“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
Tony Soprano said these words in 1999, midway through the pilot of The Sopranos. He was right about his place in the history of the Mafia, but not in the history of TV. The Sopranos proved to be the beginning of what came to be known as a “Golden Age” of television, a twin flowering of creativity and technology that elevated a formerly disrespected medium1 into a national cultural obsession.
As someone who became a full-time TV critic just two years ago, I think of Tony’s words often. In 2011 The Sopranos had been off the air for four years, The Wire for three. Yet Breaking Bad and Mad Men were still going strong, and with so many new channels unveiling untold numbers of scripted shows, the odds were good that whatever followed the Golden Age would be worth watching. It’d be a tarnished Silver Age, maybe, one that would be less auteurist but no less visionary. Surely some scrabbling network exec would take a chance on some ambitious, long-overlooked spec script and rewrite the rules. Or one of the big four broadcasters might finally figure out a way to graft cable brains onto its own budgetary and marketing brawn. TV had surprised us so suddenly and then so consistently that something new seemed perpetually lurking around the corner.
But lately the waiting has become interminable. Time-killing dramas like Homeland and Boardwalk Empire are all well and good, but they feel like tentative steps sideways. TV has been stuck in a strange, extended moment in which everything new is compared, often unfavorably, to the recent past. And thanks to a sudden obsession with spin-offs — the Friday-night spark of How I Met Your Mother begetting the Sunday-morning sameness of How I Met Your Father; the purity of Breaking Bad cut and diluted with Better Call Saul — what’s next has begun to feel awfully familiar.
Yes, the long-awaited future is here and it looks a lot like the disappointing present. Even though I’m far from a fan, I have no problem acknowledging that The Walking Dead is the most important and influential series of the last five years. Stumbling characterization aside, it’s a worthy exemplar of many of the wonderful, surprising things of which television is capable in terms of storytelling (long-form genre!) and ratings (enormous!). The problem is that in the absence of anything imaginative and alive, Dead has become the poster child for the entire industry, one in which humanity is obscured with latex and guts have been swapped out for gore.
Rather than innovating or acknowledging risk, ratings-obsessed programmers at even the most respected channels have fallen back into a disheartening pattern of pandering, copying, and outright cannibalism. Lasting artistic eras are formed either by building intelligently on what has come before or by explicitly rejecting it. They don’t happen when people are content to hunker down and gnaw on the dusty bones of the past. Nothing gold can stay, but it’s time we acknowledge just what has taken its place.
Welcome to television’s Zombie Age.
Over the last decade it became fashionable to say that TV was the new cinema. A comparison was made — and then made again — between the groundbreaking television of the ’00s and the creative awakening that occurred in American movies in the ’70s. It’s not a bad analogy: In both cases a combination of bravery and desperation led to the empowerment of the sort of idiosyncratic hotheads the studios (and especially the corporations behind the studios) would normally prefer to suppress or avoid.2 But what’s often left out is the second half of the story.3 Once Jaws hit and then Star Wars exploded, an age of experimentation quickly gave way to the age of blockbusters. Rather than use the newfound profits as a rising tide to lift all boats, studios treated these movies as a tsunami to wash all of the grit and interesting grease from their slates. In Hollywood, then and now, success doesn’t beget success so much as it instills a deep and profound terror of failure.
Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have had a similar effect on television today. That the former is uniformly excellent is almost beside the point; the wild popularity of the latter has proven as much. With their preexisting source material, their genre bona fides, and their ability to yadda-yadda the dull bits with exposed breasts and gushing blood, Thrones and Dead provide their networks with a commodity far more precious than Emmys: certainty. Originality and acclaim are nice, but reliable profits will always be preferred. Mad Men may have built AMC’s house, but prestige comes with a price tag that the show’s modest ratings can’t support. It’s those dependable, decomposing walkers that keep Sterling Cooper’s lights on and the liquor bill paid.
That every network is now desperately watching the Thrones and chasing after the Dead isn’t surprising.4 TV, like all mass media, moves with a herd mentality and there’s plenty of room for genre indulgences all across the dial. When done right, as it is on Game of Thrones and BBC America’s Orphan Black, sci-fi and fantasy can more than transcend the cultural ghetto to which snobs like me often resign them. When done wrong, as it has been so far on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it can be deadly, a safe and stilted exercise in corporate brand extension that makes the wonder of the Marvel Universe feel as exciting as an hour spent filing TPS reports.
What ought to be concerning to everyone is the way this breathless quest to re-create the last big thing has left little to no room for what I’ll call the medium-level show: series about people interacting in ways that don’t involve swordplay or savagery; concepts not spun off from previous hits; dramas that can’t be described via prestige mad libs (PERIOD + VICE = GREEN LIGHT).5 Truly original ideas are hard to come by, but they’re even harder to get on the air, as executives increasingly reach for recognizable packages that save them the trouble of marketing or explanation. It’s why the airwaves are stuffed with domesticated versions of international “formats” like The Killing and The Bridge, as if ideas and atmosphere could be imported as easily as a rattan chair.6 It’s why the Batman-without-Batman Gotham is coming to Fox, why AMC is betting its future on a solo Saul Goodman and a second Walking Dead, and why the reign of unsmiling, morally compromised macho men is likely to continue on cable long after Low Winter Sun sets. This is the same stifling tale that played out in movies over the past few decades, as sequels and CGI Supermen pushed all the fresh stories about ordinary Clark Kents — and the writers dedicated to telling them — out of the multiplexes. Where did they go instead? Television. As TV surrenders itself completely to blockbuster mode, where will these stories go next?
One destination might be off of television entirely — at least the way we’ve long considered it. After testing the scripted waters with something borrowed (the prestige simulacrum House of Cards), upstart Netflix experienced its biggest success with the wholly original Orange Is the New Black, a delightfully unpredictable and diverse series that ticked no established boxes, trashed preconceived notions, and had been summarily rejected by all of the established networks. Eager to follow suit, Amazon this week gave pilot orders to promising, unconventional new projects from The X-Files creator Chris Carter and best-selling novelist Michael Connelly.7 The streaming services are now in the same situation the upper reaches of the cable dial were a few years ago: eager to make a splash and willing to cannonball into the unknown in order to achieve it. It’s a spirit that has gone missing from the old-guard broadcasters, stuck as they are in a fearful limbo of their own making: cash-rich but content-poor.
TV, in 2013, has entered uncharted territory. It has transcended its medium and been accepted as an art form all its own. TV now lives on our phones and our computers; we watch it on tablets and stream it through boxes. Never before has it commanded so much respect; at no time in its history has it been so breathlessly considered, so unabashedly embraced. There may be fewer and fewer things to love, but there have never been more shows worthy of our like. The sheer quantity of options can, on a busy Sunday night, mask the dwindling amount of quality.
Yet the Zombie Age is marked by a persistent, undeniable decay. Corpses are picked over. Ideas, once devoured, are regurgitated and feasted on again. A bold, forward-looking decade of risk-taking and reward has somehow left the industry in full-on retreat. There’s an undeniable security in sameness, but only within the pleathered confines of network executive suites is a strategy of not losing the same thing as winning. Everyone wants to believe that the next great era of television is just beginning. But it’s possible we came in at the end.