‘The best is over’: Tracking the rise and fall of TV’s golden age

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 - 2:47pm

HBO

NOSELL

At the outset of its creation, television was an indicator of status. Only the rich could have more than four channels, a colored screen and a TV larger than a window. Now, television is one of the most accessible forms of media. With streaming services galore and channels cranking out new content every day, we appear to be in the midst of a renaissance of television — or perhaps, reaching the end of one.

Let’s take a step back for a second — 7,368 steps back to be exact. That is how many days its been since “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO. The premiere of “The Sopranos” marks the beginning of the TV renaissance, essentially making David Chase the television equivalent of Masolino or DaVinci. Before “The Sopranos,” television was nothing more than a medium of distraction for middle class Americans. Then Tony Soprano lost his ducks, and the entire country sat at attention. “The Sopranos” showed viewers that television could be deep, heartfelt, witty and brutal all at once. It ended the parade of loveable characters whose only job on screen was to appear relatable and deliver polished one liners, and paved the way for 20 years of top-notch television.

Then came the early 21st century, and TV screens were flooded with audacious programs. First up was David Simon’s “The Wire,” an intrepid pursuit to follow the narcotics scene of Baltimore through the eyes of both the drug dealers and those trying to stop them. Then came “Lost,” “Dexter,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” all truly incredible shows (yes, that alpha male in your life was right about one thing) that developed cult followings and stay relevant and beloved to this day.

Of course, the golden age of television is not to the credit of only these dramatic, masculinity-heavy expositions. Comedy, too, saw a rise in both popularity and quality as the 2000s progressed. With sitcom staples like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” coming to an end in the late ’90s and early 2000s respectively, new half-hour comedies were a highly-demanded luxury. Larry David’s recently-rebooted “Curb Your Enthusiasm” took care of that need, swooping in at such a perfect time it’s as if David ended “Seinfeld” for the sole purpose of replacing it with this show. Soon after, shows including “Scrubs,” “Arrested Development,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “30 Rock” came marching onto American screens like a militia dedicated to the preservation of great comedy, and this is all before 2010.

Coming into the 2010s, television had already been established by the previously mentioned shows to be a complex and dynamic form of media. Yet there was still a glaring problem: TV was still pretty white. Casts were full of homogenous people leading fairly similar lives, with the occasional token minority thrown in as a sidekick or the butt of a joke. The growth of television in the 2010s came with the growth of representation, ranging from the inclusion of people of color to the LGBTQ community in all kinds of roles. Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” is an early example of this, depicting trans women, lesbian relationships and complex characters of color in a popular, groundbreaking show. Of course, the setting of a prison creates a problematic association with these characters, but it laid the groundwork for later shows to take the reins in representation to fight the ingrained television principle that only middle class white Americans can be cast as primary characters.

Looking at television today, you’ll see an array of faces, backgrounds and storylines that are starting to align more equally with what being an “American” means. Shows like “Brooklyn 99,” “blackish,” “One Day at a Time” and “Master of None” are diverse and tackle contemporary issues without making them the forefront of their storylines. The renaissance of television has experienced a renaissance within itself — one of representation. Though media representation is nowhere near matched to the population of the United States, it is on the rise, from primetime comedies to Disney Channel originals.

Some will say that the golden age of television is coming to a storied end. There is so much television now that the market is oversaturated, reaching a slow but sure collapse. While many iconic shows are ending this year — including “Broad City,” “Veep” and “Game of Thrones” — that’s not to say that even greater shows won’t take their place. There was a time nobody could imagine a world beyond “The Sopranos,” “Lost” or “Breaking Bad,” but here we are. People will always look for something accessible and entertaining to rally around, to bond with millions of strangers and see themselves in the faces of characters they love. Maybe you can’t stand sitting through a two-hour film or the thought of trying to figure out which music streaming service to subscribe to makes you want to scream. There will always be a Homer Simpson to laugh at, a Carrie Bradshaw to aspire to, a Don Draper to hate, a Lorelai Gilmore to cry with. They may just have a different face.