Has The Golden Age Of TV Drama Come To An End?
With the passing this week of ABC's "Lost," Fox's "24" and NBC's "Law & Order," the new Golden Age of Drama that began in earnest at the dawn of the millennium is suddenly looking a bit tarnished. "Lost" and "24" were two true game-changers that broke decades-old structural and narrative rules, enthralling viewers and critics alike as they strengthened the foundation of television. "Law & Order" also brought something new to its genre with its split storytelling. It survived and thrived throughout the '90s and remained one of broadcast's best throughout much of the last decade, when it was joined by many new dramas that would become all-time greats. Shame on NBC for cancelling it just as it was about to surpass the record set by "Gunsmoke" as TV's longest-running prime-time scripted series. Imagine the publicity the network would have enjoyed from September through May had it chosen to make history next season.
There is more evidence that the new millennial wave of smart, sophisticated drama may be losing some of its power. FX's "Damages" -- a sterling example of dramatic storytelling -- has not yet been renewed for a fourth season, and the outlook isn't good. "Friday Night Lights" (my choice for the second-best drama of the millennium to date, right after "The Sopranos") is this fall headed into its fifth and likely final run (its third on DirecTV and fifth on NBC).
Only a few years ago, the list of current top-shelf TV dramas offered an embarrassment of riches. NBC's "The West Wing" and HBO's "The Sopranos" kicked it all off at the very end of the '90s and paved the way for the renaissance to come. They were followed by "24," FX's "The Shield," HBO's "Six Feet Under," Syfy's "Battlestar Galactica," ABC's "Lost" and "Boston Legal," HBO's "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights" and "Damages." (I'll add BBC America's "Skins," "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood" to this list, even if they originated in Britain.) All of these shows raised the bar for better dramatic television, earning much critical praise as they made uncommon emotional connections with their viewers.
There are still two dramas on television that belong in the company of the greats: AMC's "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." But even without the gold standard bearers noted above, we're still in good shape. There are many really terrific shows that may not be remembered as the finest the medium has ever had to offer but are still worthy of much praise and support. They include CBS' "The Good Wife," TNT's "The Closer" and "Men of a Certain Age," Showtime's "Dexter," HBO's "True Blood" and "Treme" and FX's "Sons of Anarchy" and "Justified."
Still, it seems to me that once "Friday Night Lights" ends its run, the only remaining dramatic gold will belong to AMC. Certainly something new and spectacular could come along at any minute to change that, but after watching all the clips from all of the broadcasters' upcoming dramas during upfront week, I didn't come away with the feeling that there was a critical blockbuster (or even a ratings smash) in the bunch. I'm not saying there weren't any promising shows among them; I'm anxious to see NBC's "UnderCovers" and "The Event," CBS' "Blue Bloods" and ABC's "No Ordinary Family," to name a few. But I don't think there's a "West Wing" or "Lost" or "Friday Night Lights" in the pack. I didn't see one among the new TNT dramas, either, although "Memphis Beat" looks like a lot of fun.
Meantime, even as the drama genre slips a bit, it looks as though comedy is making a comeback. NBC planted the seeds of an exciting new comedy revolution with the single-camera sensations "The Office" and "30 Rock," though both have begun their inevitable slow fades. ABC earned the gold with "Modern Family," one of the best comedies of this or any other season. "The Middle" and "Cougar Town," also on ABC, are pretty good, too. CBS has two three-camera powerhouses in "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory," the latter so strong that it has been recruited in its fourth season to open CBS' mighty Thursday night. HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is still in top form and will be back for an eighth turn. Showtime has three award-worthy single-camera sensations in "Weeds," "Nurse Jackie" and "United States of Tara." BBC America's "The In-Betweeners" is raucous good fun.
Are these comedies collectively as golden as that unforgettable cluster of outstanding new millennial dramas was in its prime? Probably not, but their contributions to the overall quality of scripted television entertainment cannot be underestimated.
On a final note, I'm sure many readers would argue that, while the dramas mentioned above are indeed outstanding, no column about the genre would be complete without hindsight nods to "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue," four bold boundary busters from the '80s and '90s that paved the way for the Golden Age to come. Consider them noted.