Thursday, April 4, 2019

Why "Television's Golden Age" is Leaving Me Cold

Today in The Cube:

Even as late as three years ago, the death of scripted TV was being bandied about in the press.
Reality TV shows, which saw their rise begin with “Survivor” and its ilk, were cheaper to produce and didn’t need scripts, stables of actors, or a large film crew, and still drew in boffo ratings. Reality TV was, like an invasive vine brought into your yard because you thought it looked good at the garden center, taking over.
You could see it all over every channel, whether network or cable. Even places like The Learning Channel (TLC) and The History Channel, which had beforehand produced ostensibly educational programming, fell into step with others and reality ruled where edutainment had once held sway.
But somewhere along the way, something magical happened, and scripted TV was saved, and made a comeback in a big way. Indeed, in 2018, nearly 500 new scripted shows hit the airwaves and the streaming services - a record-setting number.
Now there’s not just a good number of scripted TV shows out there, of all kinds, but abundance to feed a cyclops.
Now, instead of a graveyard of scripted TV, we’re being told that we’re living in Television’s Golden Age - and that we’re lucky to do so.
Personally, I’d kind of like to get off this particular ride.
Television’s Golden Age has left me cold.
Let me tell you why.

The roots of the scripted TV “revolution” of the mid-2010s, I think, has its roots in the 1990s with the success of NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup on Thursdays, famously bulwarked for most of the decade by Seinfeld, surely the first modern progenitor of “appointment viewing.”
After that, we had the “premium must-sees,” like The Sopranos and Sex in the City, as well as Six Feet Under and The Wire and others - all programs that generated a lot of buzz and press but were on premium channels and, therefore, not readily available to those of us with basic cable.
Must-see dramas became more democratized when basic-cable channel AMC produced both Mad Men and Breaking Bad, blockbuster hits that began to set a new standard for storytelling and content in primetime programming.
And then Netflix began producing their own shows, with their two most high-profile early offerings being Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. Netflix introduced a novelty that has since been embraced by most other streaming services: Releasing all episodes of a new show's season at once, instead of weekly, as most other conventional TV channels did.
This created the phenomenon of “bingable streaming TV," allowing you to watch episode after episode and, later, season after season, uninterrupted.
The popular and critical success of Netflix’s offerings emboldened other services to produce their own scripted TV shows (and other programming as well). Competition heated up among streamers to attract new subscribers, and between streamers and traditional TV for eyes and advertising dollars, creating the push to outdo each other with the quality and addictiveness of their scripted shows.
Scripted TV was saved. Television’s Golden Age was inaugurated.

Except I don’t find it particularly golden. 
I’ve noticed some problems with this new age. First, I find it nearly impossible to continue watching many of the new shows being produced, simply because their quality suffers after the first season.
I’m continually left with the feeling that Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other streaming services (and, increasingly, the legacy networks and cable/premium channels) are willing to throw money at show runners with a good idea for a first season… without much of a plan for what they’re going to do afterwards.
I can say without hyperbole that the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards was the best and most riveting season of television I’ve ever seen, bar none. 
Season Two was... very good. Season Three was bad. And I quit the show after watching a single episode of Season Four, because things had gotten so far away from the show's original promise.
Other programs have suffered from the same disease of uneven quality, including Orange is the New Black, Making a Murderer, Hemlock Grove, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and so forth.
It makes me… unwilling and uninterested to invest my time in a new show simply because the likelihood that it will disappoint is, sadly, pretty high. I'd rather re-watch Frasier or Friends for the 100th time instead.

Second, each of the new shows’ episodes is explicitly made - cleverly, with Byzantine design - to be “bingable,” complete with intricate plots that rival the contrivances of many operas, large casts of characters and frequent cliffhanger endings.
It’s as though the television industry has enslaved a billion monkeys to peck at a billion typewriters, and every single one of them has read the collected works of Edgar Ride Burroughs. 
For me, at least, this leads to a thoroughly exhausting and unsatisfying viewing experience. Working through even good shows in a 10-episode “season” again and again, only to continually reach another season-ender with a cliffhanger designed to drag you into the NEXT season is the very worst kind of tease, without a payoff of any kind. It’s the reason my wife and I have simply stopped watching some shows in the midst of a season, even ones we like. It’s become too much of an investment of mental bandwidth.

The other problem I’ve noticed with so many of these “Golden Age” series is… well, they’re unremittingly dark.
For Example: Hulu, which struck on a “hit-of-the-moment” success with “A Handmaid’s Tale” (a cultural criticism podcast I listen to chided the show for being “too on the nose” - and they’re right), has, in that program, a show that some critics have dubbed simply “bleak.” My wife, a fan of the show, was disappointed in the most recent (second) season, feeling that it just didn’t go anywhere, except into stark realms of butchery. 
I read the book upon which it is based, and I know what the show is getting at culturally, but it’s a great example of the kind of abattoir excesses that the Golden Age of Television seems to extoll as artistic brilliance: grim, color-desaturated depictions of violence as a stand-in for realism; whispers and shudders as a stand-in for dialogue; extreme close-ups of characters staring with moist eyes into the middle distance as a stand-in for acting.
I’m just not interested in being depressed by what I watch. I want to enjoy it, not be distressed by it.
I was interested, for instance, in watching the “Haunting of Hill House” show on Netflix when it premiered around Halloween last year. I like scary movies and ghost stories particularly. But when I read that it was a show based around the trauma of grief, I decided it wasn’t for me.
Isn’t entertainment supposed to be… y’know, an escape? So, if we’re binge-watching 10-episode seasons of utter demoralizing shock as entertainment, how do we escape what we’d meant to be our escape?
I fully realize that there are a lot of shows that aren’t just an unrelenting palette of gray skies and human suffering, but they’re not the ones that get the media focus, or the advertising.

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