We see a lot of detective shows, cop shows, lawyer shows, all because this genre has succeeded in the past and continues to succeed. It is familiar. Television has had some of its greatest shows of all time in the last 20 years. They have called it the golden age of television, but with many critically-hit shows ending, is the golden age also coming to an end?
“Breaking Bad,” “Lost,” “30 Rock,” “West Wing,” are all a part of the golden age, alongside many other financial and critical successes. These shows captured audiences’ attention with their high-quality production. With so many hours of content, audiences became emotionally invested in the situations and the characters of each show.
When you think financial success and critical success, they don’t coincide often anymore in movies. Production companies are onto a successful formula: the action movie, the superhero movie. Movies that don’t require the audience to assess everything, rather put their legs up and relax. This formula has, and is continuing, to bring audiences to theaters, even with rising ticket costs. Not all of these movies are bad, but some are because they can have the lowest quality production, or script, and put a superhero’s name on it and make millions of dollars.
Television shows are different, but have been experimenting with similar formulas. A lot goes into green-lighting a show, and many new shows are cancelled before the first season is even over, making the writers scramble to come up with a fitting conclusion. Television shows are initially planned to last longer and aren’t meant to die young, they also don’t get the budget that films do, because you can’t put a significant amount of effects (practical and visual) into a television show that delivers 12 hours of content a year. It is too expensive, so networks invest in more logistical projects, which often require more creativity.
If you take a look at our top 20 television show of all-time list. Many of them are modern. AMC, HBO, and FX have been the unsung heroes of the golden age. AMC had two critically successful shows: “Breaking Bad” (which ended earlier this year) and “Mad Men” (which is nearing an end.) They also have turned “The Walking Dead,” a graphic novel adaptation, into a financial success when not even HBO would invest in it.
HBO has continuously brought us shows with movie-level production quality. “Game of Thrones,” a show many networks wouldn’t touch do to its graphic content, was able to blossom on this network. Along with minimal restrictions where show-runners and writers don’t have a limit to the explicit content of their narrative.
FX has been renowned for the creative freedom it gives its show-runners. Turning an extreme low-budget pilot into a long-running success with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” giving one of the greatest working comedians complete creative control with “Louie,” and investing in an animated series on a non-animation based network with “Archer.” (All still running)
With so many successful shows, it was only a matter of time before networks tried to replicate those formulas. Many spin-off shows have been announced. “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” has been a critical disaster compared to its counterpart “Once Upon a Time” (which wasn’t great to begin with.) The following shows have announced a spin-off: “Breaking Bad,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “The Walking Dead.” Networks want to invest in things they know work, and no one knows anything, except what shows have been successful.
A common theme in a lot of the golden age shows is that they were original concepts spawned from great pilot scripts. Networks took a chance on them and invested in them. Investing in original content isn’t safe, the audience wants to turn on something familiar, which is why we see many adaptations, spin-offs, and reboots. This is why we have so many detective, cop, and lawyer shows, because they are familiar to audiences. They are a formula that works. Many original shows become successful later on when word-of mouth has spread.
Some say it is the dark age for movies, that movies haven’t been anything remarkable since the eighties. The studios have found their formula, things a non film-goer would want to check out just so they could be a part of the water-cooler conversation. Television is different, a greater success has come from a high quality demand (much like video games). People will watch a show for a gimmick, but they will stick around and invest many hours in it only if it’s good.
Is the golden age of television ending? Are networks trying to formulate their approach and bring audiences in with style over substance? It’s too early to say. Of course there are more unsuccessful shows out there than successful shows, and even though many television classics are ending, there is still plenty to get into. “Mad Men,” Boardwalk Empire,” “Game of Thrones” are all still living on, not to mention “Masters of Sex” which has been successful with critics and could become popular in time.
The golden age may be coming to a bittersweet end, or it may be growing yet. We’ll see how the next few seasons play out.