Television has never been better than it is right now.
Amazing shows are popping up on any channel you can think of. And that's to say nothing of the explosion in online outlets now offering their own original content. This is a great time to be a TV fan.
This state of affairs contradicts a lot of theorizing from a couple of years ago, when TV critics confronted the imminent ends of both Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the twin series that propelled AMC into the great TV conversation. At that time, the thought was that TV's so-called Golden Age would end with those programs.
In a review of the then-debuting second season of Homeland, Grantland's Andy Greenwald, for instance, stated that the Showtime drama "not only hastened the end of television’s teetering Golden Age, it also provided a glimpse of just what might replace it." Freelance critic and podcast host Ryan McGee went so far as to try to define the parameters of this new era.
I agree with Greenwald and McGee up to a point. Yes, TV has shifted and mutated and splintered. It has become something else. But I would stack the current run of programs against anything from the so-called Golden Age.
As Mad Men begins its final run of seven episodes on Sunday, April 5, 2015, the show looks less like the end of one era and more like the beginning of another. What was once seen as one of the last great antihero shows now presages an era of shows with rich, deep ensemble casts that dare to ask audiences to develop empathy and intimacy with every single person in the cast. The great series of the antihero era were often a little cold. The great shows of this era are often bursting with warmth, even if you have to dig pretty deeply to find it.
And yet all of this great television is built atop a foundation that is rapidly crumbling. Enjoy whatever this new Golden Age is, for it may be television's last.
A brief history of American television
As I have written many times before, one of the weird things about American TV is that essentially every one of its eras has been referred to by someone or another as a new "Golden Age" for the medium.
The original Golden Age is generally considered to be the live-TV era of the 1950s, when great playwrights and actors collaborated on programs that set the standard for live dramas. Here was where Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, some of the greatest American dramatists ever, got their start, for instance.
The next Golden Age was alternately considered to be the 1970s, when sitcoms hit a new level of realism with shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the 1980s, when TV dramas began an evolution into much more complicated and serialized storytelling forms; the 1990s, when the initial flowering of new networks led to shows like The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, and The X-Files; and last decade, when cable finally got into the game in a big way and programmed a bunch of series about dark men doing dark things.
That is, of course, too reductive. Indeed, of the four HBO dramas that came to define the 2000s — The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Deadwood — only the first easily fits into the antihero genre. The others feature antiheroes but are much closer to traditional ensemble dramas. And there are great shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, which aired in the era but don't fit the general antihero description at all.
What The Sopranos did, however, was institutionalize a way to immediately make "great TV." Make a TV series about a man (almost always a man) who made tough choices — even if they involved crossing moral lines or doing illegal or unethical things — and then push him into more and more impossible situations, and you had a guaranteed path to some degree of critical acclaim and awards attention.
The rise of the antihero drama
Whole networks were launched off this basic model. FX's first three original programming efforts — The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me — fit snugly into this form, as did AMC's first two — Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Showtime found its own antiheroes in the leads of Weeds and Dexter, the two shows that put it on the map. (Tellingly, Weeds is the only show I've yet mentioned with a woman as its main character.)
Now, this mimicry of successful shows is what television has always done. All in the Family gave rise to many social-issues sitcoms that have mostly been forgotten, and TV is still filled with workplace dramas built off the basic skeleton of 1981's Hill Street Blues. Once a show hits — either commercially or critically — TV copies it, and often as quickly as it possibly can.
And many of the antihero series are among the best shows ever made. We've mostly forgotten about shows that straightforwardly ripped off Sopranos in the wake of its success. We're still talking about The Shield and Breaking Bad because both did something incredible and groundbreaking in all of the territory Tony had opened up.
But that territory also was settled so quickly that there's little room for anybody new there now. Shows like Showtime's Ray Donovan and AMC's Low Winter Sun — and even Netflix's House of Cards — know the right tunes and hit all the right notes, but audiences have heard it all before.
That's what makes Mad Men so interesting. At first, it seemed like a standard-issue antihero show. Don Draper maybe didn't kill people, but he cheated on his wife and stole a man's identity. He was driven by perfectly understandable motivations, but he was still frequently a terrible person.
But as it approaches its series finale, it's become so much more than the Don Draper Show. It's completed the leap, in other words, from antihero show to something else altogether. The foremost question at the end of an antihero show is usually, "What's going to happen to the antihero?"
But Don doesn't have any sins to be found out or secrets to be exposed, even if we continue to think about the show as being primarily about him. We go so far as to ask if the show ends with his death, possibly because that's how the antihero age conditioned us to think about TV. But Don's life and death is beside the point as Mad Men ends. Instead, his ability to connect with others is the point. He has become, over the course of the series, an open book, a man who shines light into the darkest corners of his soul in hopes that someone else will recognize themselves in his most horrific pain.
He, in other words, is asking for empathy. Just like everybody else on TV.
Don Draper and the unmaking of the antihero
The thing about antiheroes was that they are islands. Yes, they claim to have things they cared about — particularly their families — but when the chips are down, they are primarily concerned with themselves. The best of these shows always invited viewers to realize how much those around the antiheroes were poisoned by being pulled into their general orbits, but the antiheroes themselves rarely recognize it: Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Vic Mackey realized this only in brief flashes of insight that quickly passed.
These characters were creatures of an America that believed itself a unilateral actor by necessity — even if so many of these characters were created before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The shows of the 2000s are deeply scarred by those events, by the idea that sometimes it's more important to be the person who takes action, instead of the person who considers all available options and emotions.
What Mad Men has done, slowly but surely, is transition from the antihero mode — where the thing of first and foremost importance is whatever Don is up to that week — to a series where every single member of the ensemble is an object of both the audience's empathy and often Don's. Joan goes from a stereotypical bombshell in the pilot to a figure of rich nuance and drive. Betty is a complete mess, but one we understand intimately. Even slimy Pete is a character rich with detail and depth.
Don looked like an antihero at first, but audiences realized from fairly early on in the show's run that he only seemed like he was closing himself off from the rest of the world. To watch the show's first few seasons with all that came later in mind is to see Don constantly, tentatively, reaching out to the people around him, occasionally rebuffed but also occasionally accepted.
This is most easy to chart in the slow course of revelations tied to Don's secret identity — Dick Whitman, the poor man he was born as and ditched for the Draper identity in the war. In the first season, it's only slowly but surely pried out of him. In season three, he tells his wife after she finds evidence that he is not who he says he is. But by the final two seasons, he's telling everybody — coworkers, prospective lovers, advertising representatives, and even his own kids.
The story of Mad Men isn't about a man who slowly closes himself off from others. It's the story of a man who builds a workplace family around himself, even if he's not consciously aware of it. For as lousy of a husband and father as Don is, he's often a magnificent coworker. He recognizes in his protege, Peggy Olson, something that nobody else likely would have, and he urges Joan Harris not to do something unthinkable simply to land an account.
Connections are drawn among all of these characters. They fit into a tentative web, one that can be pulled apart at any time but one that, nonetheless, exists. Nobody on Mad Men is an island. They're all trapped together.
Empathy, intimacy, and the new TV paradigm
That's what makes Mad Men such a good show to bridge these two TV eras. In the last five years, TV has finally started to slough off its antihero malaise and dig deep into stories about characters who long for empathy, who attempt to understand others, but who crumple in the face of genuine intimacy.
The other show that most marks this new era is FX's comedy Louie, which begins its fifth season on Thursday, April 9. The brainchild of comedian Louis CK, who writes, directs, and stars in every episode, Louie essentially forces the audience to have empathy with its titular character, because he's the only character who appears in every episode.
Louie's not a bad guy to hang out with. As a comedian, he's fascinated by people from all walks of life, and he's always trying to figure out what makes them tick. And every episode of Louie presents the other figures in his life not as worthy of ridicule but as worthy of understanding.
The episode of Louie that best exemplifies this approach to storytelling is season one's "Bully," in which Louie, on a date, is ridiculed by a teenager and feels humiliated in front of a woman he likes. Instead of shrugging this off, Louie follows the teenager to his home in Staten Island, only to realize that he knows nothing about the boy, that the kid's life is far different from what he might have assumed. And then the episode twists yet again, as Louie and the teenager's father have a conversation about child-rearing. It's a complicated, beautiful episode, one that presents every person in it as a human being with their own point of view, worthy of being both loved and loathed.
That's the mode American television operates in in the 2010s. The antihero show is now in the distant rearview mirror, and most remaining antihero shows feature characters desperately longing to leave their antihero status and be seen for who they really are. (FX's The Americans, about Soviet spies in early '80s Washington, DC, is the foremost example of this, as is NBC's beautiful serial killer drama Hannibal.) The Sopranos mocked Tony's attempts to find empathy and pity, for the most part, because he was a monster. The 2010s empathy-driven series, on the other hand, see the search for human connection as the foremost goal anyone should pursue.
It's all tied to a renewed, if muted, interest in social issues — Orange Is the New Black looks through a skewed lens at prison reform, while Rectify dares us to consider the death penalty. Girls imagines the lives of young women in New York as twee dramedy and Broad City as raucous comedy, but both treat the advances of feminism as forces in these young women's lives. And I don't need to remind you, probably, of the growing string of hugely successful shows focusing on racial minorities who didn't get much in the way of TV representation in the antihero era, shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish and the massive hit Empire. All three play around with connections and intersections between racial minorities and the culture as a whole, as well as the difficulties of understanding that arise.
The message seems clear — if the 2000s were all about breaking shit, then the 2010s are going to be about putting everything back together.
Houses built on sand
Which brings me to the end, where I admit I don't know how long this can last.
The TV industry that's currently giving us this huge surplus of great shows is likely on its way out the door. The giant pool of money propping up so many of these low-rated but quality programs was the cable TV industry, which pumped a predictable amount of cash (via subscription fees baked into your cable bill) into smaller boutique channels. It was a weird form of capitalist socialism.
But the TV industry as we knew it is splintering. Yeah, it has a few more years left in it, but the rise of HBO Now and Sling TV — mobile and online streaming services that allow for watching cable TV without buying a cable TV package — suggest that the traditional cable business won't float along forever. (Ironically, the cable companies, who scooped up much of the country's broadband network, probably have the least to worry about here. They'll be with us always.)
The suggestion here is always that Netflix and Amazon will ride in and save the day. And maybe that's true. But neither company is a replacement for the current system. They are, instead, luxury hotels built atop it, surfing off of decades of content that line their shelves and make it possible to provide the original programming that only makes up a fraction of a percent of what they broadcast.
The simple fact of the matter is that TV requires content, and the traditional means for producing that content, where big broadcast network hits flowed down to syndication and cable channels and streaming services, is slowly becoming something else entirely. And nobody quite knows what that will look like.
What we are living in, then, is a blip. You can already see this world drying up. The HBO of 10 years ago let the low-rated Wire get to five seasons. The same can't be said of its more recent Enlightened and Looking, both great shows that were canceled after just two years. The rise of independent TV (mostly on YouTube) might suffice, but it, realistically, is still several years from being ready for primetime.
This, then, is an exciting moment but also a tenuous one. Maybe that's we have so many shows longing for connection. Though the characters have ceased to be islands, the series themselves have become just that, unmoored from everybody else with their tiny, niche audiences, slowly watching the seas rise.