Certain mediums demand certain clichés. It’s an inescapable part of watching and judging the progression of any visual piece of communication. When someone bemoans another having an ‘experience’ at the cinema, you inevitably lack patience, primarily because you might have heard the term used a thousand times before. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean to say it lacks any credence, because to the majority of people, a cliché is the most appropriate way of deeming what they’ve just indulged in. With television, such a cliché manifests when a critic describes how this is the golden age, the renaissance of such a sudden spurt of artistic creativity.
Just because we’ve heard a term thrown around like a small child in Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch (read: dungeon) doesn’t make it any less true. It might be slight aggrieving to hear something professed and wailed across rooftops by anyone and everyone, but sometimes it’s best just to accept that what you’re hearing, cliché or not, is, in all likelihood true. Such is the case with this wonderful period of television that we find ourselves attached to. Whether it be the decrepit moral codex of Frank in House of Cards or the sublime adaptation of the iconic villain in Hannibal, there is no doubt that television is currently in a place that demonstrates its wealth of depth, one that for a long time was attributed to film; television would be the lesser of the two despite the fact there were fascinating programmes left, right and centre.
It is in this position of creative power for several reasons, but it’s apt that the main two were physical media themselves. Many dispute which started the explosion of television into the mainstream, but for all arguments it would be The Wire and The Sopranos which brought television out of the proverbial wilderness and into the 21st Century. Both would do so in different way: The Wire would play the slow game, finding its feet as inspiration and influence long after the final shots of wasteland Baltimore. The Sopranos would, however, immediately make waves, and so, for that reason, many could presume the golden age’s beginning tied up nicely there. Without these two shows, that evince an ideology of playing the long, arcing storyline, there may not have been the input into television from studios and the influx of film director flocking to make their mark. Neither might there have been the sudden urgency of television systems like Netflix, Hulu and LOVEfilm to invest so heavily.
In The Wire, we are exposed, finally, to a horrific system of corruption that runs both ways, through dark, backwater alleyways full of gun-holes and sleazy, red-lit bars habituated by deadbeat cops. The Sopranos deals in expanding the stagnant way a drama is told: Tony Soprano is neither good nor evil incarnate, he is multifaceted, but this is about his family just as much as him. Disregarding his illicit behaviours, he is a 40 year old with horrible anxiety problems. Both deal in moving forward the medium. The Wire turns to thematic focus in order to truly dish out a raw dish that many would shy away from. Business, corruption, police brutality, press media, the education system, addiction, the show pulled no punches in dealing with everything that was happening in our very real life. The Sopranos, whilst riding off influence of The Godfather and The Public Enemy, would manage to incorporate the sensibilities of the everyday family. Comparing the violence and brutality with the sombre, occasionally mundane moments at home would make for an often strange experience. Furthermore, both would look to challenge the way television had depicted characters. This was the era of the real man, the real woman, the real child. All of them were portrayals, but ultimately, portrayals of actual people. If a person in The Wire died, there was ten more like them. If Tony Soprano couldn’t deal with life without Zoloft, then there are tens more middle-aged men anxiously pacing up and down the stairs. The would usher in new ways to tell television and whether the genre be crime, fantasy, period-drama, the fact remains that the way they were able to evolve was helped immensely by these two wholly inspirational television shows.
Where television would find its feet, it would continue to thrive. The sheer amount of shows that use the same formula as Sopranos or The Wire is a testament to how much they managed to achieve. Neither is it necessarily a negative spin because obviously they managed to find new ways of telling tales, and highlighting the fact that television was allowed to expand beyond its occasional limitations. Mad Men has been a constant thrill to watch throughout the last 5 years, as has Homeland, as has Breaking Bad. They take the sheer audacity that has been given to them and continue to expand it. By breaking down the preconceived barriers placed upon film’s slightly bug-eyed cousin, we immediately entered a period that brought to fruition tens of shows that would be allowed their chance to shine and impress.
Thanks in no small part to what initiated the golden age, we are blessed with such high quality television. Who would have thought 15 years ago that The Walking Dead would be allowed five seasons. A show that focusses on equal parts character and action? Inconceivable! We must have cheesy one-liners, woman with never-ending cleavage and ceaseless zombies attacks! Who could have predicted that Breaking Bad, a show about a teacher who begins a methadone business with a former student would have been given the green light, let alone bring with it some of the greatest plot twists and characterisation in modern television? Not many people prior to The Wire and Sopranos is my response. What they did for television was extraordinary. Not only did they bring about these incredibly complex plot points, a focus on character, hugely dubious moral centres and non-conclusive endings, but they dismantled the idea of the biggest channel having the best show, they dismantled the clichés women and homosexuals had been riddled with and they balanced entertainment with education. Perhaps even further along the line though, they gave artistic and original television a voice. A voice to be heard and a voice to say ‘I will change your life.’
When you next watch House of Cards, Hannibal, Mad Men, be thankful for The Wire and The Sopranos. They paved the way so these shows could continue to break down barriers. Don’t be nostalgic for a better time, but be pleasantly optimistic that television is now sitting rightfully alongside the artistic halls of film and will continue to thrive.