Monday, August 07, 2017

Ask JKM a Question: Are We in the Golden Age of TV?



A reader named Jason writes:


"Every so often someone will report how we live in a Golden Age of TV.  I can see where they're coming from: there are a multitude of series boasting superlative writing, acting, production design, et al. Series are allowed to spread an epic story over the course of a season or two in a grand work of fiction, and it's pretty rad.

And yet... maybe it's my imminent curmudgeon-hood, but I feel like the older series did it better.  

Older series like Land of the Lost or Star Trek or Space:1999 knew how to tell compelling, memorable stories in the space of 30 to 60 minutes (less with commercials!) that have stood the test of time.  

It's a little bit of an apples and oranges argument, but I put it to you: which do you think makes for a better series?  

Would you prefer one long epic story, or a seasons' worth of done-in-one adventures?"


Jason, that is a great question, and one of the defining ones, I believe, of pop culture studies in 2017. 

I, myself, have used the "Golden Age" description for modern TV. Why? In part because the TV landscape is one of plenty for fans. MST-3K is back. Twin Peaks is back. The X-Files is back. Star Trek is returning. Lost in Space is also returning.

Basically, the fact that we have moved into a fractured TV landscape, with niche programming, means that networks (or streaming sites like Netflix) don't need huge audiences to justify reviving a show, or keeping one on the air.  This approach has lead to the creation of remarkably ambitious and unusual programs, such as The O.A., Black Mirror, The Handmaid's Tale, and Stranger Things. 



Those are all positives for modern TV. Similarly, modern series such as Fear the Walking Dead survive on lower ratings, in this new era, than those achieved by hits (like The X-Files) in previous generations. That is also a positive. We have fewer genre shows canceled for low ratings.

On the other hand, would we want beloved series to return, if we didn't have a previous golden age? An age that gave us Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and so on?  Those series have become the bedrock foundation of genre programming.

Perhaps, we have had two or three Golden Ages at this point. And we musn't forget that nostalgia plays a role in this perception, too.


Still, my answer is going to come at this problem sideways, you might say. I think our feelings of quality or a "Golden Age," may finally come down to how we ultimately engage with the drama.

I agree with you your perception of the new-age, circa 2010-2017, let's say. I love Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, iZombie, Vikings and other modern programs that do all the things you enumerate. They are epic. They are well-written. Their production values are remarkable.  

And yet, frankly, after I finish watching them, I doubt I will return to them in any kind of meaningful way. 

And by contrast, I have returned to Star Trek, Space:1999, Land of the Lost, The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Millennium, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond and other "older" series again and again, with fresh eyes, over the years, across the decades. 


Is it because these programs were better? Even without the option for serial storytelling (in some cases), or extravagant production values?

My theory is that the quality doesn't matter so much as the personal choice -- and energy -- to interact with these programs. Growing up, I was -- and I think you were -- at the mercy of local stations. Would they show a Twilight Zone or Space:1999 you had not seen yet?   

Remember when there were still three episodes of Star Trek you had never seen, and you scoured the listing in your paper or in TV Guide to look for them?

In hopes that they would, you would have either had to stay up till 3:00 am to watch, in some cases, or set your VCR.

Even in the DVD age, you had to shell out money for box sets, and seek out those box sets. Perhaps just to see six episodes of a 48 episode series.  

There was an act you had to take, to pursue knowledge, to pursue experience, and follow something you were interested in. It cost something to be a fan of a particular director, or program. And that cost is different than the cost of a "service" like Hulu, or Prime.

In the age of streaming, there is no hard work, and therefore no discovery. You are presented with a menu of possible programs, and you can select what's there.  You can't see what isn't there.

If you choose not to, a world of TV programs will be unavailable to you, that you never see. Since Millennium isn't up on Netflix or Amazon Prime, do curious viewers seek it out?

I try not to be a cranky old man, or curmudgeon, as you say, but two semesters teaching film to college students has deeply rattled me. 

These students have never seen a Hitchcock film. They never saw The Matrix, or Fight Club. They haven't seen Alien, even, or the original Planet of the Apes.  If it's not right in front of them, at the right time, they aren't going to see it.

It isn't that they aren't smart. They are smart. 

It is that they have no curiosity about the history and world of film or TV, beyond what Netflix can offer them, on a moment's menu scan.  They have never seen a silent film. They have never seen a black and white film, at all.  They select only the new and the popular, and I find this fact deeply disturbing.

In my class, I have begun assigning them reviews of older films (like The Gold Rush, and Sunset Boulevard), so they HAVE to watch something outside their limited experience, but this is not enough.  It's a mind-set the culture is battling. I wish they were curious about older shows, older films, but they aren't.

So we might be in a golden age of programs, but we are not in a golden age of viewers.  It may not be about the programs at all, but about how are culture is choosing these programs.


Regarding your final question -- serial vs. standalone storytelling -- my preferred mix is the one exemplified by The X-Files. I appreciate a level of serialized continuity, but too much is exhausting. 

Sometimes, I just want to be "one and done," for example (as in the case of The Twilight Zone, or Space:1999.)  I like arcs, but arcs that go on too long, or travel to improbable places (like the voluntary sacrifice of indoor plumbing, by a technological society on the new Battlestar Galactica) largely make me regret the journey, the time invested.

Don't forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

10 comments:

  1. Great Question! As an educator myself, I concur completely with how college students consume media - all Netflix, all the time! Yet they are receptive and thoughtful when presented with something outside of streaming services. I've asked students if they ever seek out physical media like dvd's or blu-rays and they look at me as if I'm a relic from the Middle Ages!

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  2. John, I agree with all your thoughts here. Regarding your college students, it is sadly sobering learning how limited today's young viewers truly are. They have chosen to have a narrow taste of film and television history. They all need to watch Turner Classic Movies channel, '60s-'80s science-fiction television & movies including the '70s telefilms[DUEL, etc.]. You are doing them all a favor by exposing them to such wonderful things. When I was a boy and viewed these things I was so happy to know they existed.

    I too loathed Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica "Daybreak" final episode horrible choices that ruined the entire series for me.

    SGB

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  3. Anonymous4:57 AM

    You have eloquently put the reason why I am avoiding the streaming world of commercial TV and movies. It might be taking the more difficult path but it also gives freedom to choose.

    In my youth they were still showing old filler shows so I was exposed to them and maybe got a bit curious. I still try to wait and see which shows are really good in retrospect and then enjoy them (with the added bonus of not having to wait for the next season... except now with The X-Files and such).

    Looking at my list (over 4000 items long...) the top ten I want on DVD include among the newer stuff:
    3. Hercules the Legendary Journeys (!),
    5. The Hills Have Eyes,
    9. Akira Kurosawa - The Samurai Collection.

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  4. I have a 17 and 22 year old daughter and son. You are absolutely spot on when you make the statement "They only select the new and the popular". My daughter went crazy over "Stranger Things". She must have watched the series a dozen times. She told me that she loved the '80s setting and wished that there were more movies and TV based in that time period. So I offered up classics like "Poltergeist", "E.T." and "The Goonies" but she will have nothing to do with them. Even a suggestion of the semi-recent "Super 8" was poo-pooed. She's watched every episode of "Black Mirror" but won't even look at the monster-of-the-week episodes of the "X-Files" with me.

    Last week, she went out and bought a book, Stephen King's "It". She said she just had to read it before the NEW MOVIE comes out in September. How much do want to bet that it won't be dog-eared or have a bookmark it in between now and then? She would have never had any interest in "It" if it weren't popular now.

    I think younger people are so wired into social media and are so influenced by popular culture that they don't care about reaching back to sample shows of the past. It's really frustrating as someone who loves movies (of both past AND present) that they won't take my recommendations. Honestly, I'm not only suggesting things that I'm nostalgic for. Both of my kids have no interest in seeing "Alien", "Terminator", "E.T", etc. Each of them much prefer "The Force Awakens" and "Rogue One" to the moldy, old "Empire Strikes Back" or "A New Hope". I like the new Star Wars movies, too. And I don't make the argument that the originals are better, they just won't give them the time of day. I bought my son the box set of the "Back To The Future" movies on Blu-Ray a few years ago because he seemed to enjoy it when I was watching it. You know where that Blu-Ray sits now? On his desk, still shrinkwrapped. Recently, I asked them to watch Buster Keaton's "The General" with me. Do you think I had any takers?

    Here's the thing. I personally seek out new movies and find that I really enjoy them. Weirdly though, I find almost all new TV shows to be plodding and endless, more soap operas that go on forever. Most go on so long that I know the characters better than my own family. And I should mention that most shows are cancelled before they have given you anything even close to an ending, which is a real slap in the face to the time invested (I still hate you, "Lost").

    If I think back to my own youth, I know that my musical choices were most definitely shaped by popular radio. I wouldn't give my parents suggestions any consideration. But Music is the only real barometer I have. The TV and Movie viewing of my formative years preceded VHS and cable. Would I have reached back to sample past classics if I would have had the option? Your guess is as good as mine.

    Speaking of music, my son fell in love with the tune "Fox on the Run" by Sweet. I asked him where he heard that old song, hoping he may have sought it out for himself as I am a fan of 70's and 80's power pop. He told me it was a really cool song in the new trailer for "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2". Sigh...

    I don't think I've even addressed the question of whether we are in a golden age of TV. Taken what I wrote above into consideration, I'd state that the answer depends entirely on the age of the person that was asked. My kids would say "yes", but my 80-year old mom would tell you the golden age is presented daily on MeTV and most certainly not streaming on Netflix or Hulu or showing on AMC.

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  5. Boy, what a loaded question! I think you handled it quite adeptly. In the 70s, people referred to the 50s as the Golden Age because, well it was new, but also because there were great anthology programs like Playhouse 90 and Studio One, which gave us powerful dramas that went on to become critically acclaimed films. We couldn't say the same for the cop shoot 'em ups and sex farces that passed for entertainment in the 70s. I do agree that we have reached a point where shows of all stripe can co-exist because networks and streaming services do not need to bring in huge ratings. But I also agree that young audiences lose all frame of reference for film because they are not forced to look at the past the way we were. I had a friend who said, "We are as much defined by the movies of the 30s as we are by the shows we watch today." Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney were just as current to us as David Soul and John Travolta in the 70s. I'm sure the same cannot be said for today's young audience.

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  6. Great thoughts John! The experience of today's television world is so different, and yes the artistic freedoms and technology and the fact that you don't need over 1/3 of the country to be watching you every week to stay on the air (like the old days of the big 3 or even big 4 once FOX came along) are all good things.

    But think about this - those old shows were produced under intense pressure with limitations from censors and sponsors and technology and budgets and all sorts of other things - and yet, so many superb pieces of dramatic storytelling were created on on all of those shows you cited, not to mention all of the gems from series that never took off (i.e. Logan's Run, The Fantastic Journey, etc.) And most episodes back then were written by one individual writer (or a couple if the story editor or producer rewrote him or her). This allowed for individual voices such as David Gerrold, and Harlan Ellison, Allan Brennert, Margaret Armen, Anne Collins etc., to break through on any given show. Today's serialized shows usually have a show runner working with a staff of writers who work everything out together ahead of time. It tends to produce something different. Great in many cases, unquestionably, just different.

    I watch many of today's shows in real time - both Walking Dead's, Homeland, Ray Donavan, Games of Thrones, Supergirl, Timeline, etc - and love all of them. But when I have extra time and want to re-watch something on DVD or streaming, like you, I find myself going back to a classic Trek, or The Outer Limits, or The Sixth Sense, or an X-files, a Night Gallery, or something obscure that can be found only on Youtube from fan uploads like VR5 or The Others. I can pick any episode I want and watch in any order, and enjoy a self-contained story without committing to twenty hours of binge watching.

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  7. Oh, lordy you have really hit a nerve with this one! Your points about today's youth are well-founded based on my experience. It definitely isn't that they are less intelligent, it's simply that they have been trained from birth to live in a world where everything is available immediately at the push of a button. If something doesn't appear on the menu of button-push choices then, for all intents and purposes, it simply doesn't exist.

    My nieces and nephews look at me like I'm from an alien planet when they see my massive Blu-ray and DVD collection. Actually OWNING a piece of physical media isn't merely strange to them but, frankly, pointless from their point of view. They seem to believe that anything that ISN'T available for instant streaming must, by definition, not be worthwhile otherwise it would be available for instant streaming! It's inculcated a dispiriting form of laziness whereby ease of access to only a very limited selection of films/TV/music makes anything else too much trouble to bother with (if they ever hear of it at all!). And since that same limited pool of stuff is all any of their friends have access to, they're doubly insulated.

    When I was in college (back in the dark, pre-historical days of the late-80s/early 90s) it was a point of pride among fellow film buffs that we enjoyed -- or at least KNEW about -- Kurosawa, Chaplin, Welles, Ophuls, Lang, Murnau, Truffaut, Hitchcock, etc. Now it's difficult to see how any of these kids would ever be introduced to these filmmakers at all. I spent hundreds of hours in the public library reading and rereading every book on film I could get my hands on and had entire worlds opened up to me. Now the most you can hope for is that people will accidentally be tipped off by something on the internet that sends them down a trail they might not have otherwise followed. But the chances of that are slim since you pretty much get what you're looking for on the internet -- that's it's purpose and how it's built to work. My oldest niece once informed me that she made it all the way through high school without ever setting foot in a public library! I almost cried. To the current generation things like libraries are relics of a time they find quaint and baffling.

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  8. John,

    In the words of the "Yes Man" talking doll toy that was floating around a while back, "I couldn't agree with ya more completely!" However...

    At the risk of sounding like a contrarian or a devil's advocate to many of the commenters and yourself, popular taste has always run towards the popular. What's hip, what's new, what's now, what's wow, is what everyone and their brother/sister/mother/random dude at school are into when it's hot. We genre lovers have always been on the fringe, comfortably within our niche. To give you an example, when Blade Runner was first released and Deckard was still just a human being (and not a funky replicant gleam in Ridley Scott's eye), I was blown away by the film. I immediately told everyone whose ear I could bend, "You MUST see this movie!" I was ignored, mostly. Those who did bother to heed my words later approached me and told me that Blade Runner "sucked, Man."

    Fast forward a decade or so later. Blade Runner is on cable, it's on home video, everyone has seen it, articles are being written about it; suddenly, Blade Runner is hip, and the same people who told me it sucked are now telling me "It's one of the top ten films of all time EVER!"

    Home video changed our viewing habits. Streaming and iphones have changed our viewing habits. Each generation seems to have its own way of watching, and perhaps I'm more fortunate than some, but in my experience, there are still those young'uns among us who seek out classic shows, films and books. They are few in number, they are in the minority, but haven't they always been? The vast public is always trying to glom onto the hot new thing, and generally frowning upon the old stuff.

    Exposing others to earlier, classic works of art is definitely commendable. Some will become curious and seek out what's different, and sometimes, that's what's not fresh and new. Two of my favorite films of all time, 1968's Charly starring Cliff Roberson, and Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, are films that I was forced to sit through in high school, and both were revelations to me. They were gateways into other forms of art and experiences. The majority of my classmates did not agree with me. Different strokes and all that.

    What I'm trying to say is, there are still young people out there who are looking for such entertainment. The New Doctor Who proved a boon for the older episodes, with many parents watching the original episodes with their kids, who were hungry for more adventures with The Doctor. Can you imagine, finding out that your new favorite series has this vast history, and experiencing it for the first time? Kind of like when I was a kid, watched Spider-Man fighting Mysterio on a rerun of the 1966 cartoon series, then went to a store that afternoon and found a comic book of Spider-Man fighting Mysterio. Whole worlds are there for those who want to find them, and those people are out there.

    As for me, I'll be looking forward to Lost In Space on Netflix, and perhaps I'll wash that down with some Lost In Space on blu ray. There are more than enough Golden Ages for all of us, to enjoy and experience as we wish.

    Steve

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  9. Andrea11:25 PM

    At this point in my life, I might be closer to 30 than to 20, but I am still considered part of this lastest y-/millennial generation, having been born at the tail end of the eighties, and I felt I needed to chime in to say that not all in lost for my generation. We may be in the smaller percentile, but there are still those of us who love more than the last 10 years of cinematic and television treasures and actively seek gems from decades past. I don't know if it's because my parents raised me on an ample diet of 70s/80s films, supplemented by heavy doses of TCM movie marathons, where I my life long love of the Marx brothers, Vincent Price and Hammer Horror started, but I have an extremely eclectic and wide taste in movies, from silent, to art house to exploitation features, I enjoy and actively seek them all. Honestly it gives me a bit of anxiety thinking about all the films and television series I've yet to see, but are on my "must watch" list-- a list that runs into the hundreds. There just isn't enough time! And I know a few others, my peers, with similar tastes. Granted, we are film majors and the cinema runs in our veins so to speak, but yes we're out there. And yes I know what a VHS and DVD are, and have quite a few, along with a sizable collection of blurays; including some criterion, but then I've never been a fan of digital media, feeling like I never really own something unless it's physical.

    However, I do share your pain. It is disheartening to mention a film from the 80s to a peer and see that glassy, empty-eyed stare. It's not even a decade I think as "old," considering I was born in it. Thankfully, I don't meet many like that, but I now have to accept that most of my generation is younger than I am and grew up during the 2000s vs the 1990s, where VHS' were still a thing and getting a computer was still a big deal.

    As for the episodic vs story arch narrative approach to television, I much prefer the latter to the former even though I think I grew up watching shows that we're more episodic in nature, like Star Trek: TNG, Tales from the Crypt, and The X-Files. However, I am a narrative junkie and love great, well-written, interesting characters that I can sink my brain into. I can even forgive a show a bit if I love the characters enough, but the story is lacking. Shows like GOTs, Vikings, Deadwood, etc...are just so much more engaging and stimulating to my mind. I love discussing and analyzing a character's reasoning, choices, and (de)evolution. Whereas, I still love shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek, they are far less satisfying, and tiresome after awhile, especially if they become formulaic. Sure we love the Doctor and his/her companions (thinks of Jamie and the second Doctor) but it isn't about the story in Doctor Who, its about the adventure. Will the Doctor save the day? Of course he will, but how? It's all about the ride. And while that is fun, it's not something I wish to delve deeper into and watch repeatedly. Usually once is enough, though that isn't always the case. However, I can and have watched seasons of Deadwood or GOT repeatedly just because of the grand stories they tell and their interesting characters.

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  10. John,
    This was a great question. One of the things that I've been pleasantly surprised about today's tv is that serialized tv can be competently created out of stand-alone one and done movies like Fargo. And yet still remain faithful to the universe in which the film was created in.
    It excites me to think of how good a weekly series based in the universe of JC's "The Thing" could be.

    Twilight Zone-Rod Sterling, Star Trek-Gene Roddenberry, The X-Files-Chris Carter.... these are singular talents with a great vision, but that does not necessarily indicate a 'Golden Age'. I was born in 69, my memory is not quite as fond of 70's tv as some may be.

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