The Non-Idiot’s Box

Kevin Nguyen examines the forces behind the recent swell of extraordinary, intelligent television.

I have a habit of insisting that a series is “the best show on television ever.” I’ve said so about Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, and now Mad Men, but this just speaks to the strength of shows currently on television. In fact, we may be in a new golden age of TV.

Until recently, television was our most condescending medium. The popular programs of the ‘90s were sitcoms. Each episode was self-contained, so viewers wouldn’t have to keep up with their shows. Even the (arguably) best series of that era, Seinfeld, demands little of its audience. It doesn’t take more than five minutes to realize that Jerry is sarcastic, Kramer is weird, Elaine is goofy, and George is, well, George.

And it wasn’t just sitcoms. Law & Order in all of its seventy incarnations follows the same convention: single-serving doses of prime-time escapism.

Then came The Sopranos. It was controversial, violent, and demanded concentration and dedication from its audience. Since then, TV has become bold, daring, and simply better.

I credit three things for this advance in programming quality. Premium channels like HBO and Showtime have created television with higher production values. The Sopranos and most other shows on those networks are of silver-screen quality. Plus, HBO is free from advertisers pressuring them to keep ratings high, so they can fund shows that are great but never find a large audience, like The Wire.

Though HBO’s current line up is somewhat lacking, their past success inspired other premium, cable, and network channels to move away from sitcoms. Sci Fi has Battlestar Galactica, AMC has Mad Men, and ABC has Lost.

The introduction of television on DVD also encouraged the quality of programming. I’ve caught up on the first season of Mad Men that way, and somewhat ironically, DVD is becoming the best way to watch TV. I can re-watch and rewind scenes to catch subtle clues, and seeing episodes back to back encourages viewing with a strong attention to detail.

Last, and most obviously, the rising popularity of TiVo and other digital video recorders has allowed people to schedule TV around their lives instead of the other way around. The introduction of on-demand content is just the latest development in making it easy to keep up with shows.

Now television series are finally taking advantage of the medium’s inherent strengths. Since shows have a longer run, writers have time to develop complicated story lines and a larger cast of strong characters. Viewers, in turn, grow more attached after investing so much time in their programs. The episodic nature also gives breaks for the audience to discuss and debate the show (best illustrated with fans of Lost predicting what the hell is going to happen next). Finishing five seasons of The Wire gives a kind of satisfaction more akin to reading a novel than watching a movie.

And this isn’t exclusive to dramas. Arrested Development, the best example of a brilliant show cancelled by network pressure, rewards its viewers with references to other episodes and jokes scattered as clues throughout each episode. It also has an overarching story line, which only adds to the show’s unmatched cleverness.

You can argue that television is also getting crummier, especially as reality TV looks to prove that it’s a mainstay, not a trend. This is true, but every art form has its fair share of pulp. Just look at the number of books we could classify as literature compared to how much genre fiction and other crap adorns the shelves at Borders.

No longer is television just a way to kill time. The former “idiot box” is one of the most creative, exciting mainstream art forms today, and we’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the medium has to offer.

So don’t forget to watch/TiVo/Netflix/download Mad Men. It’s the best show on television ever, at least for now.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.