The so-called Golden Age of Television—the first, second, or third such epoch, depending on how invested in the history of TV you are—is dead. Long live the Silver Age of Television, where quantity is favoured over quality, and where there is no time to waste on reflection, criticism, or enjoyment. Never find yourself wanting more; the next show is starting in 15 seconds.
This recent golden age began in 1999 (the first came in the late 1940s with the advent of live TV, and some consider the ’80s a second) with two influential shows that gave more license and freedom to showrunners, focusing on smart storytelling, clever narrative structures, and fascinating characters. Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and David Chase’s The Sopranos were massive hits with both critics and viewers. From there, shows realized they could focus on a group of idealistic characters if they were well-written, or those characters that were deeply flawed anti-heroes whose descent would be complex and entertaining.
We had shows like Friday Night Lights and Lost, which were boons for network TV, while Mad Men, The Wire, and Breaking Bad were forces on cable. Shows like Weeds and Nurse Jackie put women in lead roles, while The Walking Dead and Community featured diverse ensemble casts. Genre didn’t matter. For a good ten to fifteen years, there were some of the best shows ever made; some struggled towards their final seasons, while others knew exactly the story they wanted to tell. Things were new, bold, experimental, weird, and ultimately satisfying.
Now we have everything we want—and much, much more than we ever needed. Fifteen years ago, AMC, FX, and other cable networks realized they were better served creating their own content rather than running programs in syndication. They didn’t want to create just one show; they wanted to create many and have a brand that was loosely defined as adult prestige television. This is where things could be violent, dark, sexy, cynical, and absurd, and still be of high quality.
Netflix was the first streaming service to catch on. And while House of Cards isn’t palatable in retrospect, it was a huge hit when it started. So was Orange Is the New Black. It took a while for other streaming services to come online, but they all soon followed suit. Today, in addition to the basic networks and cable channels, we’ve Hulu, YouTube, Apple TV, and Disney + making their own content. There’s also Amazon Prime, Yahoo!, DC Universe, CBS All Access, Shudder, Crackle, and Pop—okay, that last one was made up, but that might not be the case in a few years.
The Golden Age of TV is also referred to as Peak TV, but that suggests we’ve hit the top. Instead, we can’t even see the summit from where we are. We’re at a point where there is simply too much TV, and the inevitable result is that most of it is just…fine. Nothing is “can’t miss”; it’s now, “let’s try this out.” Fifteen years ago, when The Wire and The Office were on the air (surely among the best dramas and comedies ever made), 182 scripted shows aired on TV. In 2012, it was 288. And in 2017, the number reached 486, breaking the previous record of 455 set the year prior. Indeed, the first six months of 2019 saw 322 original scripted shows air. And this doesn’t count Temptation Island or The Bachelorette, mind you.
It’s staggering. The number of episodes and length of each vary, but even so, imagine watching one season of one show across one week, and doing that every week during the year. You’ve watched a single season of 52 shows, and there are still hundreds left. Even if you don’t care for half of what’s available, you’ve still over 100 shows left to check out. And that’s just this year alone; never mind if you’re finally watching Justified or The Newsroom or re-watching Modern Family or trying to really get into The Americans this time.
While there are still quality shows to enjoy, our television landscape isn’t about companies focusing on making a handful of great shows; it’s about making as many as possible so that viewers don’t need to watch anything else on another service. They want to triumph mediocrity, and they are. We’ve now more “pretty good” shows than ever, and because there are so many options, there is absolutely something specific for everyone. A handful of shows, like The Watchmen or Fleabag, are transcendent, but you still see networks urging their brilliant creators to keep telling the story instead of letting it be, perfect as it was conceived, so that people stay tuned in.
Which is why we’re also in the age of reboots and reunions, often with the original cast or some sort of passing of the baton to a new, younger crew. The return of Full House, Arrested Development, Will & Grace, The Connors (née Roseanne), Prison Break, and The X-Files has us embracing nostalgia, though these shows will never be as good now as they once were. We have content, and we have a lot of it.
Throughout history, silver ages followed golden ones. In these periods, art and culture were still eventful and regarded, but just not like they were. Golden was great, silver was pretty good. And that’s what we have now with TV: things are pretty, pretty good. Which reminds me, Curb Your Enthusiasm is back again.
This stands to be the way things will be for the next five or ten years, and it likely won’t be until we’re nearly done with this Silver Age that it will be properly and commonly identified as such. History tends to work like that. So—what follows after? Creatives, critics, and common consumers will have to reconcile with the changing media landscape, which includes the dominance of tentpole movies, the rise of streaming services, the power of niche TV, and the struggles of indie film. More mediocrity will appear in the meantime, perhaps leading to a brief Bronze Age when quality programming is in scarce supply. But once more power returns to the filmmakers, showrunners, and writers, there will be a reckoning again, with new ideas and innovations, so that we can revisit once more a Golden Age of TV.