Is this the Golden Age of television? I think there’s a strong case that the late 1990s through today has been a steadily increasing explosion of creativity–that the best shows are much better than the best shows of yesteryear, and the worst not that much worse.
When you have people making big-name, successful movies and then moving from that to running a TV show, something has shifted. But what? My money’s on the Internet–I don’t think it’s an accident that the shows commonly cited as major transitions between how television was done in the 1980s and how it’s done now–Babylon 5, The X-Files, Twin Peaks–were also some of the first shows to have significant online fandoms, the Superwholock of the rec.arts era. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that the modern surge of improvement really kicks into high gear around 2005-10, at the same time that services like Netflix were killing off traditional video stores. The ready availability of past episodes, recaps, and discussion groups all allow shows to demand a level of attention and retention that would be unthinkable in 1985, culminating in intricate works rich in ambiguity and thematic complexity such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Frankly, we’ve reached the point where “I don’t watch TV” isn’t a declaration of dedication to high culture and rejection of low; it’s an admission of cultural illiteracy on par with “I don’t listen to music” or “I don’t read books.”