The biggest pop cultural buzz du jour is this weekend's premiere of the final season of Breaking Bad, a TV series that has provided a riveting incremental account of an inconsequential milquetoast's transformation into a methamphetamine-cooking monster.
It's a fantastic show: precisely calibrated in terms of both plot and technical execution, acted impeccably from top to bottom, and dramatically, emotionally and morally challenging. Moreover, it comes in a year where two of the other most prominent buzz-making machines were also TV shows: Game of Thrones' third season premiere in March, and Mad Men's sixth in April.
Here's what these shows have in common: they're equally demanding in their own ways; they're all ongoing dramas that unfold more like novels than old-school episodic TV; they've each got rabidly devoted fan bases; and all prove what Brett Martin claims in his recent book Difficult Men about the post-Sopranos televisual landscape: TV has never seemed better than it is right now.
He writes: "The open-ended, 12- or 13-episode serialized drama was maturing into its own, distinct art form. What's more, it had become the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth and Mailer had been to the 1960s."
That's some claim, but it's qualified somewhat by the low bar television – especially American television – has historically set as a popular medium. It's not hard to be better than Bewitched, The Time Tunnel, My Mother the Car, Petticoat Junction or Flipper. This is the kind of bilge I grew up on – and, admittedly, loved at the time – and it's also what drove me so far from TV I didn't look back for about two decades. Every time somebody would tell me I've got to watch something, I'd flash back to Gomer Pyle and go watch another movie.
But ever since I finally sat down to watch all six seasons of The Sopranos some years ago, I've been hard pressed to get back up. It was the gateway to some hardcore fixations. Deadwood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, The Wire, Homeland, Big Love, Justified, Damages, Game of Thrones and In Treatment. With each of these shows, I could trust that something would happen – if not in this episode, then the next – that would lift my scalp just a little. With too many movies, keeping my eyelids lifted was hard enough.
There are many reasons why post-millennial TV has switched places with movies as the medium of choice for people seeking smart diversion, but one of them is this: in the same way the middle has dropped out of class categories and political discourse in North America, it's also disappeared from popular movies. The day when low-budget trash and high-end spectacle was bridged by middle-ground drama is over. Your choice today is either marginally released indie art-house fare (which most of us probably watch at home on TV anyway) or yet another movie where the world is nearly destroyed until somebody in tights flies into the 3-D frame to save it.
We're talking major shift. Ever since TV started to drain box-office revenues dry in the early 1950s, the movie industry has demonized and dismissed TV as variously sinister or stupid, a sly one-eyed domestic invader that induces brainless conformity when it's not overtly facilitating the decline of the Republic or civilization as we know it. It's a vision that ran from All that Heaven Allows, The Girl Can't Help It and A Face in the Crowd in the fifties right through Network, Being There, Videodrome, Poltergeist and The Truman Show in subsequent years, and it was always based on a formerly irrefutable proposition: TV will make you stupid. And, by inference, movies will not.
God knows there was reason for worry, especially when the vast baby-boom generation proved itself not only capable of watching countless hours of television – all I remember doing for the first 15 years of my life was watch TV – they did so without ever leaving the couch and with rarely more than three channels to choose from. Is there any other explanation for the fact that Gilligan's Island became a cultural touchstone?
The brave new world of TV – Martin's "third Golden Age" and Alan Sepinwall's "Revolution" – is distinct from the Boomer TV dark ages in a number of ways: the rise of cable and splintering of mass audiences, the versatility of viewing options and seismic shifts in viewing habits, the Internet and the autonomy provided by this new broadcasting environment to the likes of David Chase (The Sopranos), David Milch (Deadwood), David Simon (The Wire, Treme) and their progeny.
To this must be added another factor, one not easily admitted by anyone who once looked to the movie screen for the brightest lights in the pop cultural universe: as the movies just kept on dumbing down, TV finally smartened up.