THE RISE & FALL OF TV’S GOLDEN AGE: 1999 – 2015

Warning:  There’s nothing new about the media I’m about to feature.  However, it’s all highly intelligent.

After finally catching up with The Wire, I’m starting to believe that The Golden Age of TV is over.  Incidentally, I now understand why many consider it the greatest show of all-time .

Picasso_three_musiciansA long time ago on a continent far, far away…

…Impressionism, Cubism and a few other innovative movements sprang out of the Parisian art scene.  Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso are just a few of the talented artists behind The Golden Age of Art (1870 -1930).  Because of this revolution in thinking and practice, art would never be the same.

100 years later…a different kind of golden age was upon us.  Although shorter in length and far removed from the canvas, the world would become intimate with the inner and outer lives of Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Walter White and a few other anti-heroes from 1999 to 2015.  How and what we watch on TV would never be the same.

With Netflix, Amazon and a dozen other production houses churning out high quality shows year after year, I realize I’m in the minority here.  However, after watching The Wire methodically explore the systemic rot of a handful of Baltimore’s civic institutions, I wonder if today’s audience would have the patience to sit through five seasons of this kind of intelligent “slow burn” again.  The kind of nail-biting, slow-burning storytelling built around the inner and outer struggles of its protaganists.  The same kind employed by Leo Tolstoy in his epic novels in late 19th-century Russia.

In arguably the greatest novel of all-time, Anna Karenina doesn’t show upAnna Karenina until halfway through the book.  And it’s a big one.  Do you think viewers would have minded if Walter White hadn’t showed up until season 3 of Breaking Bad?

Incidentally, when describing my experience of watching all five seasons of Six Feet Under, the only thing I could compare it to was reading a great Russian novel And I loved Tolstoy’s Karenina and War and Peace, despite and perhaps because of the meticulous attention to detail.  Don’t know if I’d do it again, though.

 

TIM’S TOP 5

Starting with the show that kicked it all off in 1999, here are my top 5 series of all-time (in the order I watched them):

  1. The Sopranos 1999-2007
  • What’s it about?

An emotionally stunted, highly explosive man-child at the top of an illicit empire tries to live a quiet suburban life.

  • What compelled me to keep watching it?

The messy but facsinating relational dynamics between Tony and his mother, his sister, his wife, and most of all his therapist.

Watch him squirm in a therapy session:

 

  1. Six Feet Under 2001 – 2005
  • What’s it about?

A traumatized family tries to cope with the unexpected death of its patriarch while surrounded by death (mortuary is family business and family home).

  • What compelled me to keep watching?

The messy, fascinating relational dynamics between three very different siblings connected by a crazy-making mother (my favorite of the bunch).

Watch the Fisher brothers clash over the family business:

 

  1. Mad Men 2007-2015
  • What’s it about?

Wildly talented ad man steals dead man’s identity fooling everyone but himself.

  • What compelled me to keep watching it?

The messy, fascinating relationship between larger-than-life Don Draper and his former everyman self, Dick Witman.

Watch Don sit down to dinner with wife and kids after a hard day’s work:

 

  1. Breaking Bad 2008 – 2013:
  • What’s it about?

Ostensibly mild-mannered high school teacher embraces his dark side with a last attempt to realize his true, unrealized potential.

  • What compelled me to keep watching it?

The messy, fascinating relational dynamics resulting from Walter White’s blind, destructive pursuit to leave a legacy behind.

Watch Walt tell wife Skyler who she really needs to fear:

 

5. The Wire: 2002 – 2008

  • What’s it about?

A gritty, realistic portrait of an American city’s police, educational, political and print media institutions and the implications for the society for which the city serves.

  • What compelled me to keep watching it?

The relational dynamics between a handful of flawed individuals trying, succeeding and failing to do the right thing in the highly flawed systems in which they work.

Watch police detective Jimmy McNultly express his feelings without regard to the consequences of his words:

 

THE TIE THAT BINDS

On reviewing my top 5, it’s probably no mystery what binds these series together.  You guessed it –  the family and relational dynamics.

Don’t get my wrong, I like zombies and vampires as much as the next guy.  However, they’re not real.  I can’t relate to them.  I can relate to two brothers arguing.  I know what it’s like to squirm in a therapy session.  I don’t understand the advertising industry, but I know what it’s like to play a role at work.  I’ve never cooked crystal meth, but I know what wasted potential feels like.  Their external worlds are different from mine, but their internal ones are all too familiar.  And they fascinate me.

“Golden ages contain the seeds of their own demise”, points out Ian Leslie in “Watch it while it lasts: our golden age of television.  Once the Paris art scene grew more settled, a handful of big galleries began to exert disproportionate market power.  Furthermore,  “artists were snapped up by dealers when they were young and encouraged to develop distinctive, consistent styles.  Once the dealers and the artists figured out reliable ways to make money, the art became more predictable and less interesting.”

I don’t know if has already happened in the TV industry, but market saturation and a shift from creativity to commerce are inevitable consequences of any commercially succcessul movement.  Consider that in 2016 there were 455 original series in TV, up from 182 in 2002.

I don’t know if us TV fans will ever be able to agree on a definitive golden age.  Some would argue it happened 50 years before Tony took his first therapy session.  I wasn’t around for I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners so I’m not the definite voice on this argument.  What I can definitively say, however, is that 1999 – 2015 was my Golden Age of TV.

When you look at your top 5, what patterns do you recognize?  What’s the link between them?

 

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10 thoughts on “THE RISE & FALL OF TV’S GOLDEN AGE: 1999 – 2015

  1. Hey Tim, thanks for sharing this with me. Yeah, I guess the super golden days of television might be already over, but there are still some really good shows going on. And it’s getting more and more target-group-oriented, there are shows for black hipsters (She’s gotta have it on Netflix), German nostagics (Babylon Berlin on Sky) or the transgender community (Transparent on Amazon).

    By the way: Even Hollywood had its Golden Age (in the Thirties)… 🙂

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  2. Tim – great stuff as always. Insight is intelligent indeed. Not many could seamlessly and effectively integrate and compare Tolstoy and TV shows, and here it is! Well done. Reading this does make me realize that I watch very little TV. I have not fully watched any of your top five! I sort of watched breaking bad, but found that i couldn’t handle the heat of the slow burn you mention so ended up watching a few episodes a season then reading plot summaries to keep up. Lame, I know. I have commitment issues to multiple seasons of shows these days…

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  3. Thanks, Tony. Series are like books – you just have to find the right one for the necessary motivation…But I agree, they can be a huge commitment which is why I hesitate before committing…therefore, I’ve seen lots of pilots…what are a few of your all-time fav shows, BTW?

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    • Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Punky Brewster to name a few….

      Really hard to name a few favorites. During your Golden Age, especially early-mid 2000s I was watching virtually no TV except Thomas the Train with gradual progressions into Sponge Bob with the boys. The first actual series I probably began to watch which I thought I would like was Lost. But that quickly jumped the shark and became terrible. Speaking of Happy Days…who doesn’t love that? Anyway, I think probably the only show I have ever thought enough of to watch over again was Arrested Development. Did like the Office (US version, haven’t seen the UK version). I did think Breaking Bad was exceptionally well done but I think I need at least ONE character I can cheer for in a show! Really, I should have Rae chime in here…she has watched all of your series and a million more to boot! She would be much more qualified to have this dialogue!

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      • Arrested Development is an absolute classic – at least the original 3 series, I never saw the new version, did you? Check out the UK Office for sure. Also, Parks & Recreation is a classic…it seems the 20-22 minute format is an easier commitment for you:)

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  4. Yeah, figured as much. That’s what happens when you try and recreate magic…rarely happens twice. Like if you and I tried to recreate your bachelor party at Wittenstein’s in Salem…

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