All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live.
When HBO aired the first episode of The Sopranos on January 10, 1999, it marked the beginning of what’s widely regarded as a modern Golden Age for television. Nearly all the hallmarks of the early 21st century “prestige drama” — the emphasis on anti-heroes, the rise in more cinematic and novelistic approaches to storytelling, and the intrusion of cable into spheres previously dominated by the major broadcast networks — can be traced back to the night when America met one moody New Jersey gangster.
Or at least that’s the way the tale’s usually told. The truth is a lot more complicated. The Sopranos premiere was a watershed moment, to be sure. But in a way it was a culmination of what had been happening on television for an entire decade. The 1990s began with the emergence of two unexpected TV phenomena — Twin Peaks and The Simpsons — and the 10 years that followed were ripe with chance-taking and new creative voices.
And there was a lot of schlock, too… so much so that at times the muck buried the era’s gems. Yet even while the ’90s were in full swing, critics recognized how good the medium was getting, and began having some of the “Is TV Better Than The Movies?” conversations that are so commonplace now. More importantly, television in the ‘90s was often excellent while remaining recognizably television — which is to say that the sitcoms resembled sitcoms, and the dramas worked to keep audiences watching past the commercial breaks. The best of 21st century TV is richer and more aesthetically pleasing than 99 percent of what aired in the end of the 20th. But one could easily argue that the ’90s offered superior entertainment.
Here are some reasons why.
The ’80s Also Weren’t So Bad
Television has seen multiple “golden ages,” including the late ’50s heyday of the live theater anthology, and the early ’70s when Norman Lear and sophisticated detective shows ruled. Few would consider the ’80s one of the peaks; and yet the decade was hardly devoid of classics. Consider Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting, China Beach, Newhart, Frank’s Place, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Wonder Years, The Tracey Ullman Show, and Miami Vice. A few of the decade’s best — like Cheers, Roseanne, and Star Trek: The Next Generation — were still going strong into the ’90s. For all the hubbub about cable storming the Emmys in the 2000s and 2010s, it’s sometimes forgotten that Star Trek: The Next Generation was an early interloper, earning the first and so far only Best Dramatic Series nomination for a syndicated program. By the end of the ’80s, the monopoly of “The Big Three” networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) was starting to crumble.