A while ago, Ira Glass said that we are living in a “golden age of television”, citing a bunch of ‘actually great shows’ that were current at the time: House,The Wire, The West Wing etc. These were (and I guess they still are) all great shows, no argument there.
In Everything Bad is Good For You, Stephen Johnson argued that modern TV is more sophisticated than TV of twenty or thirty years ago. He compared the plotlines of things like Starsky & Hutch to modern police dramas, and showed that the new shows are more dynamic and challenging to the viewer. Again, no argument there.
But having spent the past few weeks picking the scant meat from the bones of Summer broadcasting, I seriously believe that we may be actually returning to the ‘old’ ways of doing things. Popular TV is pushing the limits of Johnson’s argument. In some cases, it feels as if the wave of these ‘actually great shows’ has broken and rolled back and we are regressing back to the 70s and 80s.
Castle, for example, is just one giant throwback to older, high-concept shows. It’s about a crime writer – Richard Castle who helps the police solve crimes. A Murder She Wrote for the noughties. Except it’s got complex plot-lines, fast-talking characters. It would be easy to see how Stephen Johnson would defend this show. He would argue that it is demonstrably more sophisticated, clever and knowing than Murder She Wrote. The first episode features Castle playing poker with James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell, two real-life crime writers, giving a knowing wink to the audience, acknowledging a world that exists outside of the show’s universe. Plus, it stars Nathan Fillion, my #1 man-crush, so it could be just an hour of him staring at the camera and I’d probably still watch it.
Similarly, The Unusuals is heavily indebted to older shows. Unlike other modern police procedurals, such as any of the Law & Order shows, which feel very much rooted in modern sensibilities, The Unusuals feels like a giant anachronism. It comes across more like an updated version of Hill Street Blues than some contemporary cop drama. But at the same time, it does have some kind of modern feel to it. It actually feels like some unholy Frankenstein’s monster of the procedural stuff in The Wire whose genes have been spliced with the comic nostalgia of Life on Mars. However, even Stephen Johnson points out the narrative complexity of Hill Street Blues compared to earlier shows. As he says, Hill Street Blues is generally regarded as the start of “serious drama” on television. It may be a bit of a step backward, but if The Unusuals is going to imitate something, then it may as well choose something that’s so highly regarded.
But Burn Notice is where it really starts to go downhill. There’s an overarching story taking place across the entire series – Michael Weston is a spy who gets ‘burned’ and tries to figure out what happened and why – but this is only taken care of at the beginning and end of each episode. The actual action that takes place is more basic and formulaic: people who are in trouble come to this spy and he helps them using his ‘specialized’ skillset and his little spy-friends. In other words
a crack commando unit spy was sent to prison ‘burned’ by a military court shadowy extra-governmental group for a crime he didn’t commit. He promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade deadly situation to the Los Angeles Miami underground. Today, still wanted by the government shadowy extra-governmental group, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire the A-Team Michael Weston.
I suppose I wouldn’t mind if the whole thing was handled with a little more grace, but it bothers me that each episode is bookended by the ‘wider’ story. It’s as if the makers are contractually obliged to put in these pieces in somewhere, but couldn’t be bothered to find a way to work them into the “villain of the week” story. It means that if one was to use Johnson’s methodology and chart the narrative of Burn Notice, it would look remarkably like the one he generated for Starsky & Hutch.
So what now? Does this mean the ‘golden age’ of television has passed, and now we’re going to look back on the the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, as Ira Glass points out, like we look back on the 1920s as being the ‘golden age’ of Jazz? Maybe. Or maybe this is just part of the normal ebb and flow of television programming. Summer being filled with the weakest of the lineup, and everything will get better when shows start returning in September. Because frankly, if I look back in 20 years time and realise this is as good as it’s ever going to get, I’m going to be extremely disappointed.