The Golden Age of TV

March 11, 2015
1 Comment

Going around the room, the answers were probably somewhat predictable, but nowhere near uniform. What are you watching right now? I asked this question to the English profs sitting around the pod and the answers I got were birdshot: The Good Wife, The Americans, The First 48, Downton Abbey, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, The A-Team (that one’s mine—the kids love it; I’m not sure what that says about anything).

Friends of mine not from the academic world were lately promoting to me shows they have watched: Longmire, Hell on Wheels, Parks and Rec, The Office. Interestingly, one of these shows, Hell on Wheels, overlapped with a quick student survey I took about TV shows students are watching: New Girl, Californication, Game of Thrones, Portlandia, Peaky Blinders, Hell on Wheels. Sample size for this survey? One student. In other venues, too, I’ve come across shows such as Rectify, Six Feet Under,Luther. The list goes on and on.

And that’s the point. The TV libraries of all of us seem to be suddenly bursting at the seams. “We’re living in the golden age of TV,” said a novelist on a writers panel at my MFA program last year. The panel was considering the question, How do writers avoid the time-suck of social media and internet streaming in order to write? This writer’s answer: when it comes to TV, why would you want to? TV, streamed or unstreamed, has never been finer.

It’s not that there’s not controversy around TV. Recently, Christianity Today noted the divide over the History Channel’s drama Vikings. Is it enough history? Does it portray Christianity and paganism accurately—and fairly? My sister describes Game of Thrones, a show she’s dedicated to, as “soul-killing,” and the aforementioned student, when he considered the show, interpreted “soul-killing” to mean “bleak—evil wins. A lot.” In the department, we debate the effect on the culture of binge-watching as opposed to fabric-of-your-week-watching. Recent sitcoms like Blackish and Fresh off the Boat, meanwhile, have started conversations about wider cultural representation on television.

But controversy means conversation, and the same kind of conversation does not seem to be taking place around film, a fact signaled by the recent Oscars, which Neal Patrick Harris dubbed a celebration of Hollywood’s “best and whitest.” Even the patterns of the Academy Awards this year seemed to nod to the revolution in TV. Arguably, two of the nominees for best picture—Boyhood and Birdman—took their cues from TV via negativa. “What can film do in three hours that TV can’t do?” these films ask. Their answers: a twelve-year life span and one long take. (Given, Boyhood got its inspiration before this new age of TV, so it can hardly be said to “take its cues” from TV, but in critical hindsight those sorts of accidents never matter).

Other major themes to this year’s Oscars were characters on the rise or in demise, hardly new themes on either account—except when you compare them to the long form development of TV characters. Both best actor and best actress went to roles that portrayed characters in physical demise, something that a viewer probably wouldn’t care to watch take place over several years of a show. The way film does character, as one of my colleagues puts it, is “film’s short story to TV’s novel.” It’s interesting—even quaint—to watch a meteoric character rise or demise in two short hours, now that we’ve come to expect years and years of Don Draper.

What does all this change and even power shift mean? Certainly, we live at the intersection of several important events: the rise of the TV serial, the self-assertion of cable networks, the advent of streaming and binge-watching. One can imagine how scholars will trace—and are tracing—this through specific shows—Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad—as well as through technology and market turns.

But the flowering of TV also calls for more conversations—about what we watch but more importantly, perhaps, about how we watch and why we watch. About what kind of stories we gravitate toward and what those stories say about us and how those stories shape us.

Last week at Dordt we screened a local film. It’s a film that Hollywood can’t do because it’s local—it gets into the place like a film crew from somewhere else on a tight time schedule and budget can’t get into a place. It’s a good film, one that feels uncontrolled by moneyed interests, though someone somewhere is no doubt holding a bag. It feels like the kind of film that says Hollywood might be changing, that if enough people can make local films and find audiences for those films, then the Hollywood pie might be carved up in more and more democratic—or, more realistically, representative republic—pieces. This is also what film can do—tell local stories in local places—and it might be the counterpart in film of the bouquet effect that has happened in TV: more stories told better reaching wider and more diverse audiences.

Perhaps the Golden Age of TV, if that’s indeed what we are in, will also help change film for the better, will enrich our lives by telling more complex and more complete stories about a diverse humanity and diverse world. If so, then we as Christians need to join this conversation, or, to fit the metaphor, we need to smell and appreciate the diverse scents of the bouquet.

Readers of iAt: How about you? What are you watching? How are you watching? And why?

About the Author
  • Howard Schaap came to the study of literature and writing because he found it intensifies life. Putting words with experiences makes sense of those experiences, heightens them. Reading stories and poems--especially those recounting experiences different from your own--can crack open the dry, old shell of your life and allow you to grow into something new. Thus, his areas of interest include creative nonfiction (the focus of my MFA study), poetry writing, and ethnic American literature. He also has a passion for place, especially putting new words with old places in an effort to revitalize and renew our understanding of and care for those places.

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  1. I think you’re right that it’s the golden age. What are you watching, Howard, other than A-Team?

    We primarily watch Netflix or Amazon Prime, for maybe 1-4 hours total per week, and we generally stop watching TV altogether once the weather gets warmer and our lives get too busy with kids’ track meets, soccer games, gardening, and other summer activities. But we start watching when it gets cool again and dark earlier around November, and usually go through sometime in April.

    Here are some of the things we’ve made our way through in recent years (usually one show at a time, 2-5 nights a week, depending on busyness, kids’ bedtimes, etc.). Usually it’s something we decide on and do together.

    Good Wife (caught up to the most recent episode; usually watch online since we rarely can get to it during the time in which it is broadcasted)
    The Borgias (BBC version on Netflix that got canceled after Season 3, which we are almost to the end of)
    House of Cards (haven’t tackled the third season yet. We started watching this together, then Dan got ahead of me when I went away for a few days, so we finished watching it separately, him late at night and me during winter treadmill runs)
    Luther (stopped after a few episodes, might get back to it, a little more violent than expected)
    Sons of Anarchy (fascinating story but almost one scene per episode that I can’t watch due to gruesomeness; still stalled out in Season 5 but will get back to it probably at some point)
    Doc Martin (on Amazon Prime, only a couple episodes and will likely get back to it at some point)
    Mad Men (watching as it comes out on Amazon Prime since we don’t have cable)
    Portlandia (made it all the way through; this was the easiest because they’re nice short 22-minute increments)
    We tried Revenge for a while but it got a little too nuts.
    I’ve been watching Scandal on the treadmill when I run indoors, but soon that will go away as I start running outside more again.
    We’ve also watched BSG, Firefly, The Wire and a few others in the last decade or so. So far, no Game of Thrones.

    Key to our watching is that we be able to work it into our schedule (i.e. we are not tied to some regular programming time), and that it be an engaging story line that we want to keep coming back to on cold winter nights after the kids (or most of them) are in bed. We haven’t tackled Breaking Bad yet and not sure if we will. There are a few others that have been recommended, too, that we haven’t checked out. It’s nice that there seems to be enough good material that we’re unlikely to run out for a long time at our current levels of TV consumption. 🙂