The “Good Old Days” of TV Are Happening Right Now

Why American television is better now than it's ever been -- and the unexpected paths by which it got there.

American television is in the midst of its second Golden Age. Or its third. Or maybe, depending on who’s doing the counting, its fourth. TV critic and historian David Bianculli sidesteps the issue in the title of his new book, calling the era of Mad Men, Modern Family, and The Walking Dead the medium’s “Platinum Age.” His choice of a title is more than just a rhetorical convenience, however: It’s an implicit declaration that American broadcast television has never, even in its first Golden Age, been better than it is now.

Golden Ages exist, by definition, in the irretrievable past rather than the present. They are part of a narrative of decline that juxtaposes the pallid “now” with the glittering “then”, and are invariably defined retrospectively. References to the mid-’50s era of I Love Lucy, Playhouse 90, and Your Show of Shows as the “Golden Age of Television” began to appear almost as soon as the era ended. They first gained traction in 1961, the year that Newton Minow called the contemporary programming landscape “a vast wasteland”. Use of the phrase reached an early peak in 1978, the year after Jerry Mander offered Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and again in 1985, the year that Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Bianculli will have none of this hand-wringing nostalgia. Television, he argues, has never been without exceptional programs — series that pushed the operational and artistic boundaries of the medium — and over time those programs have come more often, closer together, and in ever-more-sophisticated form. Television’s Platinum Age is a genre-by-genre (in some cases, subgenre-by-subgenre) survey of how that happened, interwoven with profiles of those (from Carl Reiner and Norman Lear to Larry David and Aaron Sorkin) who made it happen.

Each of Bianculli’s 18 numbered chapters deals with a single genre and spotlights, in chronological order, five programs that he sees as its artistic peaks. The first program in any given chapter is nearly always from the ’50s or early ’60s, the last (and often the last several) are nearly from the post-aught’s era. That structure, as much as Bianculli’s brief (1-3 page) assessments of the programs themselves and still-briefer allusions to other worthy series, makes the book’s case for television’s steady improvement.

The 25 unnumbered profiles of writers, directors, actors, producers, and showrunners make a separate but complementary point. Inserted — sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs or clusters — between the numbered chapters, they trace the arcs of their subjects’ television careers, with a special emphasis on the programs that influenced them and the individuals who inspired or (in many cases) actively mentored them. Carl Reiner links to Mel Brooks, and Brooks in turn to Amy Schumer. Grant Tinker connects to Stephen Bochco to David E. Kelley.

Bianculli thus argues, without ever seeming to do so explicitly, for a web of artistic influences that has grown denser and more complex as television has matured. Yesterday’s high-quality shows shape the work of today’s staff writers, who become tomorrow’s showrunners and producers. The proliferation of channels, far from diluting the pool of talent like a professional sports league’s expansion draft, creates new opportunities. More high-quality television creates (even) more high-quality television.

An approach like this, if it is to have even a remote chance of working, demands an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium and a writing style that is authoritative without slipping into scholarly dryness and appreciative without slipping into fan-site gushiness. Bianculli — whose TV-criticism career began with a 1975 review of Saturday Night Live and has spanned newspapers, books, radio, the web, and university classrooms — delivers both, and The Platinum Age of Television works very well indeed. It delivers sound critical judgments in crisp, readable prose, and the profiles — the best part of a very good book — feel fresh and revelatory even when they involve people, like Mel Brooks and Bob Newhart, whose career arcs are well-known.

The result is a magisterial “big picture” view of the last 20 years of television, that places it firmly in historical context. Bianculli did not set out to write a comprehensive history of television as a creative enterprise, and the book is not structured with that purpose in mind (coverage of anything but the top one-percent of pre-2000 television is nonexistent) but it can function quite handily as an overview. Indeed, The Platinum Age of Television would make a useful text for an undergraduate survey course, or gift for a Millennial TV fan.

The book’s drawbacks are mostly by-products of the rigid one-genre-per-chapter, five-series-per-genre format that breaks the text, and the argument, into manageable, bite-sized chunks. The silo-like separation of genres makes it difficult for Bianculli to coherently address the rise of storytelling tools — braided plotlines, season- or series-long arcs, and elaborate backstories gradually revealed over time — that developed in multiple genres simultaneously. Focusing only on the absolute best series fails to convey just how far above the blandly formulaic average series of their day they were (or are), and how the quality of “average” series has risen over time. The cross-genre effects of increasing quality and complexity — rendering earlier programs all-but-unwatchable, and many current programs virtually incomprehensible if watched out-of-sequence — receive no attention.

The structure of the book, combined with the fact that Bianculli (like any critic) is not equally interested in or familiar with all genres, leads to choices about coverage and organization that will strike many readers, fans and scholars alike, as odd. Comedy gets four chapters devoted to different flavors of sitcom and two more devoted to sketch comedy, that’s room enough to discuss 30 shows in some depth and more in passing. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror, on the other hand, are crammed into a single chapter with no room for Battlestar Galactica, Lost, or Game of Thrones, let alone Babylon 5 or Firefly.

In the “General Drama” chapter, which feels like its working title was “Didn’t Fit Elsewhere”, David Lynch’s surreal Twin Peaks shares space with The West Wing and The Wire, the latter a refugee from a full-up “Crime” chapter. In “Miniseries”, Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War rubs shoulders with the docudrama of Roots and the historical fiction of Downton Abbey.

Three chapters end far enough from the present to shed doubt on Bianculli’s larger point, and they are — in a bizarre organizational choice — the first three chapters in the book. The “Children’s Programming” chapter culminates withPee Wee’s Playhouse (1986–1991), the “Animation” chapter with South Park (1999– ), and the “Variety” chapter with Saturday Night Live (1975– ). All three programs merit inclusion, but the implication that nothing as good has premiered since is dubious in the case of variety shows and ludicrous in the case of children’s programs and animation. The ease with which even casual fans of the genres could cite plausible counter-examples (Reading Rainbow? Arthur? The Tick? Futurama? In Living Color?) suggests a lack of attention being paid.

These criticisms, however, do no damage to neither Bianculli’s larger argument nor to the book’s ability to appeal to a broad audience. The Platinum Age of Teleivison is, like Darwin’s Origin of Species, designed to be “one long argument”, deriving its power from the accumulation of details rather than from the transformative effect of one specific piece of evidence. To read it is to understand the medium better, and to be convinced that the real “Good Old Days” / “Golden Age” / “Platinum Age” of Television is now.

RATING 8 / 10