Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin

Apart from “The Simpsons”, I never thought much about television growing up. I was raised in a household that didn’t believe in cable and that also didn’t believe that a functioning roof antenna was a necessity. Therefore, the TV I knew as a child–beamed into my family’s 80s era Trinitron’s bunny ear antenna–was limited to statically impaired versions of PBS, FOX, Chicago’s old UPN Power 50, NBC, ABC, WGN, and on a good day CBS, depending on wind and humidity.

PBS was forced on me by my mother as being the only channel worth watching it being the Brussels sprouts of television for a boy in grade school. FOX provided “The Simpsons,” the only show my father allowed my sister and me to enjoy every Thursday night much to my mother’s dismay, but also unleashed a plethora of mind-numbing pre-reality TV reality shows with snuff as the central themes. Titles like “When Animals Attack 3,” “World’s Deadliest Swarms,” “When Stunts Go Bad,” “Cheating Death: Catastrophes Caught on Tape,” and “World’s Scariest Police Shootouts” provided more than enough reason to censor our intake of television other than PBS.

UPN was the network for trash TV–re-runs of the A-Team, syndicated Montel Williams, silly Saturday morning cartoons, WWF Wrestling absurdities, etc. NBC’s “Seinfeld” was a show I didn’t truly appreciate till after it began syndication post-its heavily scorned swan song finale.

My parents did, however, bring us up on a multitude of different films, schooling us on all genres and snippets of film history. My father’s early seminars on horror films began with the early Universal monster movies–Frankenstein, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon–and ended somewhere between Freddy Krueger and The Re-animator, a film that although full of dark humor, shouldn’t be shown to a boy in middle school.

We were screened foreign classics, contemporary blockbusters and sleepy indies. It got to the point that our TV was merely a vehicle for the handful of VHS cassettes we would rent every weekend. The content of its broadcasting failed to garner any interest for most of my adolescence.

Today the timely phrase being passed around the “water cooler” and the blogosphere is that we are living in a new “Golden Age” of television.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times recently ventured outside of his role as chief film critic to comment on the rising quality of serialized television being made today and how film as a medium is losing its creative edge. His article entitled, “Are Films Bad, or Is TV Just Better?”, while primarily focusing on the film industries’ struggles at the box office, does eventually get to the heart of this belief. It raises an interesting question about televisions role in the motion picture arts: is television the better medium for storytelling in this new environment?

Ask anyone interested in this topic and most will tell you that this wave of quality television programming–shows that broke away from the conventions of the previous television mindset and took risks that film could never accomplish–began with HBO’s landmark series, “The Sopranos.”

On a good Sunday night it was true that “The Sopranos” aired episodes that provided more intrigue as well as good old fashioned entertainment than most films being released at the time.

Here was an original series that revolved around a vile human being who we as viewers couldn’t help but love and relate to. The notion of making the anti-hero the hero was a big step for modern television, though in reality it didn’t solely start with David Chase’s Jersey mob opus.

HBO’s prison drama, “Oz” premiered a year before we watched Tony Soprano enter his shrink’s office for the first time on television. That show only found a niche audience but managed to remain on the air for a six-season run. It is this series that truly revolutionized what I see as television’s new wave.

Like “The Sopranos,” “Oz” trumpeted the rise of the anti-hero. The inmates at the Oswald State Correctional Facility came from the dregs of society¬–murderers, drug dealers, rapists, neo-Nazi hate-mongers, and so on. Still the series managed the feat of making the characters intriguing, no matter how horrible their actions might be. It also took an otherwise boring and fairly routine setting (the inside of a prison ward where not much goes on) and created a world as intricate as anything you might read in the halls of epic literature.

What it did well was parade the average nobody and still draw in the audience. It is this idea that is the root of this so-called golden age.

Sure someone like Tony Soprano is a larger than life kind of character but at his core he’s just another guy trying to make a buck in America. The show draws us in close enough to relate to his everyday pains but also shows us the monstrous side creating a very complicated relationship between the viewer and the protagonist. But let’s move beyond “The Sopranos” to the other major shows in the past decade where this Golden Age has been blossoming.

Take HBO’s post-“OZ/Sopranos” lineup: there’s “Six Feet Under,” which, generally speaking, took a suburban family of undertakers and made their lives captivating; “The Wire” used a dying American city as its protagonist, focusing on its social institutions for intrigue and creating memorable characters out of crack addicts, narcotics officers, drug kingpins, school teachers, beat reporters and stevedores, the forgotten side of society; “Treme” chronicles the lives of everyday working Jazz musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans; and even “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” based on the improvisations of real people put in fictionalized settings, furthered the notion that nothing can be everything.

Today two of television’s most talked about and riveting series, AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” follow this now tried and true formula: take otherwise ordinary individuals and uncover the intrigue.

“Mad Men” is flashy with its period piece costumes and historical winks and nods, but at its core it’s still a television show about advertising executives and copywriters working in a Manhattan office, which on paper doesn’t scream successful television.

“Breaking Bad” follows the downward spiral of an average high school chemistry teacher in a seemingly average part of the country (the series somehow takes an otherwise forgettable Albuquerque, New Mexico and makes its setting fascinating) entering a world of crime.

What’s most striking about both of these series, which came from a network known for syndicated classic films rather than quality television series, is that ten years ago they probably would never have found a home on the air.

For the longest time, original television series were limited to a set content standard that revolved around the idea that singular episodes tell a story from beginning to end. A “Law and Order” cop catches a case, goes through the motions to solve it, and eventually closes said case. A sitcom follows a group of characters living in the surreal version of reality it is trying to emulate, aiming to grab a certain amount of laughs between each commercial break. The best word to describe television throughout most of its existence is routine.

Sure there were exceptions to the trap of routine along the way but most were short-lived moments of greatness or shows that started strong but slowly depreciated over time.

“Twin Peaks” was incredibly original for its time and managed to draw viewers into the otherwise boring setting of a sleepy Pacific Northwest town, but its spike in popularity and mysterious nature ultimately led to its premature demise thanks to a network pressure to appease the masses and the premature departure of David Lynch during the series’ second final season.

Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” was rooted in cyclical routine but had layered storylines and character arcs that were perfect for garnering a cult following. Though it suffered from possibly too much layering of conspiracy theory related webs and was on the air for far too long.

With HBO’s slow-burn foray into original programming, television was suddenly treated as a place to give visionary writers and filmmakers all the time they need to truly tell the story they wanted to tell. For the first time ever, television creators weren’t limited to 24 or 48 minute brackets of time to tell a story. With HBO great storytelling was no longer held back by censorship or notions of “bad taste” (and really, who is to say what is deemed ‘bad taste’ these days with daytime talk shows and reality TV).

The ways we as viewers soak up television has also changed how the medium has transformed over the years. Advertising no longer dictates what we watch on TV since technological advancements allow us to avoid the advertising methods of yesteryears all together.

DVD enabled us to soak up entire shows in small amounts of time, following more closely the details and buildups that one often misses with week-to-week viewing schedules. The Internet allows for shows to be experienced uncensored and sans commercial breaks and even allows shows to venture outside the realms of simple episodic television by creating webisodes, online forums for discussion, and interactive websites to coincide with the storytelling.

The question that arises though is whether or not this influx of television is a good thing. Are we watching too much television? Is this yet another distraction in a long list of sectors of popular culture drawing us away from the outdoors, away from the great books, or more traditional pursuits of knowledge? The answer to this depends solely on the viewer.

I for one am enamored by the wave of quality writing and film making coming out of the truly great series on television (and to be fair there is still a lot of crap out there). While film is far from the state of irrelevance, it’s hard to deny that television, as a visual medium, gives artists more room to stretch their ideas. The depths to which “The Wire” took viewers and the messages it managed to spread through its five seasons and 60+ hours of storytelling is unprecedented in the filmmaking world. The show took its cues from great literary devices (beautifully structured character arcs, multiple points of view, and even contemporary, well-respected authors) and created its own world, with all the highs, lows and complications that make reality so intriguing.

On the other hand, there is the notion that we as consumers rely too much on the media. A creative spree is always a good thing but as a viewer it’s difficult to decide how to spend one’s time. Between the great novels to read, films to screen, albums to listen to, journalistic endeavors to be privy to, and now television series to soak up, it’s increasingly more difficult to find time to just be.

It’s hard to say if this wave of original television will reach a tipping point, or at the very least, a moment when there just isn’t anything of worth to watch. Until then it surprisingly comforting to know that there are a number of upcoming original series and returning shows to look forward to. HBO’s prohibition era gangster epic, “Boardwalk Empire,” the return of “Breaking Bad” after it’s season three cliffhanger, AMC’s zombie gamble series, “The Walking Dead,” a second season for David Simon’s New Orleans’ love note, “Treme,” and most likely some surprises along the way.

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