“Put your hands on the wheel/Let the golden age begin” — Beck
Last week, Parks & Recreation concluded one of the truly great seasons in sitcom history. A week earlier, Community did the same. Breaking Bad’s fourth season begins this summer, and Mad Men’s fifth season begins early in 2012. There can be no doubt: we are living in the greatest time in history to be a television viewer. As the official 2010-2011 television season concludes tonight, let’s take a moment and appreciate what we’ve got.
We hear the 1950s called the Golden Age of Television, but that’s little more than rank nostalgia.
And in the past couple weeks, we’ve been subjected to lengthy discourses about how terrible the network upfronts have been, and how little promise next year’s batch of new shows possess.
Every year, in the spring and then again in the fall when the television season proper begins, culture-watchers bemoan the crap on network TV, they weep over the lack of creativity, and they rage at another onslaught of police procedurals, medical dramas and Friends rip-offs. But they don’t mention that this is the way it has always been.
Network TV has always been, by and large, awful. Even in the best of years for ABC, CBS, NBC & Fox, the best a viewer could hope for was a handful of watchable shows and a couple great ones. Most years, that’s asking for too much.
There are a smattering of good shows in each of those seasons, but if we can leave nostalgia aside and admit to ourselves that shit like Silver Spoons is not quality television, the schedules each look overwhelmingly abominable.
But now we can bask in the glory of wonderful cable television, which has finally fulfilled its potential after more than 30 years. HBO has led the way of course, but networks like Showtime, FX, AMC and even Starz have developed unique, creative programming for a variety of refined tastes.
The two best dramas in TV history, The Wire and The Sopranos, are beginning to fall out of sight in the rearview mirror, and if there’s no replacing them quality for quality, there are certainly a high enough number of good shows on right now to make up for it. The sheer number of cable networks means that cable as an entity now produces a steady stream of shows to supplement the few worthwhile network series.
Other than the quarter of fantastic shows mentioned in the intro, we’ve also got: Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Louie, Justified, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, Archer, Modern Family, 30 Rock, Treme, and a huge number of shows that might not be amazing but still appeal to certain audiences (Fringe, Walking Dead, The Killing, Sons of Anarchy). Also, since the beginning of 2010, we’ve seen the departures of Lost, Friday Night Lights, Party Down and Terriers. All these programs offer a consistent level of excellence that, when considered en masse, is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
In addition to series, we’ve got clip shows like The Soup and The Daily Show, trashy reality/food/travel shows if that suits your fancy, Ken Burns still cranking out documentaries, 30 for 30, miniseries like The Pacific — basically a week’s worth of enjoyable programming for any palate. And it shows no signs of letting up anytime soon, despite how awful next year’s new network series may seem.
So weep not for the golden age of television, children. We’re living in it. And we should appreciate it while it lasts.