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Myth or Phenomenon?: the Golden Age of TV

Read Tuesday, 28 Jul 2015

Jo Case, Melbourne Writers Festival Program Manager, explores the recent evolution of TV’s ‘Golden Age’ – and offers a taste of MWF’s Small Screen events in 2015.

Adapted from original image by <a href=””>Orin Zebest</a> (CC BY 2.0)
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Still from <em>Mad Men</em>

‘I don’t believe this Golden Age shit,’ said Matthew Weiner, in his farewell round of interviews after the final episode of Mad Men was screened. ‘I think it’s insulting to the history of TV.’ 

Still from <em>The Sopranos</em>

In some ways, Weiner had a point. But it can’t be denied that television has grown up over the past decade, breaking conventions more often and with greater success … nor that movie actors have been migrating to television in greater numbers: True Detective’s headliners and Claire Danes’ headlining role in Homeland are cases in point.

Weiner concedes that shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos, on which he made his name, were made possible because of changes in television distribution; Instead of all viewing being concentrated on a small selection of stations and programming, with audiences restricted by their ability to tune in at a set broadcast time, the rise of cable television – and now streaming services like Netflix, which create their own original shows – encouraged a move towards splintered programming for specific, passionate audiences.

The advent of digital distribution services, like iTunes, unlocked the potential for viewers to watch shows long after they’d originally aired, creating much longer time frames for word-of-mouth about a show to build. The rise of live-tweeting and re-capping – a practice which was once the preserve of personal bloggers, but has bled into television coverage in mainstream outlets like the New York Times – has also changed how we watch.

Still from <em>Veronica Mars</em>

In 2004, just a little too early for the ‘Golden Age’, Rob Thomas premiered Veronica Mars, a teen-detective noir with a Twin Peaks-style murder mystery, a Buffy-esque wise-cracking blonde high schooler, and a persistent undercurrent of class tensions in a wealthy Southern Californian town where celebrities’ kids attend high school with the offspring of the hired help. ‘Best. Show. Ever,’ wrote Buffy creator Joss Whedon. ‘I’ve never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn’t making… These guys know what they’re doing on a level that intimidates me.’ But despite this and other rave reviews – and an army of fans (the Marshmallows) – the show was cancelled after the third season.

‘Measured against recent cable hits like AMC’s Breaking Bad, which didn’t top 2.5 million viewers until its fourth season, or Mad Men, which drew just 2.7 million for its most recent finale, Veronica Mars [which generally drew between 2.5 and million viewers] was practically a smash,’ reflected the Texas Monthly last year. Veronica Mars ran until 2007. Thomas and Kristen Bell, who played Veronica, mourned the loss of the show (along with much of the cast and crew) and tried for years to get a movie made. Warner Brothers, who owned the material, weren’t convinced.

Still from <em>Party Down</em>

But in 2013, the new distribution landscape meant passionate niche audiences suddenly counted – and social media had given them a voice and a means of organising. Thomas and Bell launched an innovative Kickstarter campaign that would take the power of television – and of fans – to a new level, resulting in the first crowdfunded film to be made by a major studio. Its success has led to persistent rumours of a film version of Party Down, Thomas’s critical and fan favourite comedy series (created with Paul Rudd and starring Lizzy Caplan, Adam Scott, Martin Starr and others) about a cohort of aspiring actors and writers working in catering in LA.



Still from <em>Love My Way</em>
Stills from <em>The Secret Life of Us</em>

In Australia, one cable series, Love my Way, created for Foxtel, marked a turning point for Australian television drama. A labour of love by co-creators and producers John Edwards, Jacqueline Perske and Claudia Karvan (who starred as single-mother artist Frankie), it followed the intertwined lives of a thirtysomething constellation of fractured, imperfect families. It seemed a logical next step from the hit free-to-air twentysomethings series The Secret Life of Us, also starring Karvan and co-produced by Edwards – but it was also more adult in its content, more risky in its storytelling, and deeply complex (and often challenging) in its character portrayal. Like the early Golden Age shows emerging on US cable at the time, it was made possible by its medium, and its critical acclaim has translated to the kind of long-term love affair (and late discovery via DVD) inspired by its US counterparts.

Still from <em>The Slap</em>

This kind of quality storytelling continues to influence Australian television, not just on the cable networks. ABC TV had success with Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me and Redfern Now, as well as with literary adaptations of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap and Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Recently, Glitch, a deeply human new supernatural drama from the team behind The Slap, has changed the game again: adapting the Netflix model, it was released in full on ABC iView before the series had been entirely broadcast. This seems to assume, that the main viewing audience for stories like these has migrated online.

Australian actors like Firass Darani and Jay Laga’aia have given voice in recent years to another pressing issue in local television: that of diversity, and the lack of roles for non-Anglo actors. It’s a discussion taking place alongside similar ones in the local literary world, and one that is being partly addressed by television that doesn’t just cast actors from culturally diverse backgrounds in supporting roles, but has them at its centre (Redfern Now, The Circuit, The Straits). Benjamin Law’s soon-to-be-released adaptation of his memoir, The Family Law, on SBS TV, is another welcome development.

So, perhaps Matthew Weiner is wrong, after all. Perhaps the ‘Golden Age of Television’ isn’t bullshit, but a very real development, born of a changing media landscape, better platforms for fans and a hunger for new content to fill the unprecedented proliferation of channels.

The Melbourne Writers Festival will explore the question of the ‘Golden Age of TV’ in their Small Screen series, featuring events with Veronica Mars creator Rob ThomasHomeland  creator Gideon Raff, and The Wire writer Richard Price .

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