Are we really living in the Golden Age of TV?
Well, counting the number of words regularly devoted to analyzing what was once famously called the boob tube, you'd have every reason to think so. From the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to the Huffington Post and InStyle -- the stories about TV as the latest, greatest outpost of cultural relevance are routinely touted in publications both high and low, so much so that the hype has become a meme, believed by all and questioned by none. Unpacking Mad Men's multiple plot lines, discoursing on Don Draper's demons and the women, fashion and historical authenticity of TV's most written-about show has become the media's favorite parlor game and fodder for the Web's ravenous 24/7 appetite for eyeballs. It must be working; otherwise why would the Times be running, in addition to Mad Men, regular recaps of The Americans, Fargo, Game of Thrones, Orphan Black and Penny Dreadful? Even if we grant Mad Men, my personal favorite and the only one of the above I watch religiously, pantheon status, can we say the same of the others?
In an article featured on the filmmaker blog the Talkhouse, about the notion of TV as the "new cinema," director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, Internal Affairs) acknowledges that the move away from the studio feature to cable TV was spearheaded by two extraordinary series: The Sopranos and The Wire. They succeeded thanks to low stakes and strong creators (David Chase and David Simon, respectively) who kept cable executives far away from the creative process. But once the kudos started coming, the suits got into the game. Figgis writes: "Breaking Bad and Mad Men both had very strong opening series but then, subsequently became 'product,' to my mind clearly the result of a typical studio mentality." Mad Men, he says, "quickly began to parody itself," and Breaking Bad's Walt White "should have died at the end of season one."
So what's the appeal of all the wannabes that followed the real Golden Age, which apparently has already passed? To me, the shows that are being incessantly recapped are nothing more than updated versions of one of TV's great staples: the soap opera. What better way to describe today's serials: ongoing narratives with endless cliffhangers and the front-and-center glorification of things that used to just take place between the lines. Of course, I'm talking about sex and nudity. Would anyone watch Game of Thrones without them?
Another reason for the endless stream of new must-watch TV is that it's so easy to consume compared to, say, reading a book or even watching a serious movie. The problem is not that so many people watch these shows; it's that the shows have become a substitute for Culture with a capital C that not only titillates but also uncomfortably probes and disturbs. I can enjoy watching Game of Thrones in anticipation of a nipple slip or dropping dress, but it's no substitute for a multilayered, deeply allusive and nuanced piece of filmmaking such as Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive. Jarmusch's nod to the vampire movie took seven years to fund. Lucky for him, the undead became all the rage and therefore bankable -- though he had to give up his traditional ownership position to get it done.
The fast-food nature of today's culture consumption feeds into our social-media sharing euphoria. We can like and retweet and post and favorite all day long, being active participants in the pop culture chatter. Armed with the power of the post, everyone's a critic with something supposedly valid to say. Or else why would they say it?
All this fits beautifully with Karl Taro Greenfeld's widely discussed New York Times article "Faking Cultural Literacy," where he writes: "It's never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them. Instead of watching Mad Men or the Super Bowl or the Oscars or a presidential debate, you can simply scroll through someone else's live-tweeting of it, or read the recaps the next day. Our cultural canon is becoming determined by whatever gets the most clicks."
So even worse than watching these shows and pretending it's Culture is not watching them and talking about them as though you did.
As the world's first social media guru put it: Let he who is without sin among us cast the first stone.