Are we in the third golden age of television?

Image credit: Aaron Escobar

For decades, the purpose of TV was to engage our weary selves, to tune us out after exhausting long days, to help us not to think. It was associated with the masses, who were assumed to want dumb, simple pleasures. TV was loud, with laugh tracks, near-neon opening credits, and disturbingly cheerful jingles - it was trashy. Yet today, this has changed.

In the countless lists of ‘What To Watch On TV’, certain names never fail to be mentioned, like Stranger Things, Black Mirror, Game of Thrones, Orange Is The New Black, Better Call Saul, Veep, The People vs. OJ Simpson, Atlanta, The Crown etc. etc. Looking at these big names, certain trends become clear. TV producers recognise, and are harnessing our interests in the power of technology, sci-fi and superheroes, and historical events. Shows like Black Mirror and Westworld cater to the first, while Marvel’s rapidly growing repertoire, including Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil and Jessica Jones, has cashed in on the second. Meanwhile, various parts of history are featured in The People vs. OJ Simpson, Narcos, The Crown, and Making A Murderer, amongst several others. There is also a rise in the number of political dramas: House of Cards, The Good Wife, and two personal favourites, Mr Robot, and Designated Survivor, take the stage. The world of comedy has caught on too, with Silicon Valley and Veep, for example, satirising the worlds of tech and American politics respectively.

In this way, the television industry has taken on a more active role in our lives. To watch an episode of your favourite show now, you need both an interest and some understanding of current affairs, than you would have years ago. As New York Times Magazine puts it, “To make sense of an episode of "24," you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like "24," you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships.”

The shift in our demands for TV, from medium of escapism to cognitive workout, can be explained by the increasing fragmentation of personal interests. “Previously, the aim was to please all viewers equally. Now the aim is to please relatively few viewers a lot and keep them,” says Brian Petersen, a PhD student at the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen, to The dawn of online TV-watching has also had a major role to play. Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and iTunes have shaped our modern TV-watching culture. We no longer face 10-minute advert breaks. Snack and tea-making have been made part of the pregame routine - once we hit play, we will not be disturbed. This means our focus is on the plot, not on relaxing. It has also ushered in the habit of binge-watching, or as Huffington Post calls it, “the death of patience”. It is more common to watch all 10 seasons of a show at once, than wait for a new episode week by week. Plus, gone are the days when TV had a prominent role to play in physically drawing families together. Today, we retire to our laptop screens to catch the latest episode of Game of Thrones, occasionally in the same room as other people, then discuss it at the dinner table or online.

Some have called these years the third golden age of TV series, perhaps deservedly so. We no longer turn to movies for inspiration - it is arguably equally common to explore the dawn of technology through Black Mirror as I, Robot. In some ways, the serial nature of TV shows has an advantage; for example, we can explore issues on a broader scale, with each episode centring in on a different aspect of the same theme. This is exactly what Black Mirror does. Petersen says, “With the arrival of the new millennium, TV series have made the transition back into high culture. In the 1940s and the first part of the 1950s, they were also considered high culture.” We have bid farewell to the “standardised formats [of] the 1950s and later years”, and come to see greater variety and possibilities in TV production, which reinstates its place as a narrative art.

It is interesting to think about what this says about us. Decades from now, people will turn to our forms of entertainment as research into our political and societal landscape. What will they conclude? Either way, it’s an exciting time for the world of television.

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