In the fall of 2013, on the eve of Breaking Bad’s series finale, the critic Todd VanDerWerff, then at The A.V. Club, pronounced the end of the Golden Age of Television. In the preceding 12 months, Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised and Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution had more or less defined said age as one in which complex, serialized narratives, often helmed by a singular auteur; brooding, antiheroic, largely male protagonists; frank depictions of sex and violence; and an embrace of moral ambiguity, had become the distinguishing features of the medium’s high art, and VanDerWerff understood the looming conclusion of both Breaking Bad and Mad Men as signals of time’s inevitable turn. ”[T]he dominant form of the TV drama,” he wrote, “is slowly moving away from dark men in dark times doing dark things.”
In other ways, too, that year-or-so now seems auspicious, in the sense that it heralded more than a few of the profound changes—aesthetic, economic, technological—to come to TV in the half-decade since. In 2013, the debut of House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black launched Netflix, and subsequently its streaming competitors, into the original programming arms race that brought us “peak TV.” We bade farewell to the The Office (after nine seasons) and 30 Rock (after seven). Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. became the first in a raft of small-screen properties to join the imprint’s “cinematic universe.” The number of cable programs nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys matched the number of network programs for the first time, and miniseries and TV movies competed against each other for the last. And FX unveiled a Cold War-set spy drama to positive if not effusive reviews and what would prove to be steadily declining ratings. It was called The Americans.
With Wednesday night’s tremendous series finale, the capstone to a closing season that counts among the art form’s finest, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ tale of deep-cover KGB operatives (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) living and working in the environs of Washington, D.C. reaffirms its place in the pantheon. But as I noted in my report on the series’ evolution, the end of The Americans also marks the end of an era: It is the last of the cycle of truly great cable dramas that began with The Sopranos, The Wire, and The Shield, passed through Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Justified, and concluded—in the course of another auspicious year-or-so—with the final bows of The Leftovers, Halt and Catch Fire, and now The Americans. I suspect that we may soon see this as a point of demarcation. The “Golden Age of Television” is officially over.
I’m using “Golden Age” here, mind you, as familiar, loaded shorthand for a particular movement in the history of television, one whose defining characteristics are by no means uncontested. As VanDerWerff and others have noted during the “Golden Age” debates, in fact, the term has been applied so promiscuously—to the live television of the 1950s, the sitcoms of the 1970s, the network dramas of the 1980s and 1990s—that it risks meaninglessness. For the purposes of this piece, then, (our most recent) “Golden Age” refers to the roughly twenty-year period from 1999 to the present in which the ongoing, hour-long drama came to be seen as the highest expression of the medium’s artistic possibilities, the form that made TV “cinematic,” and thus deemed worthy of in-depth analysis. The long, fast-fading moment in which premium and then basic cable supplanted the broadcast networks as the preferred place for the most creative, original voices in television. The era that witnessed the emergence of TV critics as rivals for influence of their colleagues covering film, and the “recap,” or episodic review, became ubiquitous. It’s not that TV before The Sopranos or after The Americans—or, for that matter, the beloved sitcoms, influential reality shows, and other important features of the landscape from the span in between—are lesser works. It’s that none of these subcategories emerged, to the same extent, as the force driving the pop cultural conversation during the years in question.
In truth, I’m eager to see the “Golden Age” go. As I wrote in my reconsideration of Louie last autumn, following “auteur” Louis C.K.’s admission of sexual misconduct, such meta-narratives often militate against incisive criticism, or lead us to neglect excellent TV series that resist prefab notions of “prestige.” (Of the era’s underappreciated outliers, The Good Wife—a blisteringly funny, highly topical, female-led network procedural in a critical ecosystem that still tends to prize serialization, seriousness, classicism, cable, and men—offers the most cutting rebuke to those notions, with its satirical show-within-a-show Darkness at Noon.) The medium’s most fervent energies are no longer in the sort of ongoing drama that defined the “Golden Age,” anyway: They’re in witty, experimental approaches to distinctly “popular” genres, from the horror/comedy (Atlanta) to the musical (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) to the telenovela (Jane the Virgin); in expressive, tightly wound limited series (The Assassination of Gianni Versace, The Young Pope); in gonzo animations (BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty); even the revival (with a twist) of the multi-cam sitcom (One Day at a Time), the family drama (Queen Sugar), the prequel (Better Call Saul), the spinoff (The Good Fight). If anything, this list of titles suggests the profound limits of the “Golden Age” schema, especially its origins: In elevating a scant handful of series, most inflected by the crime drama, to the level of literary fiction, critics and creators, viewers and executives, implied, inadvertently, that the rest was pure pulp.
Still, the conclusion of The Americans offers a useful occasion to pause and consider what the latest “Golden Age” wrought, even if you’d quibble with the series’ inclusion under that umbrella. For me, at least, it’s fitting that the “Golden Age” should, as with any artistic movement, feature distinct phases—call them development (The Sopranos), consolidation (Mad Men), and elaboration (The Americans)—and that the last entries before the dawn of a new age should have pushed the possibilities furthest. The Americans began as a portrait of two antiheros with a case-of-the-week bent, only to become an evocative saga about the ties that bind; Halt and Catch Fire started as a Mad Men knockoff set at the dawn of the digital age, only to emerge as a rich, humane depiction of professional partnership; The Leftovers originated as a bleak puzzle box, Lindelof’s second shot at Lost, only to tell us to “let the mystery be” and therein discover depths of wild emotion. (Even Mad Men had sloughed off some of its “Golden Age” trappings by the end of its run, as if to presage its successors’ evolutions.) These later series no longer much resemble, say, The Sopranos or The Wire—it’s hard to imagine an Elizabeth Jennings, Donna Clark or Nora Durst coming out of those writers’ rooms, as superb as those programs are—but that’s because they supplanted that original DNA with new material, not because they never shared it.
The “Golden Age” that lingers on long past its shelf life, the “peak TV” that never peaks: We critics, of course, are no more capable of seeing the whole equation of pictures than anyone else, and there’s no guarantee I won’t reflect on the end of The Americans in five years and declare my pronouncement premature. With vanishingly rare exception, though—The Deuce, from The Wire creator/bona fide throwback David Simon, is the only example I could come up with that squarely fit the bill—it seems that a new age is afoot, be it silver or platinum or gilded (as I myself predict). The dominant form of the TV drama is once again about dark men in dark times doing dark things, to quote VanDerWerff, but the plot-driven dystopian epics now at the helm of the pop cultural conversation (Westworld, for instance, or Game of Thrones) seem far enough afield from what came before to suggest a clean break. Because what I will miss about the dramas of our latest “Golden Age” is their emphasis on the sum of small moments, on the accrual of detail and thus of meaning, on the belief that the cut to black, the perfect pitch, the hopeful reunion, the final phone call are in fact as momentous as the sprawling battle sequence or the breakneck swordfight. That the respective series finales of The Leftovers, Halt and Catch Fire, and The Americans are all, to one or another extent, about this summative effect, in life as in drama, is perhaps the central reason they’re worth including in this tentative farewell to the “Golden Age”: As the series most often included in the discussion thereof all seem to have recognized, per Halt and Catch Fire, “the project gets us to the people.” TV is just the thing that gets us to the thing, and no “Golden Age” can last long without that belief at its center.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.