Television programming has had an extraordinary evolution since its first Golden Age, which began roughly in 1948 and spanned until 1960. It is remarkable to note that this industry has begun its second Golden Age. What makes this second Golden Age different is television setting itself a higher standard in its writing. Beginning around 2001, television began to truly push its boundaries and has actually surpassed film in acting, storytelling, and just sheer awe. The movie industry arguably has been plummeting in quality since 1999, which was the last stellar year of filmmaking. Since 1999, film has been on a steady decline with films that no longer inspire, provoke new ideas, or offer new concepts. With the film industry currently depending on superhero movies with big-name casts, film reboots, and remakes, it is painfully evident that Hollywood has succumbed to big-studio influence and demand. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder would be mortified by the level of studio influence and how true artistry has been abandoned for the sake of marketing and profit. It can argued that the only movies that have true artistry are those made independently or with a director who isn’t afraid to challenge studio demands, Alejandro González Iñárritu being the most notable director in that regard.
Television, in contrast, has been tremendously successful due to artistic freedom. A television series is not solely limited to the television studio who produces it, but rather a huge team of directors, writers, and actors who are more interested in the craft of storytelling than the massive paychecks that most Hollywood A-listers greedily pine for. While money plays a role in anything made, television is more interested in attaining an audience first. Through its audience appeal, that is when a show can succeed in being a financial success. Here is the difference between television and film: Knowing when to stop. With the film industry, a successful film instantly equates to sequels and spinoffs, thus diminishing the original source content. Star Wars is a great example of this with George Lucas and now the Disney Corporation being unable to just leave the first trilogy alone. Admittingly, television has the advantage of stretching a story out over a couple of years, but that is risky due to the reality that audiences have short attention spans and tune out easily. Therefore, a show must be continuously self-aware and know when to conclude. The strategy is for a show to conclude while on top, opposed to fizzling away.
There are some shows that are extremely guilty of the “fizzle away” strategy, which is essentially to have the show be canceled when interest and viewership wanes away. The mentality is to stretch the show as far as it can go until the lack of interest is too hard to ignore. The issue with this is that the show’s legacy is impaired as a result. Shows such as 24, Grey’s Anatomy, or The X Files greatly suffered due to television studios trying to extend a storyline that was already exhausted from any further potential. Therefore, such legendary shows are marred with substandard seasons that diminish it from its greatness. For the vast majority of shows in the Second Golden Age of Television, ending while on top has been a strategy that not only secures the show as a beacon of excellence, but also to some degree, keeps the show alive. For instance, many fans assumed that The Sopranos would conclude with a season that would either see the show’s lead character, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), either dead or arrested. Instead, the show concluded mid-scene, denying fans any conclusion at all. As a result, people will forever debate whether Tony Soprano died in the conclusion of The Sopranos. In this such example, many initially complained about the show’s open-ended series finale when it first aired. Despite that, it prompted speculation of how the ending should be interpreted, thus it keeps the show alive.
Another such reason that television is gliding through its second Golden Age is due to its content. More importantly, HOW that content is conveyed to viewers. This can be summarized in one very important word: Continuity. This is one of the fundamental differences between the beginning of television up until its current Golden Age. Prior to 2000, it was exceedingly rare for shows to have linear narratives. Instead, they tended to be episodic. The ‘episodic’ style of television for the most part took a generalized concept and reduced it to a single episode that would tackle specific themes. This greatly affected the continuity of the narrative and especially with the characters within such shows. One excellent show that was consumed with continuity issues was the popular 1980s comedy Golden Girls. The show functioned off its general premise of four older women living together in Miami and their various life adventures together, and for the most part, the show worked hilariously in this framework. However, since the show was episodic and strived to tackled social issues at the time, Golden Girls failed at showing a progression of character development or narrative. Instead, the characters remained, throughout the show’s seven-year run, exactly within the character-type they were first introduced as. The show would often tease development, only to retract it an episode later. One example from the many within Golden Girls can be seen with an episode that aired in the show’s fifth season. Bea Arthur’s uptight Dorothy Zbornak was suddenly thrust with an episode that centered around her having a gambling addiction. This plot device was completely out of context with how the character had always been represented throughout the show, who was continually the voice of reason and realism. The theme of Dorothy suffering a gambling addiction was explored without any prior exposition that might have hinted at this issue before. Even more glaring was that once the episode concluded, Dorothy and her supposed gambling addiction is never referenced again and the character reverted back to the typical character-type. This was a major continuity issue, one of many with Golden Girls. Such continuity issues are typical with shows that are episodic.
This is why one of the most famous comedy shows of all-time, Seinfeld, was so successful. Seinfeld directly mocked and made fun of shows that were littered with continuity issues. By boldly describing itself as “a show about nothing,” Seinfeld was given free license to be random and willful towards continuity issues. Yet the show was able to persevere by maintaining a comedy standard that kept the “show about nothing” motif alive for the show’s nine-season run. In that regard, Seinfeld is the exception to the rule. Seinfeld was especially smart for adopting a linear narrative that allowed the characters to develop and learn as the show progressed. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine Benes is a great example of this within Seinfeld with her actions indirectly affecting her profession, to which her character arcs fluctuated with the differing jobs she occupied in later seasons. This maximized her character’s comedy range with hilarious situations such as the season she worked as an assistant to Mr. Pitt (who eats his Snickers with a knife and fork) to her executive job at a clothing catalog, to which office politics were constantly satirized. Without a linear narrative structure, these comedy components wouldn’t have been effective. It was important to give the characters some history, to which some jokes were a building on former episodes (the season-long joke “Soup isn’t a meal!” is one such example). Seinfeld concluded in 1998, just before the big boom in television excellence, but one cannot deny that a standard that was set for television as a result of Seinfeld.
The linear narrative is not an easy achievement for shows because it requires a very close attention to detail. Writers must be aware of character history, exposition, as well as crafting multiple storylines that are conducive to an overall show. One such show that was perfectly crafted in a linear style was the groundbreaking HBO show Six Feet Under. The show literally takes place in the span of five years with each of its five seasons chronicling a single year. More importantly, Six Feet Under was tremendously detail-oriented, especially in regards to the character development. The show introduced audiences to a handful of complicated individuals whose conflicting personalities were linked to their family funeral home business. The show excellence stemmed from witnessing these characters evolve in the context of their social relationships and also how those personal relationships between each other altered over time. The complexity of the show was in observing what event caused a change in a person. This couldn’t have been achieved without the writers being self-aware of what the characters had been through emotionally and using that information to build their complex psychology for viewers to witness. As a result, Six Feet Under provided to audiences a voyeuristic experience, allowing viewers to witness interactions that wouldn’t normally occur publicly. This sense of seeing the interior and the underbelly of individuals was a new type of narrative that captivated viewers immediately and has remained a part of drama shows since.
Another show that perfectly adopted the linear narrative was HBO’s Sex and the City, which was an extraordinary merging of the linear narrative with episodic narratives. Yet even with the show’s most episodic occurrences, it still fit within the overall framing of Sex and the City. Viewers were witnessing Carrie Bradshaw’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) weekly newspaper sex column being brought to life, therefore the narrative was still technically moving forward. Yet the true magic of Sex and the City and its linear narrative was introducing the four main characters as specific character-types and ultimately developing them past their idiosyncrasies. The viewers first observed these women within their proverbial boxes and witnessed them break free of the clichés that were formerly ascribed to them. This is where Golden Girls failed. Viewers want an overarching storyline that allows the characters to prosper in development. Using Sex and the City as an example, fans loved when free-loving Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) began to date, which was a new evolution for her character that viewers got to witness.
The linear narrative was central to Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, whose entire construction was about how people were affected by the cultural changes of the 1960s. Each season of Mad Men was synced with a year within the 1960s, to which the historical events of that year were directly (or indirectly) interjected into the narrative. What Mad Men did that forever changed the television standard was Weiner’s extreme attention to detail. Each episode had to have a specific level authenticity that was a genuine reflection of the era. Weiner once stated that he was detail-oriented to the point that he was sure to have the weather in sync with the day and history reflected on screen. The fashion and trends reflected in the show had to be made from the same fabric of the era and there was absolutely no compromising in that regard. No show had ever strived to be so accurate in its representation. Added to the success of Mad Men was that it possessed one of television’s most complex and intriguing characters, Don Draper (Jon Hamm). The linear narrative aspect to this show was integral to the show’s success because the rigid and seemingly unchanging Don Draper was immersed in a world that was changing all around him. It created this extraordinary image of a person who is a relic from an era that once was trying to co-exist in a world that is rapidly becoming something he cannot truly comprehend. Equally captivating was Mad Men’s secondary plot of rising professional women that was conveyed through the characters of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks), who both had an incredible series-long narrative arc that relied on the linear narrative to present a slow, but ultimately powerful progression of female empowerment and the breaking outside of the gender roles prescribed to them by men.
This leads to the fourth and final component that has allowed television to prosper: detail-oriented writing. Without superior writing, no show can ever truly be successful. This usually falls to show creators who have to take the helm to not only establish characters, but establish the entire environment and world that the viewer is about to be subjected to. Knowing when to stop, relevancy, and the linear narrative are all directly linked to writing. Show writers must always be detail-oriented and stay within the realm of realism of the setting they have established for the show. This is particularly why Vince Gillian was so effective with Breaking Bad. He was sure that the show stayed within realism. He never aimed to glorify Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) evolution from a high school science teacher to a drug kingpin. He was careful to have the science within the show to be grounded in truth. Most important, he was sure to emphasize the social ramifications inflicted on those surrounding Walter White, thereby indicating his descent was also their descent as well. Anna Gunn’s stunning performance as Skylar White is a prime example of this with her initial introduction as the controlling wife who would undergo a metamorphosis of mental anguish that would ultimately translate into her having a mental breakdown (this specific episode was a brilliant episode for Gunn).
Vince Gillian also maintained realism by having new characters not be thrust into the narrative and expected to stick. For a show like Breaking Bad, this never would have worked. Instead, new characters were introduced into the show by association through another character. For instance, Walter White’s association with Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) leads to being introduced to crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), who has a working association with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who works for drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). It’s a simple yet highly effective method of incorporating new characters into an already established show. Even with that, Vince Gillian was very methodical in how these characters were introduced into the show. The characters were all introduced as stock characters who were presumed to not be relevant to the overall plot of the show. It was the classic ‘looks could be deceiving’ mantra. Rather than functioning as episodic characters, these minor characters soon evolved into demanding influences or presence that changed the tone of the show and actually pushed the narrative further. This was extraordinary writing from Vince Gillian because it never incorporated anything into the narrative that wasn’t relevant to some capacity. This eliminated all continuity issues, to which Breaking Bad actually has none. Nothing occurs within the Breaking Bad narrative that doesn’t contribute to the plot either immediately or eventually.
In conclusion, what has made television’s second golden age vastly superior to its first golden age and even film has been four components: knowing when to conclude a series, avoiding continuity issues, linear narratives over episodic narratives, and detail-oriented writing. Due to many shows being comprised of these four attributes, it has largely contributed to a new standard of television that has captivated audiences and ignited a new level of excitement for viewers. This is an extraordinary era of television.