Television’s New Golden Age
THE SOURCE: “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel” by Thomas Doherty, in The Chronicle Review, Sept. 21, 2012.
A random episode of the multiseason AMC drama Mad Men or HBO medieval fantasy Game of Thrones is not likely to enlighten a first-time viewer. What’s this allusion to adman Don Draper’s secret past? Who rules the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros? Welcome to the world of “Arc TV,” Thomas Doherty’s name for a new breed of television shows that throw old conventions out the window. Tidy endings to every episode and static characters are out. Long arcs of character and plot development filmed in big-ticket productions are in.
Doherty, chair of American studies at Brandeis University, says this is a game changer: The tube may have pulled ahead of the silver screen as the premier medium in Hollywood. Arc TV is “where the talent, the prestige, and the cultural buzz now swirl.” These shows may appear on the small screen, but they are watched like movies and unfold like novels. “For the viewer who tunes in late, the strands of the intricate plot lines may seem too tangled ever to unthread, but the insular complexities are how the shows pack their punch.”
So much of a punch that viewers who invest hours upon hours in these series demand artistic perfection. That’s often what they get. Meticulous set design lends Mad Men an uncanny 1960s verisimilitude. The desert cinematography of Breaking Bad, an AMC series about a teacher-cum-methamphetamine manufacturer in Albuquerque, would leave a big-screen director envious.
Doherty says the shift to Arc TV is no accident. Networks are less wary than they used to be of airing shows with adult content, which opens up a world of thematic possibilities. More important, the way people watch TV has changed dramatically. Digital video recorders, plus access to shows online via computer, phone, or tablet, mean that fans never miss an episode. Every subtle plot twist or nuance of character—and there are many of both—is noted. DVD box sets give viewers the chance to consume shows in movie-length chunks, supplemented with bonus footage and commentary. Large, high-definition screens in dens and family rooms display action and drama in all their glory. “Heretofore a medium of blinkered perspectives and talking heads, television now possesses the high resolution and horizontal space for expressive cinematography and precision-point mise en scène,” Doherty writes.
He credits The Sopranos (1999–2007) and the Baltimore-set crime drama The Wire (2002–08), both telecast on HBO, with being the first series to take advantage of these trends. They’ll hardly be the last. “The lineup hasn’t quite yet dethroned the theatrical feature film as the preferred canvas for moving-image artistry, but Hollywood moviemakers are watching their backs.”