There seems to be a surprising amount of talk lately about the past of TV, the split in American TV history that occurred in 1999, and whether we owe it to ourselves to get more into TV history. This post, despite its overly-provocative title, is a pretty calm and fair examination of this question from the point of view of a writer who, like many people, finds much older U.S. TV too limited and convention-ridden to qualify as “great.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. The TV drama era that started with Twin Peaks and culminated in The Sopranos really did bring a lot of viewers to TV, viewers who previously found TV too limited, corny, slapdash and beholden to advertisers. Even the greatest pre-Sopranos TV shows are obviously compromised, and you have to make allowances for that. (Homicide, for example, is obviously a more compromised show than The Wire – not to say that The Wire is necessarily better in an absolute sense, just that the bargains Homicide made with advertisers, network executives and ratings are right there on the screen for everyone to see.) Trying to argue for the classic status of an obviously compromised commercial product is not impossible, but it’s tricky. You can’t argue that this seemed real to people at the time; it never did. And when you start arguing for the greatness of these older shows, you have to use almost a new set of aesthetic standards. Most obviously, if you’re going to argue that, say, The Rockford Files is the equal of a post-1990 drama, you have to first throw out any notion of characters growing or changing with time; the whole notion of character growth, or character growth lasting more than one episode, is completely inoperative. Well, once you start arguing that way, it sounds like special pleading.
Again, the history of movies demonstrates that conventional genre pieces can be redeemed as classics. Sort of like the French rediscovered low-budget American crime movies and proclaimed some of them to be works of art – which, it turns out, some of them were. But it’s harder to do that with TV because every TV series is uneven, and older shows are even more uneven than they are now (because they had more episodes to produce per season and smaller staffs to rewrite them), so if you sit down to look at a series you might literally be seeing a different, worse show than other people remember.
I guess what I’m saying is that pre-’90s TV, and drama in particular, has a lot of interesting material waiting to be investigated. And some of it, I think, is better than (fill in the name of a modern “quality” show you don’t like) But I think it’s pointless to try and claim it’s the same kind of thing, or that someone who got into TV through the post-Sopranos shows has a duty to watch older shows and consider them great.
The fascinating thing about TV today, what makes it more vibrant than movies (not necessarily “better,” just more culturally relevant) is that there are at least two different audiences that are in love with the medium: the traditional, often older audience that was raised on the older genres, and the newer audience (not always younger, but probably younger overall than the other audience) that delights in seeing TV break free from those older conventions and finally fulfil its potential. Unlike movies, TV has not yet completely split into two separate types of work for separate audiences – broadcast networks have some of the edgiest, genre-busting stuff, and cable TV networks make much of their money on repeats of conventional genre shows. (AMC runs CSI Miami ads in the middle of Mad Men original episodes.) But the split still exists, even for modern shows. And a show made before 1990, especially a drama, is almost from another world entirely; the great ones may be as good as today’s, and I think they are, but I don’t think a Mad Men fan is doing a disservice to the medium’s history by not slogging through shows that are based on a different aesthetic.
Finally, after all this (this turned out to be a longer, more rambling post than I anticipated, one that overlapped some with a post I wrote a few weeks ago, but I decided it was just different enough that I should leave it as is), I am reminded: there probably has never been a better slogan in television history than “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” It was so simple and perfect. It was based on a concept that had circulated in various forms almost since the medium began; you might remember that Bravo! used to have “TV too good for TV.” But HBO distilled it to its essence, inviting in viewers who had nothing against TV in theory, but just didn’t find TV as it stood – the conventions and compromises that networks had developed over the years – to be very interesting. The slogan became famous as an aspirational thing: watch HBO and feel good about your taste. But it worked because it was accurate: people who weren’t interested in “TV” might find they were interested in what HBO had to offer, not because it was necessarily all great, but because it was trying to do something different.