Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Rise and Fall of TV’s New Golden Age

In the first article in this short series about the future of film, I summarized New Yorker critic David Denby’s concerns about the topic in his new book, Do the Movies Have a Future? In the next installment, I discussed the millennial Renaissance that gave us, as listed in TV critic Alan Sepinwall’s book The Revolution was Televised, the twelve American shows “that changed TV forever.” While one critic fears the end of the big screen experience, another is celebrating a new Golden Age of the small screen – but for how long? And then what?

The last (and only other) period commonly designated as a Golden Age of Television was in the medium’s early days, from the 1950s into the very early ‘60s, when TV entertainment was dominated by gripping, story-driven dramatic series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the brilliant chain-smoker Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, and live dramas like Playhouse 90. That era too, like our own, saw an explosion of television creativity and popularity, and a concomitant decline in movie attendance.

Fifty years later, Sepinwall’s dozen – among them The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Lost, 24, Mad Men and Breaking Bad – constituted a new “big bang” of television creativity. These audacious addictions seduced audiences away from a film culture which had become increasingly dependent on shallow, frenetic, CGI-glutted blockbusters.

But all good things must come to an end. With the exception of Breaking Bad (now in its final season) and Mad Men, every one of the series that Sepinwall canonized in his book is finito. Sure, that leaves us with other notable, ongoing series like Homeland, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Sons of Anarchy, but those shows are riding the crest of a wave that others generated, and which is losing momentum.

So, what now? Sepinwall quotes a prescient AMC ad exec who looked at the network’s stellar lineup of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead – “the starting front line of the Dream Team,” he called them – and worried that “the inevitable question becomes, ‘What do you do to replace them?’” A Golden Age is a tough act to follow. Must we wait for another big bang that comes along about as frequently as Halley’s Comet? Sepinwall quotes Battlestar Galactica head writer Ron Moore: “If you look back through the whole history of television, you experience moments like that – these golden moments, over and over again – and then they go away…. But I do have faith that it’ll cycle around again and we will see great shows once more.” When all depends on Hollywood’s continued willingness to take creative and financial risks like the kind that paid off for AMC.

And what about film? As TV’s Golden Age fizzles out, can movies make a comeback? Not while they’re suffering from an identity crisis. Hollywood film studios have evolved dramatically during the last decade, relying increasingly on safe fare with franchise potential and built-in audiences (sequels, remakes, and adaptations of books and comic books). As one producer puts it, “Studios are becoming marketing and distribution service companies.” Aside from milking blockbusters, asks another producer, “What is our business about?”

That is the question Hollywood must resolve, and which I will speculate upon in my next installment. Meanwhile New Yorker critic Denby offers a glimmer of hope, suggesting three ways Hollywood can make movies a national culture that everyone talks about again: a revolution from below combined with online distribution of inexpensive movies; the studios can renew their specialty divisions to encourage talented directors to pursue their vision; and the studios can lure adult audiences back to the cinemas with “contemporary dramatic material with guts.”

Easier said than done, but the future of cinema depends upon it.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/10/13)