The past twenty years really have been the Golden Age of Television.
People like to talk about the 1950s as the apex of television, but those people would in fact be wrong. What we’ve all been witness to in the past twenty years is an explosion of high quality, fascinating, and sometimes breathtaking television.
The American film industry has largely lost its way and has difficulty making movies anymore. Well, the film industry still cranks out about 600 movies per year, with about 100 of them put out by the big six Hollywood studios, and the rest made by non-studio and independent filmmakers. But here’s the question to ask yourself: how many of those movies are you talking about at work the next day? Not many.
On the other hand, discussing the latest TV shows is basically required activity in most offices nowadays. Starting with HBO in the 1990s, television began to expand its distribution channels. In recent years, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have begun churning out an enormous amount of really good television.
Because these channels are not broadcast over the air, they’re not subject to the language and topical censorship that network television faces. In addition to that, these shows delve into storylines and characters it is hard to imagine any mainstream Hollywood movie getting into. While the big six studios keep pumping out comic book tent pole movies, these new channels and forms of distribution have been producing shows using a much richer and far more diverse palette of characters, settings, story forms, and casts.
Here are DVD Netflix’s top TV Show rentals since our launch 20 years ago.
The Sopranos (1997-2007)
HBO hit a home run with this brilliant series about a mafia family in New Jersey. As envisioned by creator David Chase, this portrait of American organized crime presented the mafia as a bunch of petty, violent jerks with troubled kids and penchants for ugly violence. James Gandolfini is unforgettable as Tony Soprano—the failed husband and father, but an unstoppable force of nature when it comes to criminal undertakings. He lives in a McMansion in the suburbs, is overweight, drives an SUV, and is in therapy because his mother makes him crazy. The first two seasons really are the best, but the entire run of the show is worth rewatching.
Sex and the City (1998-2006)
This is the other show that helped put HBO on the map as a source of original programming. I have to be completely honest here and say I watched one episode for about twenty minutes and turned it off. Not for me. And yet this is a totemic show for a certain generation of women. I asked one of my daughters, who is in her 30s now, why she and her friends so obsessively loved this show.
“It’s a very unrealistic show,” she said. “And has lots of terrible writing.”
Okay. With you so far on that.
“But I think overall it was a show about female friendship, which was represented in a lot of shows in a way that was authentic. Especially since they were a little older than me and my friends and you got to see them evolve in their lives and still remain friends. And they had fights and disagreements but worked through them. “
Alright, I can see that.
“It also felt aspirational and glamorous,” she said. “The clothes, the shows, the parties, the dating, etc. It was like this is what being a grown-up woman is like. And then being able to talk about sex openly and freely was obviously part of that. There are obvious flaws and things I hate about the show, but it was revolutionary in that way. But it was never really about the men but about the women and their friendships.”
Uncle! I quit. I get it now. Maybe I should give it another shot.
The Wire (2002-2008)
Many have argued that this show is the greatest TV show of all time. I would be among those people. It is Dickensian in its scope and is a comprehensive portrayal of one American city, Baltimore, and the whole array of characters who live in it. Created by David Simon after a 12-year stint as a newspaperman on the city desk of the Baltimore Sun, The Wire delves deeply into the world of criminals, cops, politicians, and journalists in a way no show had done before and likely will never match. If you have never seen The Wire, you owe it to yourself to rent this show and devote some time to it. This wasn’t just a television show. This is art.
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
This was another show like The Wire that showed the possibilities of television as an artform. Created by Vince Gilligan and starring Bryan Cranston in the role of a lifetime, this is one of those shows that grew darker and more profound with each passing season. The series tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher in New Mexico who is diagnosed with lung cancer and decides to start cooking meth (and a life of crime) to secure his family’s financial future after he dies. What a premise! The show is gripping and creates a tremendous amount of mixed feelings for the viewer. Walter White is sympathetic at first and you want him to do okay in this horrible business he’s started making meth. But with each episode, White descends further and further into evil. Still, you keep kind of cheering for him. Even though you shouldn’t.
Game of Thrones (2011-present)
This remarkable series has created more “Did you see what happened last night…?” moments in offices, bars, coffee houses, and street corners than any other. Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, GOT is based on a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. Visually spectacular, the series tells the complicated tale of conflicts between imaginary nations and their leaders in a world where it’s roughly the late Middle Ages. I don’t know how many times I sat with my jaw open, staring at the TV, saying “What?!” at the end of an episode. Does a series that depends so heavily on cliff-hanging moments hold up on repeated, numerous, maybe-go-out-and-get-some-fresh-air viewings? Yes!
We talk about these groundbreaking series and others similar to them in tone and quality in future posts this month. But you’ve got your viewing work cut out for you, my friends.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.