Considering the airwaves are cluttered with dejected bachelorettes, fist-pumping and wars over things as trivial as cupcakes, it's difficult to imagine this as a time when television should be revered.
Or is it?
That was the prompt at hand during last night's Zocalo Public Square event: “Is This the Golden Age of Television?” — a panel that hosted both industry insiders and media critics who, if ever so politely, battled that very question.
Though reality TV is more dominant than ever, there's simultaneously a terrific boom in programming that offer viewers thoughtful, intelligent writing, such as Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, 30 Rock, and Modern Family to name only a few. How does such a dichotomy exist? And furthermore, must we all pick a side?
KCRW's Kim Masters moderated the pros and cons tossed between writer and former television executive James Andrew Miller, Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss, Occidental College historian Thaddeus Russell and producer for Cold Case and the critically-acclaimed Homeland, Meredith Stiehm.
Stiehm is sitting pretty as a writer for cable, where it's almost universally agreed that the highest quality television now lives. To a chorus of nods, she pointed out that network programming is on the decline in part because writing suffers under its structure. Where a cable show's season is typically 10 to 12 episodes, cranking out the 22 to 24 required for a network season dilutes the story. “Cold Case became almost factory-like at times,” she said. “Occasionally we'd say, 'Is this good enough? No. But ship it off, because the next one's coming.'”
Another “con” stance on the evening's resolution came from Miller, who said he's not a fan of narrowcasting. “I don't need a show about cake,” he quipped. (A show? There's practically a whole cake genre.)
But Weiss, a former television critic with a widely-read American Idol blog under her belt, surfaced as a defender of reality TV. “There's a long tradition of people making fools of themselves,” she said, “dating back to the court jester.” So perhaps Snooki is simply filling a cultural role that's always been there.
The main pro stance that emerged, however, defended most vehemently by Russell, is that this is television's golden age in that it marks a high in diversity and choice in programming. Everything from Pawn Stars to Downton Abbey is there for the viewer's taking, and to him, no one show should be considered better than the other.
“If you think reality shows are bad, you're in the one percent,” he said, relating it directly to politics, even referencing the Republican debates. Russell laid out the argument that if you believe what the general population watches is junk, you're establishing yourself as superior, and that's wrong. “Why must a show about storage lockers be 'bad?'” he wanted to know.
Off the bat, the one percent argument seemed flawed. Those making millions and doing dubious things with their taxes are not the only people, or necessarily the people, watching Curb Your Enthusiasm. There are lots, lots more, and many of them are merely middle class. But one could see where he was trying to go; that he was drawing a line at the feet of elitists (whom he specified to be bi-coastal tastemakers in the media) for establishing what's “good” and “worthy” to be on television and shunning what they deem to be garbage, regardless of how popular it is.
This writer — a heavy consumer of reality TV — so wanted to agree, but it was difficult. To Russell, it seemed a distinction between television's high art and low art shouldn't be made. A higher level of character development, nuance and complexity shouldn't make one show superior to another. “Why should complexity matter?” he posed to the audience.
Well, because it does.
We can equally enjoy Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Breaking Bad, but that doesn't necessarily make them equal. It's that complexity and intention behind the work of thought-provoking television that elevates it to a more revered place. It's no different than any art form. If a monkey throws paint against the wall and the public happens to love it, that doesn't make the art “as good as” the Mona Lisa. Cheetos are delicious, but they're not comparable to filet mignon.
Which is not to say we can't consume and enjoy and celebrate all these things, and fill our DVRs with Game of Thrones and Jersey Shore alike. To that point, Miller is definitely on to something. This is the golden age of television when it comes to range of programming, but to pretend that any art that people happen to like is good art asks us to consume without thinking critically, which sounds like a recipe for a serious downward spiral.