The premium cable movie channels have hit the wall. In an effort to present drama you won’t find on free TV or basic cable, HBO, Showtime, and Encore are providing what is being ballyhooed as “cutting edge” drama, Shows like True Detective, Game of Thrones, Ray Donovan, and Penny Dreadful are part of what some critics are calling a new Golden Age of TV. But how “golden” and “cutting edge” is it?
Let’s start with the format of these shows. It is far from original. The format is basically the same as the average daytime soap opera. Multiple story lines revolve around a group of interconnected characters, each with his own specific “problem.” The problems are weirder than you find on daytime television but as taboos fall the gap between them is shrinking.The cable shows have the benefit of being able to be more graphic in image and language than network TV. And with the extended time they have, the creators of these shows can kill the better part of an hour with long, overwritten scenes that would bore anyone to tears, if they didn’t throw in a big helping of weirdness mixed with violence along with all the endless, despairing dialogue.
One thing the characters in these shows can do is talk. Talk, talk, talk. And when the writers get bored with the tedious conversation, they try to revive a sleeping audience by ending the episode with a totally incongruous, almost senseless cliffhanger. The most outrageous example of that was last night’s True Detective ep which finished with Colin Farrell’s police detective character Ray Vercoro getting two point-blank blasts from a shotgun right in the chest. A guy in a Birdman outift shot him. Speculation is that somehow he survives (maybe it was rock salt!). Maybe he will, but I don’t care. For me the series cannot survive a cheap stunt like that.
The original True Detective was a novelty. Nic Pizzolato’s script was daring, and fresh. But by the end of its run, even the novelty of Matthew McConnehy’s abstract dialogue full of off-the-wall philosophical musings, wasn’t enough to save a weak, unsatisfying ending. And seeing him do his act on Lincoln Navigator commercials really left a bad taste.
But in the end, that’s what we have to remember. Commercialism is what it’s all about. The gory, violent spectacles of Game of Thrones, the weird sexuality of Penny Dreadful, the moral malaise of Ray Donovan don’t do much in terms of shedding any light on the human condition, but they bring big ratings.
These dramatic series are being hailed as the new Golden Age of TV. But there seems to be one important ingredient missing from the new era. Writers of the original Golden Age of the 1950s through the early sixties, writers like Rod Serling (Requiem for a Heavyweight) Paddy Chayevsky (Marty, Network), Stirling Silliphant (Route 66 and Naked City)– these writers dealt with difficult subjects, even took some controversial positions (Silliphant once wrote a story that semed to condone mercy killing). But no matter what the story was about, they always looked for some kind of affirmation by the end of the tale. They almost always gave the viewer some hope that no matter how rotten things were someday they might be better. And there was usually a warning that if they don’t get better, it’ll be our own fault.
The writers of the current crop of cable dramas seem to have thrown in the towel, and are enjoying their despair. Maybe that’s not really the fault of the writers. Maybe it’s just a reflection of the times we’re living in. We’ve all thrown in the towel. Things are going to hell, and unlike previous generations we don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. That sense of powerlessness, compared to the optimism of the past, could be unconsciously what these shows are revealing to us. Art imitates life, after all.