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.
In 2015, FX president John Landgraf addressed the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles and predicted an oncoming TV apocalypse. “My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent Peak TV in America and that we’ll begin to see decline coming the year after that and beyond,” Landgraf declared, coining a new phrase, “Peak TV,” that’s come to define how our dominant cultural medium is discussed.
For years, the media narrative for TV centered on a so-called “golden age,” marking a period in the late ’90s and ’00s when shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad redefined what was possible on the small-screen. It was an era when TV reigned supreme in cultural conversations, and even seemed to usurp film and literature in terms of prestige and market share. You could argue this era is still ongoing. But a sense of dread is also settling in.
Is our golden age transitioning to a down period of over-abundant content that’s long on pretension and bloat and short on entertainment value and relevance? Has the feast devolved into mindless gorging?
For Landgraf, “Peak TV” was primarily a reference to the TV business — a warning about how financial bubbles inevitably burst, leading to implosion on the production side. He has also amended his comments, suggesting last month at TCA that the Peak TV moment will now occur in 2017, when as many as 500 scripted shows (including 71 on Netflix alone) could be in production, up nearly 100 shows from when Landgraf made his original prediction last year.
However, I don’t work in TV, and chances are you don’t either. I’m more interested in how “Peak TV” affects the average viewer. I think it’s turning us into addicts. Our vice? More. We can’t get enough of “more.”
You don’t have to be in the TV business to recognize that 500 shows is an ungodly amount of television, far more than any of us could hope to watch in this lifetime. If you’re the sort of person who cares about keeping up with pop culture, keeping track of the latest TV shows has gone from being an exciting enterprise to downright exhausting. Seemingly every week, there’s something new worth watching — if you didn’t catch the season finale of The Night Of, then you’re surely behind on Narcos. And don’t forget to watch Donald Glover’s great new show, Atlanta, though you should probably catch up on BoJack Horseman first. Oh wait, Tig Notaro has a new show? Gotta watch that, too. And don’t sleep on network shows — the one where Ted Danson plays an angel is run by the creator of Parks and Recreation, so you obviously can’t miss it. Hey, did you ever see season two of Fargo? You must catch up! For a medium that’s ostensibly predicated on entertainment, TV can induce the sort of anxiety normally associated with college exams.
Most of the conversation about Peak TV concerns the quantity of shows currently in production. But there’s also been a shift in what signifies quality on television, for both the people that make it and the people who watch it. “Good TV” means something different now than it did, say, when I was a middle-school kid in the early ’90s who felt sophisticated because he watched NYPD Blue.
“Good TV” is supposed to exist on cable and streaming services, not network TV. It is shot on film with a single camera, not on tape with three or four cameras in front of a studio audience. It unfolds like a novel, rather than in a series of stand-alone episodes. It is “funny” but not actually funny, even if it’s a comedy. It features actors who are famous for starring in movies, as opposed to actors you know from other TV shows. In fact, “Good TV” is not TV at all, it is “cinematic,” even though TV has allegedly killed cinema.
In the past year or so, the artistic excesses of Peak TV have reached precarious extremes. While the first season of True Detective is viewed as a watershed moment for film actors deigning to appear on television, the second season of True Detective seems like Peak TV’s “Heaven’s Gate moment.” Heaven’s Gate is the expansive 1980 Western directed by Michael Cimino that’s often referred to as the symbolic end of the New Hollywood, the ’70s era of American auteurism in film that’s roughly analogous to the present (bygone?) golden age of TV. Of course, another HBO show, the infamous $100 million disaster Vinyl, could also function as a symbol for empowered artists (Martin Scorsese and Terrence Winter, among them) being given just enough rope by indulgent corporate benefactors to hang themselves.
Then again, it’s also possible that we’ve not yet reached the breaking point. Louis C.K. spent millions of his own money so he could make his uneven drama, Horace and Pete, free of network interference. Netflix just paid $120 million for the hip-hop series The Get Down, an epic mess that hasn’t yet made a substantial cultural footprint. In June, Vulture reported that Kevin Costner was offered $500,000 per episode for a show that would’ve aired on one of the major streaming networks. Apparently, Woody Allen’s paycheck to make Crisis in Six Acts, which premieres on Amazon later this month, tops even that hefty Costner offer.
Given Allen’s unexceptional box-office history, paying so much for the 80-year-old filmmaker’s latest project can only be viewed as a naked prestige grab. Prestige is a precious currency in the Peak TV era — if you can’t attract a big audience, it’s almost as good to attract the right audience. Streaming networks are littered with shows like this — no matter their varying merits, shows like Bloodline, The Path, Mozart in the Jungle, Man in the High Castle, Casual, Catastrophe, and Flaked seem like outputs from a “prestige TV” algorithm.
But even prestige takes a backseat to “more” in the current TV landscape. You pay a boatload of money for a show in which Woody Allen plays someone named Sidney Muntzinger because the business demands more content that’s flashy enough to push aside slightly older content. This is also why there will be a second season of Stranger Things, in spite of the first season feeling more or less self-contained and perfectly fine as it is. I’m sure The Night Of will soon have its own “inevitably disappointing” second season. The hunger for more is insatiable.
The “more” addiction has even reshaped individual episodes. One of my favorite TV comedies of recent years is Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was created by 30 Rock‘s Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. As much as I enjoy Kimmy Schmidt, however, I occasionally find the episodes wearying and overlong. But it wasn’t until I read a New York Times interview with Carlock that I realized that Kimmy Schmidt is intentionally longer than the typical 30 Rock episode.
“We knew Netflix wanted the episodes to be longer,” Carlock said. “They like the shows to be around 26 minutes, is what they told us, as opposed to 21:15 on network.”
I’d argue those extra four minutes and 45 seconds don’t make Kimmy Schmidt better — in fact, the extra padding sometimes screws up the pacing and lessens the impact of the best jokes. But those extra minutes do provide Kimmy Schmidt with plenty of “more.”
I’m not the first person to notice that the “Too Much TV” era has resulted in “Too-Big TV,” i.e. episodes that feel longer than they should be. Apparently, this is partly due to content-provider edict, but I think it’s also tied up in “more” being associated with quality. “Gigantism equals excellence”-type thinking infects other media from time to time — “longform” journalism is synonymous with excellence, long books are reflexively declared masterpieces, and Oscar-nominated films often stretch toward the three-hour mark.
The most egregious case of gigantism on TV right is Mr. Robot. In its first season, Mr. Robot was a taut thriller about a band of hackers scheming to pull the computer crime of the century. Critics responded by heralding the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, as a budding genius in the mold of David Chase, David Simon, and Matthew Weiner. And Esmail responded to that by turning the second season of Mr. Robot into a sad demonstration of how “more” can derail even the brightest new show on TV. Season two of Mr. Robot has more of everything: More characters, more plot twists, more film-geek references, more off-kilter camera angles where the subject is positioned in the bottom corner of the frame. It also has just more “more” — Mr. Robot‘s two-part season premiere clocked in at 84 minutes, while the next two weeks topped out at 63 and 65 minutes.
Lately, I’ve been re-watching The Sopranos, my favorite show ever. The Sopranos isn’t perfect — the emphasis on psychoanalysis feels a little dated, and the Massive Genius episode is still kind of a clunker. But for the most part, it’s still the richest, funniest, and most wrenching TV show I’ve ever seen. The Sopranos is also economical by today’s standards — in the first two seasons, episodes rarely stray above the 50-minute mark. In later seasons, The Sopranos had earned enough capital to expand a bit, though it wasn’t until the final three episodes of season three (starting with the classic “Pine Barrens” episode) that it dared push to 60 minutes. The season-four finale went up to 75 minutes, but again, it feels earned. (It helps that this episode, “Whitecaps,” is maybe the best Sopranos episode ever, which means it’s one of the best episodes of television, period.)
The Sopranos helped to establish a lot of the conventions that have come to define prestige television. But it also came out of a time when the rules for TV were more rigid — while The Sopranos broke many of those rules, it also adhered to more of them than people remember. At its best, The Sopranos expanded the medium without resorting to indulgence for indulgence’s sake. Even the later seasons, when some fans complained that the action on The Sopranos became over-internalized, are not nearly as undisciplined storytelling-wise as some prestige shows are now.
Let me be clear: I am not lamenting the ambition of TV’s new generation of auteurs. I’m as excited as anyone to see the next Fargo or The Leftovers. I can’t even quit Mr. Robot, in spite of my frustrations. I’m just saying that placing a limit on “more” has its benefits. Many of my favorite shows right now – Better Call Saul, Black-ish, Crazy Ex-Girlfiend, Scandal — aren’t lavished with enormous budgets, and they don’t go all-in on 90-minute episodes. They manage to be smart, creative, and compulsively watchable while operating within the relatively fixed confines of traditional TV shows. They’re pleasurable, in part, because they do what they do in roughly 21 to 43 minutes. They always leave me wanting more, and also grateful that I didn’t get “more.”