Remember when people at parties started talking about television the way they once talked about movies? It was the late 1990s, early ’00s — the dawning that we were enjoying of what came to be known as a “Golden Age of television,” a term repeated so frequently that critics began to shun it as cliché. (Also: Apologies to anyone who still thinks of Milton Berle as the Golden Age of television.)
“The Sopranos” was on. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was on. Later it was “The Wire,””Six Feet Under,” “Mad Men.” There were those many years of time and typing frittered away figuring out “Lost.” After a while, you realized you couldn’t plan anything on Sunday nights — book clubs, pool parties; everyone suddenly had to leave by 8, and TV was the reason. Casual acquaintances kept insisting that you start watching a new drama about a meth maker in Albuquerque or this other drama about a female CIA agent who was bipolar. Hyperbole took over; every show became the best show ever.
In other words, viewers certainly know what a Golden Age of TV is supposed to feel like. The question now is whether or not we’re still in it.
Probably not. TV’s one-hour dramas now come one right after the other from a variety of sources, and they’re all high quality from a technical perspective, thanks mainly to groundbreaking programs that were on a decade or so ago, which raised the bar overall. But it’s time to admit that we’ve now deeply settled into a Silver Age of TV that might last a long while.
With an increase in expectations and a glut of new programming, we’ve become accustomed to shows that are, at their best, pretty good instead of brilliant. The fact that there are more dramas in production now than ever — for broadcast, cable and premium channels and streaming services — killed off the Golden Age instead of prolonging it; in the Silver Age, pretty good is good enough, so long as you can convince a handful of influential viewers that they’ve found their new favorite show.
Take the case of Matthew Weiner’s partly cloudy, Emmy-winning “Mad Men.” The show, which returns Sunday on AMC with the first of its final seven episodes, is one of the last survivors of TV’s triumphant era. We have watched it slowly descend from its greatest seasons down a rung or two, to a state of being, well, pretty good.
Fans have had eight years to train themselves to absorb “Mad Men” rather than just watch it. They hunt for hidden meanings in its period details (the period now appears to be 1970-ish). A diner waitress (Elizabeth Reaser) reading John Dos Passos between orders seems to trigger some lost memory or longing in Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who is spending his days doing what he does best at what remains of the Sterling Cooper agency: He is tasked with casting lovely models for a fur coat campaign. As ever, the show is rich in its own vision of what perfection used to be.
This is my last waltz with Weiner’s obsession for secrecy, in which he allows AMC to send critics a single episode to review along with a list of what not to reveal (anything, everything). Secrecy — and an ambiguity about true meaning — will be “Mad Men’s” legacy, a show that is so fussy about verisimilitude that it struggles to reveal its characters and their stories in a plain manner.
I won’t tell you what else happens in the episode, mainly because not much happens. Don, Peggy, Joan: The end is quickly approaching, but “Mad Men” still offers no hope of a broad statement or definitive conclusion. The use of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” can’t help but come across as a deliberate taunt; Weiner has already hinted that tidy wrap-ups for every last character may not be in the cards. If that sort of news troubles you, then it’s possible that you gave up on the show long ago.
Its ratings have never been terrific, certainly not when compared with AMC’s wild success with “The Walking Dead,” a show that is perfectly suited to the Silver Age’s demands for action, gore and characters who all but take a Day-Glo highlighter to the script to mark up the major themes for you. (“The Walking Dead” has so perfected the art of remaining pretty good that you don’t dare miss it.)
Watching “Mad Men” and admiring “Mad Men” and partaking in the hype of “Mad Men” is what the Golden Age of television was all about. Now, in the Silver Age, “Mad Men” is fading away as beautifully — even indifferently — as one would expect. The way the camera lingers on those women in fur coats is as striking and suggestive as that scene that kicked off Season 7 last year, a slow-motion shot where Don got off a plane at LAX and strolled out to the terminal and the beatific Angeleno light, where Megan (Jessica Pare) waited for him in her tiny mini-dress, the convertible idling curbside. It was one of the Golden Age’s final, signature moments, and it reminds us that perhaps we’ve said goodbye to “Mad Men” a few times too many.
The Silver Age of TV defines itself by quantity rather than quality. Just listen to the moaning and groaning about the gridlock of options airing every Sunday night (“I can’t possibly watch it all.” “My DVR doesn’t have any room left.”)
There are a couple hundred dramas in production; had some of them aired in the Golden Age, they might have been heralded as influential works of art rather than getting lost: History’s “Vikings,” for one example, or HBO’s “The Leftovers,” or A&E’s “Bates Motel,” or Starz’s “Outlander” or (the king of the pretty-good-but-not-great shows) Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Each gets the usual serving of hype and marketing and sufficient positive reviews at the outset, but eventually these shows come to rest, unwatched, in the queue of good intentions.
In the Silver Age, every network, channel and online service would like to get a lock on the Big Important Drama market, which means that the threshold for cancellation also changed — and in some cases vanished. Following HBO’s lead, cable networks and streaming services follow an etiquette of patron-like patience, willing to renew an underperforming drama for a second and even third season while it finds its rhythm and its audience.
You have to work really hard (or be on NBC) to get canceled anymore, which is why it’s rather shocking when a network like FX cancels a show like “The Bridge,” a perfect Silver Age specimen, given that it was based on a foreign show, offered a bleak setting, featured difficult protagonists and was, like so much else on TV right now, given to sudden bursts of violence.
Some other recognizable traits of the Silver Age’s pretty-good programs: Sex scenes performed standing up against walls or upon desks and tables (anywhere but bed); shocking plot twists; period details that are adored by the camera but not in a way that intrudes on the narrative (as in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”) unless the point is to very much intrude on the narrative, because the time period practically is the narrative (as with AMC’s twin underperformers, “Turn: Washington Spies,” set in the 1770s, and “Halt and Catch Fire” set in the 1980s).
Silver Age TV dramas have a soft spot for subtitles (especially in shows about counter-terrorism), which indicate cinema-like seriousness; gloomy locations are also a plus — if you’re inured to shows set in the Pacific Northwest’s constant drizzle, then move on to Pivot’s pretty-good “Fortitude,” shrouded in Arctic darkness.
Speaking of rain, the Silver Age particularly favors long mysteries in which the murder case stretches a season or longer until resolution by its emotionally crippled sleuths — best exemplified by BBC America’s “Broadchurch,” HBO’s “True Detective,” Starz’s “The Missing” and AMC’s”The Killing,” all of which reached for brilliance and wound up being, in the final analysis, pretty good.
After a while, nearly every show has a way of feeling like the same show. Someone is on your case to watch them (a friend, a relative, a TV critic), and you promise that you will, the next time you get the flu or sprain an ankle or otherwise find the hours upon hours. The hallmark of Silver Age TV viewing is the feeling that you are always behind.
Have you watched Netflix’s “Bloodline” yet?
Have you heard that it’s already been renewed for a second season?
Tacking the word “American” onto NBC’s new terrorism/conspiracy drama “Odyssey” is a telltale Silver Age move. “American Crime,””American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” and, from the cineplex, “American Sniper” — you get the idea: “American,” in this case, is meant to denote something definitive, essential. Plus, it’s not hard to imagine a roomful of network execs agitating at the idea that viewers might equate the word “Odyssey” with Homer (not Simpson) and homework assignments.
When reviewing the show’s pilot episode back in January for a midseason preview, I admired “American Odyssey’s” studied deployment of pretty-good TV techniques usually seen on premium cable series, particularly “Homeland.” I gave the show a slightly inflated A- for its effort, hoping that further episodes would deliver on the narrative momentum of the premise.
They do, in pretty-good style. Told “Traffic”-like from three perspectives, the show begins in the North African desert, where Special Ops Sgt. Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) is part of an elite team that gets lucky, finding and killing a terrorist leader on the most-wanted list. Odelle logs on to the dead terrorist’s laptop and discovers an intelligence treasure-trove, including a receipt that indicates a large deposit from an American corporation.
Within short order, an American private security force arrives and takes over, seizing the terrorist’s body and his laptop — but not before Odelle has surreptitiously copied the contents onto a flash drive. That night, Odelle’s unit is ambushed by the same black-ops force. Americans back home, including Odelle’s husband and daughter, are told that the heroic U.S. soldiers died in the line of duty.
But Odelle lives, as a photo of her (bruised, bloody, wearing a turban) sent to Al Jazeera seems to prove. Her fate becomes a cause for anti-capitalist protesters, led by Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson). In a skyscraper above the protests, corporate attorney Peter Decker (“Nurse Jackie’s” Peter Facinelli) begins to suspect that a big client is, in fact, funding terrorists. That’s the thread through all of this — the enemy is us, and there’s no way of knowing whom to trust. Silver Age TV wouldn’t know how to tell a story that’s not deeply cynical.
As Odelle wanders the desert from one desperate scrape to another (Silver Age TV is always up on the latest newsfeed horrors, including ISIS-style beheading videos), both Peter and Harrison come to separate dawnings about a major conspiracy. Other Silver Age tropes are expertly on display, including, but not limited to, subtitles when foreigners speak, throats that spurt blood when sliced, savvy but danger-prone adolescents, and a transgender character who is tasked with exhibiting more moral courage than everyone around her.
These touches, along with a sharp and believable performance from Friel, make “American Odyssey” — wait for it — pretty good. It’s on at the same time as “Mad Men” and all the other not-bad, better-than-so-so, high-quality dramas you keep meaning to watch.
“American Odyssey” (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.
“Mad Men” (one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.