CHANCES are you will have heard of some of the absurdly successful critically acclaimed “boxset television” shows coming from the USA.
Since the launch of HBO gangster-drama The Sopranos in 1999, television must-see listings have been dominated by absurdly successful programs with complex, intricate dramatic storylines and multi-layered series arcs that encompass dozens of characters going through all sorts of issues before the series builds to a huge and often devastating conclusion.
You’ll have heard of some of these shows. King of the list is shows that everyone seems to rave about, such as Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and the Scandinavian cult shows like Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge.
Mega-shows like this have led to some figures declare our current viewing options as “The Second Golden Age of Television”. This is some decades after the first, which is widely viewed as the 50s/60s.
The reason why shows are beginning to take the public consciousness is due to the fact it is creating a darker, more realistic world, which has echoes of a dramatic film but simply with more show out of it. A show like Breaking Bad simply would not have functioned as a Hollywood movie. In its guise as a six-season epic, the life of Walter White was given time to spiral out of control, and fully play-out his career trajectory from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to feared drug kingpin, as well as giving the story multiple layers and characters that helped maintain the emotional interest and investment all the way to the end.
Yet despite this, it feels as much that this golden age of television is limited to American television, and even then, primarily to the cable networks like AMC and HBO.
Major US networks don’t take the risks their cable networks have managed, with their programming more reliant on hit-and-miss sitcoms and animated shows, while their dramas don’t have the acclaim of their historical offerings. Take The Following, which is a Kevin Bacon vehicle for Fox. Seen as one of the most brutal and violent shows offered by American network television, it has failed to spark and draw the acclaim its brothers on the other sides have.
Even the cable networks have issues, with Showtime being critically hammered for letting Dexter drag on into an abysmal and illogical final season, and seeming to do so again with Homeland long after the acclaim of its first season has gone.
But while America has its moments of televisual glory, there’s slimmer pickings over here in the UK, with a huge emphasis on reality shows at a time these sort of shows have lost their allure. Chief culprit early on in 2014 is The Voice, which is still around despite being the X Factor but with revolving chairs instead of a desk.
There’s still reasonably entertaining, if not quite as acclaimed, dramas around, such as Doctor Who and Sherlock. But aside from that, the show to have some of the nearest appeal on UK television is the meandering attempts of stalking the boring Z-listers on Celebrity Big Brother, and the politically divisive documentary Benefits Street, along with the excessive political posturing of politicians and commentators of all scopes using it to fit their respective narrative.
Dramas on UK shows are largely dull retreads of the same old topics. A lot of old-timey class-warfare programming that fails to ignite and inspire is often the heart of drama, as well as a myriad of crime detectives solving murders, while all networks have dreary and scarcely believable soap operas. Occasionally they have plotlines that do gain them success, such as most recently when Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper committed assisted suicide. But while these shows do have occasional moments of inspiration, they are frequently the Polyfilla of the television schedule.
If there is a golden age, its not the most evident on British television. There are a number of shows that do well, but while British film has enjoyed a lot of recent success in spite of the folding of the UK Film Council, British TV is not really capturing the imagination.
As a result, a lot of attention is squeezed on the USA’s golden television shows, or at the very least, there’s people taking opportunities to re-visit previous highly-rated boxset shows such as earlier hits 24, The X Files, The Wire and, of course, all of those more recent darlings.
Its likely the next big entertainment golden age is likely to be elsewhere from television. US online-based network Netflix has scored enormous success with House of Cards, which stars Kevin Spacey as a corrupt US politician in the remake of the original British series. The website has also scored the restart of American sitcom Arrested Development, and while the economics are certainly one for future debate, there is certainly signs that internet television is going to become a huge player in the next few years.
Meanwhile, video games have begun earning more praise for their focus on story than ever before. The massive critical success of The Last of Us was based on its tightly-coiled story combined to a brilliantly-executed tone, and the game continues a trend of story-driven console games that has been growing in recent years. This could pave the way for a potential future where film and television screenwriters work in the video games industry to create playable boxset television dramas.
These are potentially exciting future entertainment stories. But as for television, its certainly a golden age for cable and satellite dramas based on American drug barons, sex-obsessed mythical overlords and for Scandinavian crime detectives. For now, this is where the gold is shining brightest – moreso than anywhere else.