Last night’s Emmys were terrible. The lavish dance numbers, the painfully lame jokes, the creepy gay double entendre from Michael Douglas, when he accepted an Emmy for his even creepier portrayal of Liberace, made for a ploddingly unentertaining evening. And Jeff Daniels’s win for best actor in a drama series for his work in HBO’s faux-highbrow Newsroom was so ridiculous only an MSNBC roundtable could applaud it.
But they got at least one thing right: AMC’s Breaking Bad won best dramatic series on television. If you haven’t seen the show, AMC will run the entire series this week in a marathon leading up to the series finale. You should watch or record it. It not only represents something new in the history of television, it represents a categorical improvement in the very nature of television.
Nostalgia plagues us all, but conservatives are particularly susceptible to it, for obvious reasons. When it comes to popular culture in particular, we tend to romanticize the past. The clichés spring to mind easily: The music these kids listen to today! You can’t even understand the words! Clark Gable, now there was a movie star! And then, of course, there are myriad allusions to “the golden age of television.”
This last has always struck me as something of a misnomer. Most people tend to think that “Golden Age” means simply “the best.” But, according to the Greeks, from whom we get the term, the Golden Age didn’t mean, necessarily, “the best.” It was, rather, the first age of man, a past age of innocence in which man lived in peace and prosperity. As the ages of man passed — the silver, the bronze, the heroic, and finally the decadent iron — things in general were not as good as they once were; but that doesn’t mean the poetry got worse. Think of it this way: Adam and Eve clearly had a good thing going before the Fall, but that didn’t mean TV was better before they bit the apple.
In other words, what made the golden age of television golden wasn’t the caliber of the programming, but the innocence of the time. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some fantastic stuff on the tube — there most certainly was — but the medium was also in its infancy, and it showed. First and foremost, technologically: The old rabbit-eared mono-speaker black-and-white jobs were really quite sad. And as for content, early network producers borrowed first from radio — The Goldbergs, Dragnet, etc. — and then extensively from the theater, which they saw as TV’s closest analogue. Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90, and other programs brought everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Peter Pan and 12 Angry Men to a mass audience.
As great as all that was, it was nonetheless derivative. And, as TV matured, it also arguably got worse: The sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s were on the whole not as good as those that would come in the 1980s and 1990s. The dramas of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies were an even more mixed bag. (Fans of BonanzaCharlie’s Angels may send their angry letters to the New York office of National Review.)
In the 1990s, things began to change. Shows like David Milch’s NYPD Blue (whose nudity, unprecedented on broadcast television, helped inspire a Comstockish conservative reaction) and Homicide: Life on the Street were among the first clues that television was realizing its potential. The key was giving up on the idea that a story must be resolved at the end of each episode. Virtually every installment of Dragnet ended with the criminal in custody. Little House on the Prairie had always left the viewer with a resolution and a happy lesson. In the rare cases in which an episode ended with a “to be continued” or an end-of-season cliffhanger, you knew the next episode would answer all your questions. The one great exception was the soap opera, which never had any pretensions to be better than what it was.
In NYPD Blue and the shows that followed, both the story arc and the character arc stretched over whole seasons — and series. It’s actually surprising that this development was so long in coming. It’s hard to think of an artistic medium — particularly one with so many economic incentives behind it — that has taken as long to become truly self-confident. The delay can probably be explained by the fact that TV is in many ways not a new art form but a new combination of several old ones — photography, film, radio, the novel, the stage, etc. It took decades for writers to recognize fully that the whole could be so much greater than the sum of its parts.
That started to happen when pay-cable channels realized that unique programming was the best way to attract loyal viewers in an era when their monopoly on unedited Hollywood fare was crumbling, owing to the Internet. Just consider HBO’s Game of Thrones, admittedly an adaptation of a series of novels, but riveting, addictive, and hugely profitable in ways unique to television. In short order, TV has become, in the words of author Brett Martin, “the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century.” (This fact is causing a monumental panic in Hollywood as we speak. As John Podhoretz recently wrote in The Weekly Standard, Hollywood’s distress isn’t simply about a studio model breaking down, it’s “that movies have lost their sexiness, their power, their position at the red-hot center of popular culture. Television is better now, and it kills them that television is better. And it should.”)