It seems preposterous to call the era that gave us “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and a dozen different “Real Housewives” a golden age. While in many ways, the term “idiot box” seems more suitable than ever, there is no denying there has been a notable shift in tone and content in television. Multicam sitcoms and police procedurals, long-time cable channel staples, are decreasing in number in favor of increasingly inventive serial dramas, the most successful of which, like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, become genuine pop culture phenomenons.
Whether or not one would call it the start of a golden age, television is going off in new and inventive ways, with shows to match. While there are many reasons for this trend, ranging from outflow from Hollywood to the hundreds of competing channels searching for shows to help them stand out in the crowd, the biggest one is technology.
Television, like all other mediums of entertainment, is being forced to adapt to the rise of the internet, which affected television more than most. The rise of sites like YouTube or Netflix, to say nothing of smaller content producers, impacted everything from animation to sketch comedy. Television producers had to burn the decades-old playbook they’d been using mostly unchanged since The Honeymooners.
That’s not the first time its happened in pop culture either.
Back when television first premiered as a medium, the effect it had on cinema was similar to the effect the internet has had on television today. When the household television took over the central role once occupied by the neighborhood movie theater, and entire film genres literally died overnight, the film industry spent the next decade struggling to trying to find what would get people out of their living rooms and into a theater again. When it finally did, it came in two forms: the common B-rated movie, and the modern blockbuster. Both cinematic spectacles drew in the crowds. Hollywood built a new foundation upon big names and big effects that couldn’t be replicated by television, a formula that only today is changing.
Much the same, television has seen many of its once dependable formulaic show formats get wiped out overnight as the web takes them over, ranging from comedy to the news, and has spent the last decade trying to find where it fits in the new media dynamic. Much like cinema eventually settled on the current format, television has found two dependable formulas of its own: reality television and the modern serial drama.
While the success of reality television is self-explanatory — it’s cheap, easily produced content that doesn’t need writers, actors, or much beyond an initial gimmick — it’s the modern serial dramas like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones where we find the true success stories of modern television. With Hollywood’s success with blockbusters, bigger names and bigger budgets than the competition plays a part in the success, in addition to better writing that not only leaves you talking about the show around the water cooler, but chomping at the bit for next week’s episode.
Not only does that give them an edge in funding and casting that folks on YouTube won’t be able to replicate, but that shift in focus toward serialization marks a dramatic departure for mainstream television. The biggest difference between modern shows, like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, and older ones, ranging from Law & Order to Miami Vice, is that while the older shows tend to maintain the status quo as long as possible the newer ones thrive on the change and development that serial dramas are built on. Watching Walt transform from chemistry teacher to hardcore drug lord, grieving over the latest Stark to die in the War of Five Kings: These are the moments that not only define those water cooler conversations, but pop culture as a whole, in a way that a sitcom hasn’t in decades.
Of course it helps that the shift toward serialization is as much an adaptation as it is a reaction toward the changed marketplace. Serial dramas are perfectly suited for binge-viewing, and are increasingly written with that in mind, and in an era dominated by DVRs and Netflix, its proven a lucrative advantage in everything from advertising to DVD sales.
Is this the beginning of a new golden age for television? It’s too soon to tell. What is clear is what began with a handful of shows on HBO and AMC has begun to rewrite the rulebook for television, and I’ll take a dead Stark over a live Kardashian any day.