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The Dark Side of Television's 'Golden Age'

Critics who champion TV's high-quality renaissance elevate the status of niche shows at the expense of those appreciated by "mass," lower-class audiences.
Let's face it, Walter White was not actually all that classy. (Photo: AMC)

Let's face it, Walter White was not actually all that classy. (Photo: AMC)

By most critics’ accounts, we’re living in a Golden Age of Television. Not to be confused with the first Golden Age, which took place from the 1940s through the '60s, today's mantle refers to the abundance of quality comedy and drama available for consumption on cable and streaming networks. Pioneers, including Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Girls, the Wire, and 30 Rock, have transformed the tube from a provider of comfort food to an importer of important cultural commentary. The male leads have become tortured and complicated. Streaming and DVD, meanwhile, have eradicated former commercial and technical creative restrictions. Once labeled a "vast wasteland" of offensive and boring distractions by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton N. Minow, today the former guilty pleasure is being called a “social requirement.” Yay?

Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine aren't cheering. Their monograph, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status, was first published in 2011, but, in 2015, its central argument is as relevant as ever. Newman and Levine contend that, from its inception, television criticism has sneered at lower-class mass audiences and undiscerning—read: historically feminine—daytime viewers. Critics have elevated television's status by perpetuating these "hierarchies of taste and cultural value and inequalities of class and gender" to distinguish the good from the bad. Sound familiar? Today, criticism is still promulgating the same old idea, but with a streaming-era twist: Most television is still for undiscerning boobs, but thanks to new, exciting formats, some of it is also highbrow.

The distinction between bad and good television is often framed in terms of formats. Bad shows play on aging broadcast channels, while good ones come from hip cable channels or streaming websites. The business of broadcast is to blame for the differences in quality, according to some critics. "If you own a broadcast channel, your job is to develop as many shows as possible that attract a wide audience," Derek Thompson argued in a story for the Atlantic in 2013. "The formal term for most of these shows is 'produced for a mass audience' but the common term is 'relentless crap.'" This argument, with its disdain for popular television and its elevation of elite forms of distribution, is typical of Golden Age critical rhetoric. Though critics may frame these arguments in terms of old and new media, these judgments are also couched in class. Within this dichotomy, only those who can afford more expensive cable service—or who have the leisure time, Internet connectivity, and social circles to know which shows to stream—have truly educated tastes. It's these privileges that allow an enlightened few to appreciate the subtle nuances of, say, characters shooting each other over meth on Breaking Bad.

Fun for the whole family can be smart and bizarre; grim truths for urbane connoisseurs can be clichéd and unimaginative. Aesthetic quality is more complicated than stories designed for specific demographics.

But, critics might argue, there’s also a qualitative difference in the way that Golden Age stories are told. Perhaps the clearest example of the status anxiety that has given birth to this golden era is the way critics fetishize serial narratives. Long story arcs drawn out over multiple episodes are a narrative technique that television writers often point to as evidence of quality writing. In the phrasing of a story in n+1, "a medium of popular entertainment became a medium of popular Art." The Wire, for instance, has been compared to Dickens; Downton Abbey, Homeland, and Boardwalk Empire have been mentioned in the same breath as Trollope and Wharton.

Yet these recent homages to the serial narrative's literary origins tend to erase the most important pioneer of its popularity on television: soap operas. As Newman and Levine point out, "soap opera" is customarily a term of denigration in television criticism: To say a show is like a soap opera is to convey that it is melodramatic, improbable, gushy, or ridiculous. Today's serials—which are available on demand for those who are heavily scheduled, and often weave "serious" stories about crime and violence—would seem to be at odds with fodder that is stereotypically directed at bored housewives. But critics championing the former might do well to at least acknowledge the latter, which has long weaved sequential narratives with multiple characters on television. Following Newman and Levine's point, we might ask, do formal qualities distinguish the Sopranos from Days of Our Lives? Or is the real difference found in assumptions about who is thought to be watching?

Today, the soap opera doesn't attract the demographic (or the audience numbers) that it used to. But its role as an injurious pejorative for criticism couched in anti-housewife sentiment remains. When Stephen King and the New York Review of Books dismiss Mad Men, they call it a soap opera; when George Romero wants to take the Walking Dead down a peg, he does the same. Instead of signifying the complex narrative foundations upon which these critically beloved shows were built, being called a "soap" is the ultimate diss for a Golden Age show.

You could follow Newman and Levine's lead and make similar points about other markers of quality television. Current Golden Age shows are often praised for their complex, grim anti-heroes, one iconic example being Bryan Cranston's Walter White on Breaking Bad. But many of the most popular daytime soap characters, like Anthony Geary's Luke Spencer on General Hospital, were similarly troubled anti-hero characters—Spencer, like White, was even involved in organized crime. There isn't much of a difference in subject matter or approach between the Golden Age and the pre-Golden Age forms of television. But there's a big difference in perceived audience and legitimacy—a difference built on invidious, class-based stereotypes.

So, you might ask, how can critics stop establishing quality through classism? Well, in the first place, they might acknowledge that great television did not begin with the airing of Hill Street Blues, or Twin Peaks, or the Wire, or Seinfeld—shows that are typically cited as iconic moments in the origin myth of quality. On the contrary, there has always been aesthetically vital and interesting television. The '60s Batman television show with Adam West, for example, defined mass art; it had a massive 52 television share and launched a successful film and $75 million worth of merchandising, outselling even James Bond for a time in the mid-'60s. Today, Batman fans accustomed to Christopher Nolan's dark interpretations tend to wince at its campy pleasures. But is Netflix's Daredevil, the Golden Age superhero show du jour, really better art than a show that had the Joker challenge Batman to a surf battle? Fun for the whole family can be smart and bizarre; grim truths for urbane connoisseurs can be clichéd and unimaginative. Aesthetic quality is more complicated than designing a story for specific demographics.

Many older children’s shows, like Sesame Street and Pee Wee's Playhouse, also push back against the idea that television has suddenly, vastly improved. They also call into question the assumption that quality television has to be television that is sophisticated, sexy, violent, and adult. Sesame Street has now run for 45 seasons, which speaks to its timeless appeal to children and adults alike. Personally, if I have to choose between the entire run of the Sopranos and that six-year-old thrashing to Stevie Wonder's Superstition, it's not even going to be a close call.

There’s nothing wrong with loving Golden Age television. For what it's worth, I love the Wire and Twin Peaks—two shows often singled out as the best television shows of all time in Golden Age rhetoric. Nor should critics' goal be to praise every and any television show ever broadcast. Even if it is critically panned, ratings giant the Big Bang Theory is (in my opinion, at least) still not all that great.

But acknowledging that there has always been good television can avoid discourse that suggests that traditional television is innately debased—and that the traditional mass and often-feminized television audience had innately debased tastes as well. Rather than sneering at the past to validate the present, we might instead think about how the emotional intimacy and narrative complexity of soap operas have informed and inspired shows like Orange Is the New Black and Orphan Black. Or, we could consider how the earnest, scuzzy realism of shows like Breaking Bad and the Wire is consistent with, rather than opposed to, reality television's obsession with (the appearance) of truth.

Television was never innately bad. It's a medium, like any other, which people have always used to make good art, bad art, and art somewhere in the middle. The Golden Age hasn't changed that. Instead, as a rhetorical meme, the Golden Age has provided elites, and those who want to be elites, with another way to distinguish themselves from a perceived lower-taste mass. The true Golden Age of Television, maybe, will come when we realize that we don't need a Golden Age of Television to tell us it's OK to watch television, even if everyone else is watching it too.