Are we currently living in the golden age of television? Never before have we had so many incredible options created by such a high-caliber roster of talent both onscreen and behind the camera. There have always been great shows here and there, but never such a dense schedule of consistently great TV for every month of the year – including the once overlooked summer season. As the film industry and big studios find themselves in-flux, this constantly shifting media landscape has provided an opening for big talent to flock in droves to the more original, long-form storytelling provided by television.
This current golden age of television all began, really, as early as 1999, with HBO changing everything we knew about cinematic, serialized television with The Sopranos. It continued on HBO with shows like The Wire, Six Feet Under and Deadwood, and then on AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Genre TV also took a major leap in this era, moving from primarily procedural television to more character-driven shows like Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
Just a few weeks ago, a new batch of Emmy nominations provided further proof that the TV landscape continues on in its golden age. It’s important to remember, of course, that Emmy nominations can in no way be seen as the omniscient, absolute list of all things great on the small screen. Awards shows rarely get it 100% right, and everyone has their own favorites. In fact, with a wide-ranging crop of programming that may be more vast and varied than any other medium, television viewing is as individualized as it gets. There truly is something for everyone.
Save for a few major snubs, this year’s Emmy nominations are generally spot-on, and quite a good representation of why the golden age persists. HBO’s Westworld tied with Saturday Night Live, off of a solid season of politically rich satire, for the most nominations – 22 each. Netflix’s Stranger Things came in third in the nomination pool, with 18 in all. The success and critical acclaim of genre-rich shows like the sci-fi heavy Westworld and the ’80s-homage-filled Stranger Things hints that television may well be the new haven for high concept storytelling.
With box-office revenues in decline and this summer’s box-office marred by a number of under-performing, high-cost flops and bloated sequels, the film industry is looking for answers. Why aren’t people going out to their local theaters to see more films? My hope is that the answer to this question is less about the cost of a night out at the movies and more about an audience growing tired of the same old thing. Sequels, franchises and superhero movies can work, but when big studios stopped prioritizing original stories and began micromanaging storytellers into complacency, those writers, directors and actors began to flee to TV and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. This new media horizon has provided creative autonomy where Hollywood has not.
This has been a major cause of TV’s thriving golden age, but for me, as a cinephile at heart, it’s kind of a bummer. Don’t get me wrong. I love TV. There’s nothing like committing to and obsessing over a new show that twists you with anticipation, thrills and laughs. I just can’t help but to fear where this is taking the film industry.
Before predicting what’s to come, let’s look at what led TV to its current dominance and survey the state of television in 2017. The landscape has changed, and been changing since TV first came into our homes in the ’50s. Network television has ebbed and flowed as cable grew and channels multiplied to provide viewing options curated to more specific tastes. The introduction of the DVR changed our viewing habits and opened the door for a new, dominant source of entertainment; streaming. Today, we have incredible shows for every taste. Among them are scores of awful shows and more terrible TV options than ever before. But the inverse to that fact is that there are equal numbers of great shows. So many in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to be aware of, let alone watching everything great on television in 2017.
Among this year’s best shows are Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a bleak dystopian drama that, for my money, has been the best series of 2017 thus far. Stranger Things and Westworld are also great, as was HBO’s The Leftovers, which, in its third and final season, proved itself to be one of the boldest, well-acted shows of the past decade. There is the superhero greatness of FX’s Legion, rivaling even the biggest hero’s on the big-screen. There is hilarious, diverse swaths of comedy, from FX’s thoughtful Atlanta to Cartoon Network’s brilliant Rick and Morty and HBO’s geek-centric Silicon Valley. Twin Peaks, one of the most original shows in television history (and a precursor to this golden age), is back and just as incredible as ever. There is Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards, Black Mirror, Veep, Preacher, The Americans, Narcos…so much…too much. The golden age persists.
So where does it go from here? The short answer is straight. I don’t see this trend of abundantly great TV ending anytime soon. Just look at the new shows still to come in 2017. David Fincher is bringing the serial killer drama of Mindhunter to Netflix while Spike Lee is turning to the streaming service for his She’s Gotta Have It series. This Fall will also see James Franco come to HBO for The Deuce, the Seth Rogen produced Future Man on Hulu and the TV return of Star Trek with Discovery. As the lineup of original programming grows, so do the viewing options, which increasingly include new and convenient ways for audiences to curate and watch their favorite shows on their own schedules. I predict that movie theater revenues will continue to decline, and, as a result, more auteurs will flee to the small screen and streaming services to get their shows and films produced. Eventually though, I’m hopeful movies will regain their footing and this great, and long-lasting era of television may yet level off to make way for the next, much welcomed and long-awaited golden age of cinema.