Thoughts on the Aughts: What made the Golden Age of TV glow?

There’s no way to list every show or development that had an impact on TV during the last decade. But certain technologies and programs had an unmistakable influence on the Golden Age of television.

Please keep in mind that what follows isn’t a comprehensive list of the best shows of the past decade. These are thoughts on a few of the developments, trends and programs that affected what we saw on our screens during the last 10 years. (And if you’re looking for Best of the Aughts lists, I can’t improve on the lists here and here.)

1. Television breaks out of the box. Gather round, children, let me tell you a story from the olden days: Long ago, people used to sit in front of their televisions at particular times in order to watch their favorite shows. And they could not skip the commercials! True story.

TVbox The idea of appointment TV appears to be, to a degree unthinkable a decade ago, going the way of the eight-track tape and the VCR. Thanks to the Internet, the DVD and especially the DVR, we all run our own networks now. When it comes to what we watch and when and where we watch it, the networks are no longer in control. We are the bosses of us.

The rise of DVDs around the turn of the millennium came along at just the right time: Just as writers were embracing the possibilities serialized and semi-serialized storytelling, along came a handy format that allowed viewers to catch multiple episodes at once (and a revenue stream that made jittery networks slightly less jittery about declining ratings).

The revenue stream from DVDs allowed many ambitious programs to survive longer than they would have otherwise, especially if they didn’t get the boffo ratings the networks were hoping for. And even though “Lost” got great ratings in its first few seasons, the show’s strong DVD sales allowed the island drama to set a course for Weirdsville (and for viewers, the multiple layers of meaning and information woven into the show, not to mention the self-deprecating commentary of “Lost’s” creative team, made DVD viewing both a memory aid and a treat).

And the importance of iTunes can’t be understated. One big reason NBC renewed “The Office” for a third season was that the comedy, which was still something of a cult show in its second season, sold extremely well when iTunes was new. Little is free on iTunes however, if if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Internet age, it’s that people like free stuff.

In the ’90s, a few networks began tentatively posting full episodes online. Now the array of shows you can watch online is vast (and it’s no wasteland, not when shows like “Firefly” and “NewsRadio” are available on Hulu). In addition to Hulu, you can watch TV at Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and various network sites (or on your phone, laptop, etc). Sure, it may be harder for networks to monetize their product (and that’s no small problem for both media conglomerates, who want to post profits, and creative types, who want to get paid for their ideas). But for viewers, television’s embrace of alternate screens has been a bonanza.

Still, the biggest thing to affect television in the Aughts is the DVR, which is now in one-third of American homes. Freed from the tyranny of network schedules, viewers are watching more TV than ever before, according to Nielsen Media Resarch. In addition to allowing viewers to set their own TV-viewing schedule, the DVR allows viewers to skip ads — an option not all viewers exercise, by the way.

Still, the devices have unsettled the foundation of TV like nothing else. But shifting a big chunk of control to the TV viewer has at least made the major media conglomerates a little more humble (cable giant Comcast wanted NBC Universal mainly for its successful cable operation — the rickety broadcast network was essentially a Gift With Purchase).

The thing to remember is that the financial underpinnings of Hollywood’s film studios were changing radically during the late ’60s and ’70s. Back then, all that turmoil led to some schlock but it also led to risk-taking and unleashed a lot of creative energy from a bold posse of filmmakers. It’s far from clear what the future of television will bring, but the good news is that the unsettled TV landscape has led to a veritable plethora of smart, challenging, funny and profound programs. 

Alswearengen 2. HBO’s “Three Davids” Trinity of Genius.
The accomplishments of David Simon’s “The Wire,” David Chase’s “The Sopranos” and David Milch’s “Deadwood” are many and varied — they’re far to extensive to dwell on in depth here. But, if nothing else, these three television classics taught a whole generation of writers, viewers and executives to revel in complicated anti-heroes and literary, thematically ambitious approaches to television. These are crown jewels of TV’s Golden Age. 

3. The rise of reality television.
Reality TV in its modern form has been around since the mid-’90s, but the genre took off like a rocket after the first edition of “Survivor” was a huge hit in 2000. After “American Idol” became an even bigger ratings monster, reality and competition-driven TV really became all the rage. The endless variations of various reality formats and the outsize characters the genre created made reality TV a force to be reckoned with and a major part of the entertainment landscape for a decade. As the decade closes, there still are a few gems in the genre, but sadly, reality TV is as full of tired ideas and lame stereotypes as scripted TV was a decade ago. And the reality craze has a dark side too, as we learned from the Balloon Boy family’s fame-seeking fiasco, the skeezy implosion of Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marriage and the White House’s recent brush with the notorious Salahis.

MMjoan 4. The rise of cable.
In an effort to make their mark on the TV scene, dozens of cable networks commissioned gutsy, innovative and challenging shows. Or sometimes they commissioned half-baked imitations of what had come before (if I never see another derivative anti-hero again, I’ll be extremely grateful). But the desire of networks such as FX, Showtime, AMC, Syfy, TNT, USA and others to make their mark led to a lot of really good TV. Can you imagine the last decade without the shows mentioned above or “Dexter,” “Mad Men,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Shield,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Closer,” “Burn Notice” or the early seasons of “Nip/Tuck”? I can’t either. And those shows are just the tip of the quality-TV iceberg.

5. The documentary aesthetic of “The Shield,” “24” and “Friday Night Lights.” Shaky-cam has become something of an epidemic on television, but very few of the shows that use the technique do it with the finesse and intelligence of these groundbreaking programs. These shows captured a visceral “you are there” vibe and harnessed that energy for very different purposes: On “The Shield,” it gave even more intensity to the tautly constructed machinations of crooked cop Vic Mackey; on “24,” both the 24-hour format and the innovative camera style ratcheted up the tension that enveloped Jack Bauer; and “Friday Night Lights” used the technique with the most fluidity and subtlety, to give the town of Dillon a lived-in look and to effortlessly make the viewer feel like a fly on the wall in the lives of its enthrallingly real characters.

Ad 6. The improvisational vibe and the wicked wit of the influential single-camera comedies “Arrested Development,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office” (both the U.S. and U.K. versions). These brilliant shows made broadcast network executives think, “Hey, if we film our comedies in this trendy single-camera style, instead of on soundstages, they’ll be funny!” Wrong. Great writing and performances create funny. “Extras,” “Scrubs,” “30 Rock,” “Party Down” and “Parks and Recreation” are just a few of the programs that mined comedy gold from the awkward social dynamics and deadpan irony seen on “AD,” “Curb” and “The Office” (and “How I Met Your Mother” gets an honorable mention here; the CBS comedy is shot on a soundstage but combines the imaginative sensibilities of a single-camera comedy with the heart of good traditional sitcoms).

7. Cable embraces shows with female leads. “Weeds,” “The Closer,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Saving Grace,” “Damages,” “United States of Tara” — name a top-notch actress and chances are she’s had an edgy cable program developed for her at some point during the last 10 years. One of the most heartening effects of the success of “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Sex and the City” was televisions’ embrace of shows with women in the lead — but as usual, the most interesting work in this arena was done by cable networks.

8. Crime pays … and pays and pays. CBS executives spent one morning in October 2000 scratching their heads. The ridiculously huge numbers for their new show, “CSI,” couldn’t be right. But they were. And ever since the massive success of “CSI” and its spinoffs, the broadcast networks and the bigger cable networks have taken refuge in procedurals, which are, when they work, the safest bet in these uncertain times.

Benknife 9. Everybody wants to get “Lost.”
Half a decade ago, a failing ABC put its money and faith in the Hail Mary pass that was “Lost,” which, to the network’s great relief, was a massive hit. Not surprisingly, for the last few years, we’ve seen the networks try to re-create that island magic in one form or another. But ABC’s “FlashForward” is just the latest show to not get the memo: It’s the characters we care about on “Lost.” Sure, the tangled mythology is lots of fun to dissect, but it’s the side dish, not the main course. If you think about it, “Glee” is more of a successor to “Lost” than “FlashFloward.” “Glee” is a really good idea executed with bold vision — a risky idea that could have been a disaster but more or less wasn’t. Too bad the broadcast networks so frequently shy away from taking those kinds of risks these days.

10. Great acting.
Sure, brilliant writing is what made the Golden Age of TV glow. But any time I find myself watching a TV show from a decade or two ago, I realize once again that acting on television has taken a Great Leap Forward. What amazing performances we’ve seen during the past decade. “The West Wing,” “The Sopranos,” “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Friday Night Lights” — just to name a few terrifically acted shows — were full of unforgettable people, thanks to the sensational performers who brought them to life.

Vmars

Bonus lament: A few words on the wave that (unfortunately) dried up in the Aughts. In the late ’90s (and into part of this decade), television gave us a series of programs that were allegedly aimed at teens but explored mature, complicated themes with intelligence, compassion, imagination and wit. “Veronica Mars,” “Buffy,” “Everwood,” “The O.C.,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Joan of Arcadia” — you are all sorely missed. Whatever missteps those shows may have made here or there, they are far superior to derivative, campy teen-oriented shows that we have today. Sorry, but “The Vampire Diaries” and “Melrose Place” simply cannot compare to the humor, complexity and emotionally engaging storytelling we saw on those programs.

Final thought: Though it’s great to see some wonderful actresses get good
roles, as noted above, what’s not heartening is the fact that women are still
underemployed as writers in Hollywood. According to the Writers
Guild of America, in 1999, 26 percent of TV writers were women. Eight
years later, that number was 28 percent. That amounts to almost no
progress for women writers during the past decade. And in 2007, only 9
percent of writers were minorities (in the 2007-2008 season, 33 percent
of TV staffs had no minority writers on staff and 11 percent had no
female writers). Those statistics are pathetic. And sorry to briefly
get on my soap box, but here goes: Both in front of and behind the
camera, a true diversity of voices and ideas —  not just the kind of
tokenism on display on most TV writing staffs — makes for better,
richer, more complicated storytelling. TV needs to be telling all kinds
of stories or even the good stuff will start going around in circles. New York Times
critic Manohla Dargis expresses some pungent and quite valid thoughts on the topic of women in Hollywood here.

Photos: Image of TV in box from Flickr (more info here); Ian McShane as Al Swearengen on “Deadwood”; Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway in “Mad Men”; the cast of “Arrested Development,” Michael Emerson as Ben and Terry O’Quinn in “Lost”; Kristin Bell in “Veronica Mars.”

Note: I may close comments on this post relatively soon, given that I’ll be on vacation until Jan. 4. Thanks.

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