he doesn't like Seinfeld renders the intelligence of his opinions questionable.

Ted said...

As for "The Godfather, Parts 1-60" what about The Shield which is starting its final season tonight?

Ted said...

Get off the Seinfeld comment. The guy is allowed not to like the show and still have a valid argument on TV.

JD said...

TV always been pretty good in the UK, is i hadn't noticed it sucked though well only get americas best stuff, like the Xfiles The Simpsons and West Wing

Arilou said...

Alright, I'll weigh in again since this has held my interest in spite of the Seinfeld flaming. There seem to be two separate discussions happening in the post and comments - Cause and Effects. To me, the cause is plain and obvious: television DVD sales. Previously a show had to be syndication friendly (almost entirely sitcoms) or they had to rely on initial advertising sales (or subscription sales on HBO.) Commercial money is good, but Lionsgate and AMC could never make Mad Men without expecting backend DVD revenue. Once that money entered the stadium, it's a whole new ballgame. Twin Peaks stands on its own with today's shows in quality but it wasn't going to start any revolution - it actually got pretty low ratings.

Certainly you can see all this money in the higher production values with better talent. But I think the biggest effect of this new age is that, in the battle of Serials vs. Procedurals, serials finally have a fighting chance. Before, serialization would have doomed a show's syndication chances; now serialization makes for better DVD watching.

I don't really think television categories have changed much in the last bunch of years. I don't think Crime Drama is anything new or special today. Crime dramas have always been extremely popular, from The Prisoner to Perry Mason to Hill Street Blues to CHiPs. The only thing new today is you're seeing the effect of gobs of money being thrown into television and making The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, and Damages. Same shows in a new era. Quirkiness had The Odd Couple. Genre entertainment had Star Trek and Murder, She Wrote.

But if you're looking for truly modern categories I can accept your Office/Curb Your Enthusiasm category. I can't think of an equivalent from the past. And I'll maintain that Period Pieces are only viable in the modern DVD-driven market. I'm drawing a blank on anything else right now.

Anonymous said...

So you call Seinfeld "unfunny" and you said you don't remember a time before pay-cable, so far you're credibility is not so good. There are good shows out there now with overarching storylines and grittiness, but the problem I have with them is that most of them have the same problems: the stories get so complicated after awhile that you just quit caring what happens(Prison Break, Lost) and they rely too much on killing characters you begin to care about every few episodes(Lost is the biggest culprit). It works for awhile, but after the first seasons these things wear thin.

MovieMan0283 said...

Arilou, I think we're discussing a few different things here. We may both be correct. Certainly, DVD sales (and more importantly, rentals) have created a desire for ongoing stories. But I'm not sure this is the tail wagging the dog. It makes sense from the business side of things, but where did the specific storylines and approaches of these new, more intricate series come from?

I maintain that it came, in large part, from the influence of "Twin Peaks." People like Chase and Abrams were impressed by the show - low ratings or not (and initially its ratings were pretty good) - and when more ambitious, edgy material finally became viable, whether because HBO was looking for shows or TV DVDs were starting to sell, they moved in for the kill.

Actually, your argument provides a pretty good answer for Graham's questions about the gap between Twin Peaks and the shows it supposedly influenced. People were impressed by what David Lynch & Mark Frost, but they couldn't develop it until the suits were ready. Eventually they were, it just took a while.

Anonymous said...

ROBOT CHICKEN
and

the Chappelle show

stuff too rude to be said in public ( in the past)
now said on TV

Anonymous said...

A show that undoubtedly had 'Movie' production values in the mid-90s was Murder One.

It also had a single over-arching narrative for season one, which was then dropped to 3 main stories in season 2. I reckon it was a good example of the kind of shows this blog is talking about and it was on 5 years before the ones you mention.

Evan Derrick said...

You have angered The Internets with your disrespect for Seinfeld, Graham. My favorite comment (apart from the guy who accused you of sleeping with IMDB's staff): "I find it hard to read an article and take it seriously when the writer actually calls Seinfeld "unfunny". The entirety of the article and the site who employs the writer of the article loses all credibility. I stopped reading immediately. Simply ignorant."

My favorite part is "site who employs the writer." Dude is giving you WAY too much credit, G. :)