Brett Martin identifies a first burst of literary energy in 1950s television (when the medium was young) and a second that came in the 1980s (when the forward-thinking television executive Grant Tinker’s MGM Enterprises begat the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues). These are followed by the “Third Golden Age,” beginning with The Sopranos. This story is at least half the content of his book. He uses it to set the stage for understanding what followed in shows that may be even better than The Sopranos. The Emmy Awards, given for the best programming in television, are now routinely given only to cable shows such as these, all of which have garned an incredible number of such awards. The New York Times book review of Martin’s books says that he “writes with a psychological insight that enhances his nimble reporting.” Again, I have to agree completely.
Martin takes the reader (listener) behind the scenes of this cultural shift and provides extensive reporting based on interviews and good research. He gives you “never-before-heard” stories and reveals how cable television has distinguished itself from the networks, making their programing less and less compelling and interesting. Personally, I can think of only two television series on the networks that captured my interest in the last decade: The West Wing and Friday Night Lights. Martin’s account explains why this is true and thus helped me understand what was going on in the making and development of these works of popular art that I have found riveting at times. Breaking Bad is so compelling I am reading about it, watching it on Sunday evenings and reading follow-up dialogue about it on the Internet. Almost all my young friends watch it!
Some Christians do not appreciate popular art, especially popular art on television. I do not wish to engage in that debate here but I believe the human condition, the nature of sin and the fears and dreams of real people, all come alive in these particular shows. I have seen few great movies in the last five years. The best viewing, for my time, is shows like those Martin features in this book.
Other critics suggest that these shows are nothing but modern soap operas. There is a small element of truth in this claim but a very small one at best. The sustained drama, the gripping story lines and the development of profoundly human characters, is all more like Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers than a network soap opera.
One of the appealing things about these shows is that you can watch them in large chunks all at once via CD discs or Netflix streaming. This allows you to process the story with a growing awareness of the plot and development without large amounts of time in between episodes. Plus, most seasons are only thirteen shows or less. I am not sure what comes next from this “Golden Age” but the shows Brett Martin writes about in his fine book are clearly ground-breaking in terms of modern culture. As Breaking Bad came to the end of its television life scores of my friends were interacting with me about Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and the entire series. Groups of millennials are gathering to watch the series in person as a shared group experience. Mad Men will soon come to its final season, leaving us all trying to more profoundly grasp the terribly flawed life of another antihero, Don Draper. (And the amazing 19th-century period piece, Hell on Wheels, is also nearing the end of its final season, reaching a much too premature death because of behind-the-scenes wrangling.) But then I still have another season of Justified on FX so all is not lost in cableland. It is to be seen if this “Golden Age” can be sustained or something else will follow in its wake but one thing is sure to me, television will never be the same because of this kind of dramatic programming. If you consume large amounts of cable news forget it. It is so ephemeral and wasteful, even corrupting in a deeply unseen way. Immerse yourself in one of these great series, overlook certain objectionable parts that might stun you at first, and dig into the deep characters of fictional people who come through as real humans in living color!