Friday, June 19, 2020

Is Anyone Else Sick of Being Told This is a "Golden Age of TV?"

It seems that since at least The Sopranos, but especially during this past decade, I have heard people say over and over and over again that this is a "golden age" of television--ad nauseum.
And I am, as the term from Latin suggests, truly sick of hearing it.

Still, I do not think people are generally lying when they make the claim. Just fooled.

What I mean by that is not that TV was great then, and lousy now. At any given time most of what is being produced is apt to be mediocre--while the mediocrity (and even the very good) of yesteryear are subject to simple-minded and superficial prejudices which disadvantage it as against what we have now, which makes it look better than it really is--whether as art, or pure and simple entertainment.

I have boiled my argument down to a dozen items. Here they are below, the reasons why new TV--and especially the most ballyhooed, allegedly "quality" stuff new TV has to offer--looks better to so many than it really is (the more so as, through no fault of its own, old TV looks worse).

# 1. Old TV is Old--New TV is New
Thorstein Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class about the constant turnover of clothing styles that was already apparent in his day--that basically it was a matter of one essentially unattractive thing becoming tiresome, because it basically is unattractive, and being replaced by another similarly unattractive thing, the principal virtue of which is its affording relief from the sight of the older unattractive thing until people get sick of it in its turn. That principle, too, seems to apply here.

Bluntly put, people prefer new garbage to old garbage--not least because they have had time to recognize old garbage for what it is, something that has not been the case with the newer stuff, which they may in short order go from praising to damning. Displaying such preferences most unthinkingly, of course, are the "cool kids" who would never be caught dead enjoying grandpa's embarrassing old stuff.

#2. Old TV Looks Old--New TV Looks New
Garbage or not, when people today look at an old TV show they see it in black and white, or if it is in color, the shading and lighting and the rest are not what they are accustomed to, while the print may not be in the best shape. Getting past all that they see actors they have never heard of, wearing clothes that are out of style, speaking lines with a diction and rhythm that can feel stilted simply because they belong to a different time.

All of this can be off-putting compared with newer productions, and maybe more than off-putting. The truth is that if the object is to draw the viewer in and make them forget themselves in a character's travails (as Goethe and Schiller wrote of the "dramatic"), then the sense of familiarity and currency are powerful assets, and at any given level of quality this gives newer work an advantage over the old.

#3. Old TV is "Sanitized"--New TV is "Adult" and "Edgy"
It is undeniable that television production prior to the explosion of made-for-premium cable production identified with The Sopranos was more heavily censored when it came to matters like language and depictions of sexuality, and that this is more the case the further back one goes. And there is no question that the relaxed control does afford certain possibilities. Still, I remember even when the Sopranos were new getting the impression that TV critics were basically getting excited because they were hearing bad words, not because the leeway to say bad words was enabling writers to do interesting things--and it seems to me that this kind of simple-mindedness remains a factor in the exaltation of television in our era, while convincing those apt to reflexively imitate the "cool" people that the old stuff was lame, even when it may in ways have been truer to life and more genuinely "adult."

#4. Old TV Looks Cheap--New TV Looks Expensive
As compared with older television today's productions undeniably have bigger budgets, and more conspicuous polish from the standpoint of production values, cinematography and the rest. (Those who get restless if a shot lasts more than three seconds can be at ease.) None of this makes, for example, the writing or acting on a show one iota better. But it has its effect on our subjective experience all the same.

#5. Old TV was Episodic--New TV Has "Arcs"
Don't get me wrong. I like a good story arc. But I'm not sure that it's a sensible default mode for quite so much of the medium. While some stories really do require a lot of hours to tell, many don't--and amount simply to the writers stringing the audience along while they distract us in the meantime with soap operatic who-is-sleeping-with-whom and other filler. (The BBC miniseries told the story of House of Cards in four hours and told it well. By contrast the strain in stretching the same tale into a multi-season series was all too obvious within the first few episodes.) And even were we not awash in bad multi-episodic writing, I do think there is something to be said for being able to look at stories which wrap up in a single, non-binge sitting. (Indeed, does no one else remember how once upon a time the appearance of the words "To Be Continued" at the end of an episode were a cause for annoyance rather than acclaim? Back in 1992 Jerry Seinfeld took that sufficiently for granted as to make an episode's stand-up bit out of it.) Quite often, less is more. But a good many mistake "more" for "much more."

#6. Old TV was Straightforward in its Storytelling--New TV is Frequently Arthouse
Good or bad, old TV was essentially straightforward in its storytelling. Good or bad, the more prestigious of the new TV is not. The "show, don't tell"-minded use of subtext can work powerfully, but more often makes for slow, opaque narrative, with perhaps not much behind the opacity. ("Who is Don Draper?") Still, pretentiousness by itself wins points with the middlebrow (as demonstrated by the intensity with which a few cared about who Don Draper was, or at least said they did)--who in the reverse of the bit of confusion I just described under item #5, in this case confuse "less," and often "nothing at all," with "much more."

#7. Old TV Wasn't Often Grimdark--New TV Pretty Much Always Is
What has happened with the Star Trek universe seems to me to exemplify this. The old Trek, whose spirit was not altogether vanished even in its last and weakest incarnation, Enterprise, stood for the triumph of reason and hope, a candle in the postmodernist darkness. The second film of the rebooted Trek film series, however, was all too tellingly subtitled Into Darkness--and so it has been with the small-screen version, with this even going for the return to the timeline of the original in Star Trek: Picard. I, for one, find this off-putting. But that is just one more way in which I am (proudly) unfashionable, aesthetically and intellectually--not going along with the confusion of fascistic misanthropy with "facing the facts," of wallowing in the vilest aspects of reality with entertainment, and of edgelordiness with wit.

#8. Old TV Commonly Aspired to be Just Light Entertainment--New TV Doesn't (Unless it's Okay with Being Deeply Unfashionable)
The tendencies of television to greater edginess, bigger budgets, story arcs, arthouse technique and a grimdark tone are, of course, significant in themselves, each giving the credulous the impression that what they are looking at is of higher quality than what the TV viewer used to get. Yet together they also reflect something larger than deeper, specifically that TV today is less likely to aspire to amuse people sitting down in front of one of a few channels to relax at night, than to fight over addicts with a high tolerance and many more options (more on this below)--with one result a turn from light entertainment to more intense experience. Those accustomed to such TV, looking at the older kind, often think it is trying to be intense and failing--rather than realizing that it was simply not playing the same game.

In fact, considering the situation I suspect that those looking for light entertainment are being underserved by American TV today, with some confirmation of this afforded by those successes that the press is less likely to celebrate. The Hallmark channels, of course, go from one ratings triumph to another, precisely because they are offering here what others are not.

#9. Old TV Was Limited in Quantity--and New TV's Quantity May Have a Quality of its Own
As noted above, once upon a time we had only a handful of channels, each producing only a finite amount of original content, which we pretty much had to watch when it aired, or not at all. Now the vast number of channels and streaming services means a far larger mass of content. If one goes by "Sturgeon's Law" that "ninety percent of everything is crap," and implicitly ten percent is non-crap, then an overall greater volume means a non-crappy ten percent that much bigger, all other things being equal (or even if the average of quality is going down, but not so quickly as the overall volume of output goes up). This does mean that--again, all other things being equal--anyone might be expected to be able to find more items to their individual taste. But the claims of peak TV enthusiasts are rarely so modest as that. And it seems to me that while some may sincerely feel that they enjoy more choice, to others of us it is a matter of more slight variations on the same old thing that was never so appealing to our palate to begin with--the bar for what counts as "choice," per usual for our era, set very low indeed (with the eschewing of light entertainment just one dimension of that scarcity of real choice).

#10. Old TV Was Watched at Home on a TV--New TV is Watched on Anything, Anywhere
I suspect, I think quite plausibly, that watching TV off a small handheld screen in public, while on the go--on a crowded and noisy bus, for instance, while watching out the windows to make sure you don't miss your stop--means less attentive, less critical, watching compared with making the time to sit down in a comfortable chair and look at your show at the end of the day. Indeed, I suspect that this is especially conducive to obscuring the defects of character and story, especially where high production values and flashy direction help cover them up--again, making contemporary TV look better than it really is.

#11. Old TV Was Something We All Watched Together--and New TV Is Something We Watch Alone
The multiplicity of venues for such television has exploded--and many of them are more exclusive. Either you subscribe to Apple TV+, or you don't watch the thing at all--and as of last fall, there were 271 streaming services, largely focusing on original and exclusive content. Few can afford to subscribe to more than a small fraction of them, and even those who can often do not have the time to watch more than a fraction of what their particular subscriptions carry. (These days, I don't even have time to look at all the stuff my humble cable package offers, let alone bother with this kind of thing.) Indeed, within our real-life peer groups--as opposed to like-minded people we hang with on social media--we are likely to be the only people we know watching this or that thing in many a case, and this, too, can foster illusions--not least, that what may just be our particular flavor of garbage is actually gold. More than ever we are each in our own little media bubble these days, which means our illusions are more likely to stand not just for us, but for everyone else who doesn't know any better, or just doesn't care enough to look at the thing for themselves. (They're busy enjoying their own bad stuff that they also insist to everyone else is great.) And of course, amid all that, we are less than ever able to make any pronouncement about the quality of what is generally out there, as compared with what used to be there, because any one of us sees so little of it, and that the bit that we may be particularly predisposed to like.

#12. Old TV has Poptimism Against it--New TV has Poptimism in its Corner
Older TV is constantly being denigrated (not least, by the sort of invidious comparison that inspired this post), and even when this is not the case, has nothing to its advantage like the loud, vehement chorus of cheerleaders provided new TV by the critics who, as the Duke Phillips of the world would have them do, consider it their job to rate the latest outpouring of media-industrial complex product from "good to excellent."

Eventually some people start to believe it.

Taken altogether the dozen factors discussed above--sheer newness, flashy appearance, pretentious technique, "dark and gritty" content in place of light entertainment, and the multitude of factors making us less critical--seem to me a powerful influence on the TV audience. And they are what I hear whenever someone shouts down a favorable word I have to say for a particular old show with "Quit living in the past!"

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