Golden Age of Television

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The Golden Age of Television is a name given to the earliest days of television—usually approximately 1949 to 1960, when American prime time television was largely comprised of dramatic anthology series with shows by writers and filmmakers such as Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky and Alfred Hitchcock. However, some critics use the term to describe the era when most Americans and Britons made the switch from radio as their primary entertainment source to television (which would make it the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s), and still others would describe it as the era before television switched to color in the mid-1960s. Whatever the time frame, because the classic drama anthologies are such a small portion of what is still seen from the era, most modern viewers consider the Golden Age of Television to be crude, simplistic and awkward by contemporary standards. However, the vast majority of shows on the air even today rely on the formulas and genres invented during that era—including variety shows, sitcoms, soap operas and talk shows.

Although it has been claimed throughout television history that various times are or were a "New Golden Age of Television," such claims have become increasingly prevalent in regards to the present day since the 2004-05 season, when the reality show craze began to subside and scripted series began to take over prime time programming. In perhaps the most notable instance, director Jon Cassar declared the arrival of this second Golden Age in his acceptance speech at The 58th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. Whether or not the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century is, in fact, such a New Golden Age is of course up for debate. However, the claim is not merely self-promotion by networks and professionals regarding the quality of their work. There is, indeed, some factual basis for the claim.

As with the anthology series of the 1950s, scripted television series of this decade have been more concerned with complex, layered storytelling and mood than with the straightforward, largely emotional shows characterized by casts of stock characters of the 1960s through 1990s. Unlike the anthology series, however, episodes of modern television series are decreasingly self-contained. Since the debut of such series as Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos in the 90s, and certainly continuing through such 200s network prime time series as 24 (for which Cassar was accepting his Emmy), Lost, Desperate Housewives and even such comedies as The Office and Scrubs, the general trend in television programming has been increasingly towards serialized stories—stories which extend across entire seasons, even, at times, multiple seasons. Where once these types of serialized stories were the almost exclusive domain of soap operas, be they daytime or night-time soaps such as Dynasty, Dallas and Peyton Place, in 2006, TV Guide said of the new fall season: "Of the 24 new network series introduced [this fall], nearly half are serialized: soaps, thrillers, even comedies."

The second important shift has been not in the storytelling, but in the culture. In the 1950s, anthology series launched or gave a boost to the careers of both writers and actors. Such professionals as Serling, Chayefsky, Robert Redford and Martin Sheen would go on to find successful careers in both television and cinema. Further, anthology scripts led to theatrical films, which were themselves lauded. Such cinematic classics as 12 Angry Men and the 1955 Academy Award winner for Best Picture Marty were cinematic adaptations of anthology series episodes.

However, by the 1960s, the culture shifted, and television series actors and writers came to be seen as less talented or less "serious" than their cinematic counterparts. From the 1960s through the 1980s, many of the top names in episodic television series—even those who had won Emmys as for their work—struggled to expand their television careers into film careers (although there are certainly exceptions). In 1988, actor Tom Hanks, who had begun his career in television with the sitcom Bosom Buddies and had since spent the decade being cast in mostly low-budget, high concept, critically reviled films, was nominated for an Oscar for his work in the film Big. Five years and several critically panned films later, Hanks would become the second actor in Oscar history to win consecutive Best Actor awards for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. At around the same time, TV stars Bruce Willis (Moonlighting) and Michael J. Fox (Family Ties) were finding significant success on the big screen. In 1998, Helen Hunt made awards history when she became the first person to win an Oscar and a Golden Globe for work in film (As Good as It Gets) in the same calendar year as she was appearing in (and won an Emmy for) a television series, Mad About You. Since Hanks and Hunt's Oscar wins, television actors have found the barrier between the two media to be much more permeable, and many television actors such as Jamie Foxx (Roc, The Jamie Foxx Show), Steve Carell (The Office) and Jennifer Garner (Alias) have had lucrative film careers, while television has attracted such film stars as Kiefer Sutherland (24), Alec Baldwin (30 Rock) and Charlie Sheen (Spin City, Two and a Half Men).

Not just actors, but writers, directors and creators have also been affected by the cultural shift. When David Lynch developed Twin Peaks, he opened the floodgates for other big-name filmmakers to also try their hands at television: Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street), James Cameron (Dark Angel), Bryan Singer (House, M.D.). On the other side of the divide, where once television writers and creators were largely unknown to the public (the rare Gene Roddenberry, Norman Lear or Steven Bochco aside), more contemporary television creators—Chris Carter (The X Files), Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly), J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost)—frequently find their names and/or faces becoming as well known amongst their fanbases as their series' stars.

In the final accounting, however, whether this is truly a New Golden Age or not will be judged by history—both in terms of its longevity and its length. If it turns out to last for a few years and then fade (as the reality show era did), it will likely be a footnote to television history. However, if trends continue as they have been for the next few years, and if the current crop of TV shows is fondly remembered years from now, historians may very well be finding themselves agreeing with Cassar's assertion.