Gavin Polone: How TV's Golden Age Is One Big Hallucination (Guest Column)
The only thing that has exploded in television is the bad and the mediocre, as the number of good writers remains the same while demand for shows increases, leading to sophomore slumps as streaming services thin out the talent pool.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Given the attention paid to so many mediocre scripted series at Emmy time, what I really want to know is why more people aren't talking about The White Crow? If you haven't seen it, it could be because your cable package doesn't include the TV24 network. If not, go to its website, where you can binge-watch the first four episodes for free (you can also purchase the whole season on iTunes). The first two episodes are a little slow, but the pace really picks up after that, and by episode eight, you'll be totally hooked. The show stars Scottish actress Charlotte McDuffy, whom I loved as Virgilia in the recent film adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. Her rural New England accent here is spot-on. The pilot was written and directed by Clarke Samboine, whose debut film, A Bottle of Moths, scored at Sundance two years ago. I didn't really like that movie, but it got him enough notice to lock down the deal for this show, and it's clear that TV is his true forte.
Or maybe the reason you haven't seen The White Crow is because I just made the above shit up. Don't feel bad if I fooled you; I mean, who has the time to keep up with all the new series being offered by the cable networks and streaming services you may have heard of — let alone those you probably didn't even know existed, like Pivot, Esquire and Up (yes, those networks actually exist).
But we're in a "golden age" of television, so why not make more of it, right? Wrong. The current era is less golden than those of the past, and part of the reason is the programming glut we're experiencing right now.
Compare what you find on your current program grid with the '72-'73 season. Back then, M*A*S*H, Gunsmoke, Laugh-In, The Mod Squad, The Waltons, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, Sanford and Son, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show WERE ALL ON THE AIR AT THE SAME TIME! Ten years after that, there were as many exceptional series, including my two all-time favorites, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. In '92, Cheers, Seinfeld and Northern Exposure led a pack of the all-time best. In '02, HBO alone offered The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Wire. If we're truly in a golden age, it started long ago and is now looking pretty geriatric.
Designating which shows are exceptional is subjective. But it is evident that the total number of outstanding shows on the air at one time hasn't increased in decades, while the quantity of mediocre and bad television has exploded. The reason for this is that the number of talented people who write, direct, produce and act on TV also has remained about the same. It's the nature of excellence: By definition, only very few from any category of endeavor are exceptional. Are there more world-class basketball players playing today on the 30 NBA teams than there were when Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West were the elite of the 17 teams during the early '70s, or when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won championships in the '80s and the number of teams increased to 23? Again, no. Like with basketball today, the best talent working in television is spread out more thinly over a larger number of shows, bringing down the overall average level of goodness.
Another way the excess number of series hurts quality is the "second-year syndrome" that you must have noticed, when the sophomore year of a show is often a disappointment for those who liked the initial order. This happens, in part, because there is so much opportunity for writers, so the best ones often move on sooner than they used to. Look at the example of The Killing. In 2011, that show was possibly the best show of the year. Nic Pizzolatto and Soo Hugh wrote two episodes each during the first order. They did not write for The Killing in its second season, which was not as well regarded as the first, and its ratings dropped significantly. Pizzolatto eventually created HBO's True Detective and Hugh ABC's The Whispers. While this example is anecdotal and may not explain why The Killing's second season wasn't as good as the first, there is no reason to believe that going from 29 scripted series in 1999 to around 400 today somehow brought about the existence of so many more gifted writers — rather, it likely means that slots on many writing staffs are filled by second, third and 23rd choices. And it shows.
Now Apple, the most powerful brand in the world, is planning on streaming original programs, too. One could think this will only add to the oversupply of programming, but I think the opposite is true. What has allowed broadcast and narrowcast networks to create hundreds of mediocre shows? Subscriber fees collected from viewers by cable companies and paid to those networks because they have been part of unbreakable channel bundles. In the same way that video killed the radio star, the Internet is going to kill the seldom-watched cable show by affording viewers the chance to pay individually for preferred content over the web. HBO, CBS, Amazon Prime and Netflix already are doing it — and when you add Apple TV and a few more into the mix, including sports channels, a critical mass accumulates. Consumers will realize they're now able to buy only what they want, likely motivating them to unhook from the expensive 100-plus package that they were forced to purchase — even though they only wanted 12 of those choices. Verizon and Dish have already taken a step to answer the Internet challenge by offering slimmed-down packages of channels, and it won't be long before the rest of the major cable providers will unbundle their offerings to allow everyone to pay a la carte, both on the Internet and from regular cable. The result will be fewer but better television series, more room on your DVR and less time wasted waiting to see if that show your friend recommended will get any better after episode four. Because with TV, often getting less will give you more.
Gavin Polone is a producer and director.