Many television critics have declared in recent years that we are experiencing the golden age of television. Television critic David Bianculli takes it a metal further in his latest book The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific.
The platinum age of television that we are currently enjoying began in the late 1990s, according to Bianculli, when NBC was airing The West Wing, which he hails as the last great drama on broadcast television, and HBO debuted The Sopranos, a series he views as a game changer that raised the bar for what a television series could be.
Bianculli notes that he considered two other eras—the early '70s when The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted on CBS and started what he calls a "quality revolution" in comedy as well as drama, and the early '80s when Hill Street Blues revolutionized the look, pacing and content of TV drama—before pinpointing the start of the platinum age of television in the late '90s.
"It was tough to come to that decision because I'm old," cracks the TV critic for NPR's Fresh Air who has been writing about television since 1975. "I remember the older stuff and how good it was in its time."
To explain how we got here, to a time in which there is such an abundance of great television, it is impossible to keep up with it all, Bianculli charts the evolution of the medium in his nearly 600 page book, dividing his detailed study into genres including sitcoms, crime shows and miniseries, and analyzing five shows in each category, explaining in the crimes shows chapter, for example, how we got from Hill Street Blues to NYPD Blue to The Sopranos to The Shield to Breaking Bad.
One of the most interesting positions he takes is that we have Steven Spielberg to thank in part for the brilliant television dramas we have today.
How so? A key turning point in the quality of television came out of the success of Spielberg's Jaws, Bianculli posits. "When Steven Spielberg made Jaws and started the whole blockbuster mentality in film, that stopped the production of the really interesting, character-driven, somber movies that were so great in the early '70s," he explains. "When that happened, television started to pick up the slack more and more, and it was that combined with the growth of cable—when cable started to flex its muscles in the late '80s and into the '90s—that both broadcast and cable television began getting more and more mature. That's where I think the platinum age really came from."
Now, that's something to ponder.
Anyway, you can dive deep into the history of television by reading Bianculli's comprehensive and enlightening book. Here, he talks to Co.Create about five specific things he believes television is doing so right these days.
Throughout much of television history, the idea of basing a show around an irredeemable antihero was unthinkable. Back when The Untouchables was on [the crime drama ran from '59-'63], the bad guys were on the opposite side of the fence," Bianculli points out.
But that changed in a big way in '99 with the gangster drama The Sopranos. "Look at James Gandolfini's character Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. He's a family man, you can identify with him, but he's not a good guy," Bianculli says, "and yet he's at the center of the series."
The warm embrace the thuggish Tony Soprano, who once killed a man with his bare hands, got from viewers opened the door for characters like Breaking Bad's Walter White, who, at first, was a good man who wanted to leave something behind for his family in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, but slowly evolved into a ruthless criminal driven not by love for his family but by his ego.
Another notable trend regarding characters: Even the most popular protagonists are expendable in this platinum age of television, which is remarkable because it wasn't that long ago when killing off a beloved character was unthinkable.
But, nowadays, shows like The Walking Dead are actually famous for killing off popular characters. Anyone else still feel sick when they think of how poor Charlie drowned on Lost? That was a shocker. More recently, it was sweet Glenn, who died at the hands of Negan in the most horrific way possible on The Walking Dead. "Characters no longer have to win each week, or even return each week," Bianculli says.
It's unsettling—even disturbing—when regular characters are suddenly killed off. "But in an artistic way, it's so satisfying," Bianculli says.
The departures set the stage for new directions in storytelling, and for viewers, the stakes are higher when you can't assume that your favorite character will be there from the start to the finish of a series.
The Sopranos "Made in America" series finale was startling—to some, frustrating—in its ambiguity, and people are still arguing about what the hell happened today, and they will probably still be trying to figure it out 20 years from now.
As you'll recall, the last scene took place in a diner where Tony was meeting his family for dinner. But did the Sopranos even get to enjoy dinner, or was Tony whacked by that suspicious guy in the Members Only jacket? We'll never know because the scene suddenly cut to black before it was clear what was going to happen, and series creator David Simon has refused to tell us exactly what happened.
"Depending upon how you interpret that finale, they either thumbed their nose at the whole idea of the finale, or just said, 'We are not going to give you a finale. We are just going to stop time.' The beauty of it is that there is no one interpretation," Bianculli says, noting, "The Sopranos upped the ante on finales so much that now every show has to end spectacularly in order to protect its legacy."
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, whom Bianculli interviewed for his book, talks specifically about the pressure he felt to nail the ending of his series because of The Sopranos. "When I interviewed Vince, he was talking about how they thought of all sorts of different ways to end the show, and he decided that to be true to the show he had to be true to the beginning, which was the suggestion in the first episode that this guy was not going to live until the end of the series," Bianculli says, "so they did kill him. Even though some people think he did not die at the end of Breaking Bad, he died."
Asked to cite another of his favorite finales in recent years, Bianculli says, "Six Feet Under—I thought it was brilliant. It flashes forward and shows the deaths of every one of its characters. That's so true to the 'death of the week' that they had in the show."
TV is getting more complex and presuming more intelligence on the part of the audience, "which, I think, is what you have to have before you're going to have anything be good, no matter what medium you're in, no matter what are you're trying to create," Bianculli says. "If you dumb it down because you think your audience isn't going to be able to understand it, you're not going to do anything that's really good."
And it's not just dramas that are presenting challenging narratives these days—in fact, Bianculli's brings up Amy Schumer's decision to devote a full episode of her Comedy Central sketch series Inside Amy Schumer to parodying of the 1957 film 12 Angry Men, even shooting the episode, which had a dozen men determining whether Schumer was attractive enough to have her own television show, in black-and-white.
"Just last week in one of my college classes [Bianculli teaches TV and film classes at New Jersey's Rowan University], I showed my students the first few minutes of 12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer. Most of the kids hadn't seen the original film and roared with laughter at the premise, but then talked with amazement when I told them about the film," Bianculli says. "They asked, 'Why is she making such a detailed homage of a 50, 60-year-old drama? Why is she making fun of something that most of her audience wouldn't know what she's making fun of?' "
"I love that she wants to keep 12 Angry Men alive and that she has the freedom to just say, 'I want to do a half-hour of satire of 12 Angry Men," he continues, "and she gets to do it on Comedy Central and cast people like Jeff Goldblum in it."
In the early days of television, back in the '50s and '60s, producers of drama and comedy series were making 39 episodes a season. Eventually, that number went down to 22, but still, that's a grueling commitment. "Then cable comes along and is 10 to 13 episodes a season, and some shows, as The Sopranos did, take breaks between seasons," Bianculli says, noting when you don't have to churn out episodes simply to meet a quota, you can invest more time in writing, production and editing and really craft each episode of a series.
"I think The Sopranos is the first great example of that," he says. "They did fewer episodes, and they had a higher overall batting average as a result."
"You wonder sometimes in retrospect if other shows had done it that way—if Twin Peaks had been 10 episodes the first season and maybe taken a break rather than them just having to come up with more crap for season two—it might have sustained its initial brilliance," Bianculli muses, adding, "It's still one of my favorite series ever."
When you read about the history of television, the celebrated showrunners are still predominantly white men creating worlds in which the main characters are white men. But that is changing (maybe not fast enough, but it is changing), and the streaming services are leading the charge.
Bianculli credits Netflix in particular with finding a way "to make room for so many voices that had not been heard before." Netflix series like Master of None, created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang and starring Ansari, and Jenji Kohan's Orange Is the New Black are effortlessly diverse shows, depicting the lives of people of different races and featuring LGBT characters. "These are shows that maybe 20 years ago, the regular networks would have been like, 'Oh, there's not enough of an audience for that,' " Bianculli says, also noting the success of Amazon's Transparent, created by Jill Soloway.
"That's one of the great things when you have 400 scripted dramas a year," he says of the current era of Peak TV. "You have room for more voices, and you can have more people taking chances."
Bianculli is constantly telling his students at Rowan University who want to work in television how lucky they are. "Right now, is the best time ever to try to be a writer or a participant in TV. It's never been better," he says. "There are more opportunities, there are more studios, there are more networks, there are more places to try and sell your product than there ever have been."