TV Critics Summer Press TourTelevision's New Golden Age?Critics cite an abundance of quality programming as proof
By Todd Longwell The Hollywood Reporter
July 21, 2006
With the profusion of quality shows on the air, it's easy to see why publications as diverse as Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Times and the U.K.'s Guardian as well as various bloggers are so eager to declare a new golden age of television. But out of respect to Milton Berle, Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling and all of the other pioneers of the medium, it seems prudent to weigh all the evidence before making such a bold proclamation.
After all, numerous critics heralded a new golden age as far back as the '70s, when classic comedies including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H" dominated the airwaves. In the '80s, the arrival of dramas like "Hill Street Blues," with its complex narrative structure, ushered in yet another golden age. Critics also made a compelling case in the '90s, citing such shows as "The Simpsons" (which debuted in December 1989), "Seinfeld" and "E.R."
Few would argue that the small screen is currently experiencing a renaissance. But is the term "golden age" being tossed around a little too lightly?
To get some perspective on the issue, The Hollywood Reporter turned to a group of people who earn their living reviewing television: Television Critics Assn. members Rick Kushman (Sacramento Bee), Rob Owen (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Matt Roush (TV Guide), Dave Walker (New Orleans Times-Picayune) and Diane Werts (Newsday). On the whole, they were supportive of the new golden age concept, though they didn't give it an unqualified endorsement.
"I think it's fair to say that TV is as good as it has ever ... oh, geez ... I don't want to make any blanket statements," Roush says. "But I think there is a sense that we're very lucky to have as many good shows on as we have right now. There is a variety of good programs, between great thrillers like (Fox's) '24' and supremely entertaining shows like (ABC's) 'Grey's Anatomy.' The original (CBS') 'CSI' is still great, and we have cult shows like 'Veronica Mars' (which has aired on UPN and will shift to CBS in the fall) and 'Gilmore Girls' (which has aired on WB Network and will shift to the CW in the fall) and guilty pleasures like (Bravo's) 'Project Runway.' I would watch many of these shows even if I wasn't paid to, and that's a testament to the quality of television right now."
Historically, critics have regarded the preponderance of reality programming as something akin to a resurgence of the black plague. But it's hard to deny the genre's power to move and entertain when the season finale of Fox's "American Idol" draws more votes than have been cast to date for a president in a U.S. election.
"Tom Jicha at the Florida Sun-Sentinel said that, in many ways, it's perfect television," Kushman says of "Idol." "It's got real people, heroes and villains and a continuing soap opera story line that also has resolution. If it's too kitsch for you and it's not cool enough, fine, but you can't argue that it isn't really good at what it's trying to do."
The original golden age of television -- generally considered to be the late '40s through the end of the '50s -- was rife with bathos-rich reality programming and game shows such as "Queen for a Day," "This Is Your Life" and "The $64,000 Question" but was otherwise relatively short on viewing options. There were only two major networks, NBC and CBS, and a pair of weaker also-rans, ABC and DuMont (which fizzled out in 1955). Today, with the maturation of cable and satellite television, there are literally hundreds of channels to choose from.
"It's not just the networks anymore. Everybody is shooting for the moon," Werts says. "If I had to pick the two best shows last year, I would probably say (Sci Fi Channel's) 'Battlestar Galactica' and (FX's) 'The Shield,' and those are basic cable, not HBO where they can throw money, cussing and sex at it. So, in that sense, it is a golden age because there's great TV everywhere."
It's not a simple equation of more channels creating more programming equals more good shows, however, according to the critics. The ever-expanding multichannel playing field has altered both the nature and the intensity of the networks' competition for viewers, improving the ratio of quality to crap in the process.
"The cable networks don't have to do great numbers. They just need to get on the map, and the way to get on the map is to provide something of distinct quality," Roush says. "So, we have all these different cable networks trying to create signature shows. I think that FX with 'The Shield' and 'Rescue Me' in particular right now are the equal of HBO and network TV in terms of ambition and quality. And the networks know -- having seen what happened with (ABC's) 'Lost' and 'Desperate Housewives,' which were very risky shows to put on the air -- that you've got to take risks to make some noise."
"It used to be that you'd slap together a detective and a car chase and a woman in a short skirt, and you had a 1970s crime drama," Kushman says. "You can't do that now. I just watched one or two that were sort of the 2006 version of that, and if nothing else, the production values are so much better."
To some extent, they have to be, according to Werts.
"You're trying to get people that are watching in (high-definition) and widescreen," she points out. "If you plunk down $4,000 for a TV set, by God, you want to see something that looks good on it. And I think the networks really understand now that what they make today is not just for today. Obviously, they want to get ratings this minute, but the studios that own the stuff want it to stand so they can sell it on DVD and iPods and computers and whatever else comes along. So, I think that they do try to make it a little more substantial, whether that's in terms of the story or the production values."
One the arguments against the idea that television is in the midst of another golden age is the lack of quality sitcoms, save for a few standouts such as NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office" and "Everybody Hates Chris," which has aired on UPN and will shift to the CW in the fall.
"It's in a weird position now where the shows that tend to get the best reviews tend to get the smallest audiences, and even the ones that are popular aren't culturally resonant," Roush says. "(CBS') 'Two and a Half Men' is funny, but it's not the kind of show people tend to write about as an emblem of our times the way they did with 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'All in the Family' or even 'Cheers' and 'Roseanne.'"
According to the Times-Picayune's Walker, some of television's best comedy can be found on dramas such as Fox's "House" and HBO's "Deadwood" and "The Sopranos."
"I think what may be happening is that people are pulling all of their comedy needs from shows like that, which also can be violent and gritty," Walker says. "I laugh all the way through 'Rescue Me.' It's not a comedy, but it very expertly incorporates comic moments in the drama, and that seems to be happening more than any other time that I can remember. I think there's a golden age of kind of a new genre, which is dramas that are more than just dramatic."
As much as critics are enjoying the riches of this golden era, sometimes it can seem like too much of a good thing.
"As a critic, the more TV there is, the more guilt there is that you can't watch all of it or even some of it," Owens admits. "It does make our jobs that more challenging. If there gets to be too much more of it, my head is going to explode."http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr..._id=1002877096