The Silver Age of Television
It’s hard to really get excited about shows as brilliant as American Gods and The Handmaid’s Tale. Both are impeccably designed, beautifully shot and brought to life by incredibly talented actors. The former hews closer to the Gonzo end of prestige TV; the violence is more comic than tragic, the nudity is frequent, the camera corkscrews through scenes as if to say ‘this is television, it’s artificial, and I can do what the fuck I want.’ The latter’s violence is more tragic than comic, the nudity is less frequent (but has to be there, because we’re grown-ups after all) and the camera stays still, standing in awe of Elizabeth Moss’s performance.
It’s possible to watch both without feeling anything in particular, and come Monday morning neither are topics of discussion around the figurative water cooler, where we once pondered Lost before realising, embarrassed, that we’d been had.
Arthur Miller once said that “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted”, and this is the point that we’ve reached with the Golden Age of Television: it’s no longer possible to think that a show is literary because it’s slow or that it’s adult because you get to see tits. The basic illusion that television shows could pull the emotional and artistic weight of books is exhausted, and even books themselves have entered a long, medium-wide death spiral in which declining profits mean declining appetite for- not even risks, but anything that can’t be guaranteed sales in the low four figures to book clubs and supermarket checkouts.
Today, there are prestige TV shows that lack prestige: Longmire and Bloodline, or The Expanse, which is perhaps better than Game of Thrones in every respect save for it being on Syfy and not HBO. Marvel has a whole universe of inter-linked, prestige-style superhero shows on Netflix, complementing its terrestrial offerings on NBC, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and the now-cancelled Agent Carter, with their more mundane freak-of-the-week plotlines and storytelling rhythms that take ad breaks into account. Technically speaking it also has Legion, probably the only TV show that can comfortably be called avant-garde.
The Golden Age of comics was everything that the Golden Age of television was not- it was aimed squarely towards children, and not smart ones; the characters were lifeless and the art artless, particularly when compared to the risk-taking going on in newspaper comic strips at the time. It was, however, where Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman began, so it gets a pass even though none of the above characters have ever really been in stories that anybody older than, say, fourteen could read or watch without feeling just a little regressive. The Silver Age that followed saw the birth of Marvel and the uniquely Marvel-ian style: superheroes balancing heroics with everyday problems, the logistics of a secret identity, villains with pathos. At the same time, comics began seeing themselves as a modern mythology, leading to self-aware attempts to create what Jack Kirby would term New Gods and a universe for them to inhabit. That, if anything, was the key point of rupture between the Golden and Silver ages: continuity, and its worship to the point that both the Marvel and DC universes frequently break under the weight of accumulated editorial decisions and have to be reset.
Shared universes would be a disaster for television in general and prestige television in particular. They encourage viewers to leave the water-coolers for message boards and subreddits, becoming particularly obnoxious, dull fans, obsessed with clues, callbacks and easter eggs- which isn’t to say that there aren’t already shows that do this, like the aforementioned Lost and, earlier, Twin Peaks. They perpetuate the illusion that fiction can be fully transparent to an informed audience- that through judicious study of observed (fictional) reality we can get a step ahead of the poor saps who merely watch the show without really seeing it. It’s a very Obamaian way of viewing the world, if you’ll forgive me for coining a term. It’s the liberal, technocratic means of relating to a given text and- extremely Frank Underwood from House of Cards soliloquy voice- y’all fahget that it’s really all about powaah. If there are clues pointing to, spoilers, Jon Snow being a Targaryen or Bernard being a Host, then they were meant to be seen because cultivating a fandom by making people feel smart is now standard practice for a certain class of entertainment.
When there isn’t a mystery at the core of Golden-Age television there are still aesthetics that seem to belong to another era. Stately, minimalist grandeur on one side and self-congratulation that we have arrived at a place where we can see two Muslim men fuck, as we did on American Gods, on the other. You’re supposed to feel cultured for not needing sex and violence to enjoy a story or you’re supposed to feel just as cultured for not being shocked when there’s sex and violence. And you’re supposed to feel so, so smart for rote memorisation of the characters and their histories. Those are the values of people who put their self-diagnosed Hogwarts house in their Twitter profiles. It’s what intelligence looks like in high-school valedictorians, not in smart people.
We have hopefully all learned over the last six months that power does not naturally accrue to people with intellect and good values, and that instead it can be easily taken by anyone with a guy sense for turning the world on its head- the fact that you don’t enjoy House of Cards actually makes you better than all the libs who are really just pretending to enjoy hours of congressional debates.You’re real. The things that you enjoy are what people really enjoy, whereas people feign enjoying TV shows that are like books, which nobody enjoys at all. Everything that seems smart or just or cultured is actually there to make you feel bad
What should TV look like in a Trumpist world? To say that it will be stupider and less diverse is too obvious. No doubt that will happen, because the supposed ‘Hollywood Liberals’ who make the real decisions are far closer to Trump than anyone cares to admit, but it doesn’t get at the essential truth that having an illiterate game show host in the White House has revealed about the country that produces so much of the world’s culture. Neither would the complete breakdown of the whole category of prestige television, leaving us with single-camera sitcoms and detective-with-a-gimmick series in the name of populism. No, Silver Age, Trumpist television needs to pull the opposite trick of Silver Age comics. It doesn’t need to get stupid necessarily, but it needs to do something other than make people feel smart. It needs to be Punk where the comics of the Silver Age and prestige television shows of the Golden Age were Prog. The thrill shouldn’t be from demonstrating intelligence but from watching your spit run down the cheek of anyone who claims any sort of authority over you.
The last season of Netflix’s anthology show Black Mirror began with an episode, ‘Nosedive’, in which a smartphone app enabled everyone to rate each other on a five-point scale. People with better average scores could get better houses, premium flights and generally enjoy a better quality of life. The way ahead in this world, much as in our own, is insipid, hypocritical, hashtag-Blessed smugness. When the protagonist’s score drops to near zero she finds herself in prison, trading insults with a fellow disaffectee that start off sincere and become a shared joke, until the fact that they’re finally allowed to scream meaningless obscenities at another person free of consequence becomes the funniest thing in the world. As an anthology Black Mirror has no continuity or characters that last more than an episode. The showrunners don’t need to worry about doing anything more than setting up a way to twist a knife in the audience. That technology is not morally neutral has been a trope since the Ring of Gyges, but what’s interesting about ‘Nosedive’ is that unlike in most Black Mirror episode the protagonist isn’t destroyed as a consequence of of misused technology- they’re liberated. This episode and later-season episode ‘San Junipero’ are the closest that prestige television has gotten to earning its prestige in a long time.
Or consider a scene at the end of an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which one character, brutalised by the show’s American theocracy, steals a car and runs over a group of secret policemen, killing at least a few. The smile on the face of Elizabeth Moss’s character, that brief acknowledgement that it’s okay to hit back, that fighting fascists doesn’t make you a fascist, was one of the few moments that felt like it belonged in the world we live in now. How about an episode in the most recent season of Master of None, one which probably passed a lot of people by, in which the show’s inexplicably wealthy main cast were sidelined in favor of working class New Yorkers and their intersecting stories? Or consider The Expanse, the Napoleon to Syfy’s Cyprus, in which a lumpen-proletariat crew of losers defy a decadent, bureaucratic government of Earth, the ‘economic nationalist’ (quasi-fascist) leaders of Mars and a Rojavan Revolution on floating space rocks in the solar system’s asteroid belt. Or, better yet, the only show that has consistently and brilliantly moved beyond Golden Age tropes, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, the only TV series in a long time that feels like it’s just itself, not an attempt to enter the now-established ‘Prestige’ genre.
I don’t know if the next four -possibly eight- years will change television. Perhaps, like the Democratic party, networks will decide in the face of dwindling viewership and engagement that the problem is that they’re not doing something that emphatically doesn’t work hard enough, and maybe the recent spate of book-to-TV adaptations and the general “nevertheless, she persisted” tone of The Handmaid’s Tale is evidence of this suicidal doubling down. Hopefully showrunners will realise that a new age calls for a new way of making television that is angry, working-class, stylistically anarchic and real.