When Did the Networks Become So Obsolete?

I’m sorry that the networks are too squeamish or safe to be vanguards of shows like these four …

There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about the Golden Age of Television, much of it by people who make their living either creating or writing about TV. I’m always wary of anything that’s being heralded that way because it usually means put your head between your legs because the end is near.

I’m not one of those people who only likes things that no one else has heard of (that obscure band of Fedex drivers from Latvia, the website run by a one-legged French dwarf etc.), but hype can be a killer of even the best concepts. Without unfurling the Golden Age banner and leading a parade, I have to admit that what’s on TV right now, specifically cable, stands out as some of the best writing/talent/anything I’ve ever seen.

When did the networks become obsolete or the home of shows based on the lowest common denominator? When I was a kid, the networks ruled with an iron fist and cable was this scrappy little upstart that alternated between bad movies I wasn’t allowed to watch with even worse shows that I was definitely not allowed to watch.

I’m not saying that the networks put forth the best product but it was good, sometimes even great, TV. It didn’t rival the movies but there were certain things you couldn’t miss (and I’m not even talking about the very special episodes). ER, when it first came on, was watched by everyone. The West Wing was so smart you felt that it should count as homework. The sitcoms, although not revolutionary, gave us great writing and lines that you’d repeat years later.

As I write, I’m trying to remember the last network show I watched religiously. The schedules seem so crowded with sitcoms brimming with recycled stars from the past (when did Monica break up with Chandler and move to Cougartown?), reality shows that are in their geriatric years, dramas with iffy concepts that I can’t get into and horrible game shows that seem to be family friendly shopping porn/S&M.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy mindless TV (thank you E! and VH1 for delivering, in bulk), but great TV, although rare, can actually be better than the movies. In no particular order, my four (+ a summer pick) favorites:

I’ve already raved about Mad Men, now entering slightly creakily into its fourth season. Of course, it’s unfair to judge based on one episode and believe me, I can watch Don Draper getting slapped around for hours, but the hype leading up to the season seemed a little desperate and I hope that the show doesn’t become a victim of its own success.

It’s still a great show but it has a tendency towards posing and posturing, a lot of standing around and admiring itself, that grew more pronounced over season 3. While it’s fun to watch people behave badly in natty attire from a bygone time, there has to be an emotional connection to what’s going on otherwise the show becomes a history lesson with attractive stand-ins.

I came a little late to Breaking Bad. In fact, I was upset when it won at the Emmys last year but now as I’m hurtling towards the end of season 2 and readying myself for the mayhem of season 3, I have that feeling you get when you watch something brilliant – you want to find out what happens quickly but at the exact same time you never want it to end.

It’s not just the performances, which I would put up against any of the last Oscar nominees for the last few years, or the writing, which keeps surprising without going completely over the edge. It’s the rare show that doesn’t keep the audience at a distance but pulls us in, showing us how similar we are to the characters and leaves us constantly questioning what we would do.  

Damages is a show that firmly believes that if you’re not confused, surprised or jolted by what the characters are doing, every single week, then they’re not doing their job. Glenn Close, in full-on Lady MacBeth mode, leads a cast that includes seasonal guest stars (Ted Danson, Martin Short) that redefine what acting on television should be. In their, and the writers’ hands, it’s not a lesser medium to movies, it’s a better medium suited to the in- depth, twisted and oftentimes obsessive storytelling.

My fourth horseman is In Treatment, a show that seems like a terrible idea on paper yet becomes transcendent on screen. What network exec would have lasted ten minutes in a pitch meeting about a show that every week takes place almost entirely in a therapist’s office and generally involves two people talking? Even as I write that, I’m amazed that I watched it in the first place because it sounds ludicrously dull.

I mean, how can that compete with Snooki on "The Jersey Shore"? But in each episode, an entire life is built and sometimes destroyed. The performances are on par or better than most of acting I’ve seen in the theater, with the same emotional intensity but without the self-consciousness.  

A show that I just discovered as perfect summer fare is Burn Notice. This intentionally cheesy dramedy manages to straddle the line between telling a story that requires you to pay attention while throwing lots of distracting silliness at you. It’s clever without making a fuss about it and all the leads are in the joke. Where else can you learn spycraft while giggling at bad puns and rooting for a star-crossed romance between an ex-CIA agent and an IRA guerilla?

These shows have a few things in common. Even when they’re funny, which is surprisingly often, they’re pretty dark. They’re not for the impatient because ideas and events unfold throughout the season and oftentimes recall seasons past and they’re a commitment because you can’t tune in and out. But mostly, they’re all about seemingly regular people making very bad decisions and trying to find a way out of them.

Since we spend most of our time doing at least two things simultaneously, I like to keep TV time as sacred as it was when I was 10 and allowed to watch an hour a day. With shows like these, you don’t and can’t miss a minute. I’m sorry that the networks are too squeamish or safe to be vanguards of shows like these but I’m thrilled that there’s plenty of places that do. They’re pushing the boundaries of what we’ve come to expect from TV, in the very best way, and are giving us complex characters for troubled times.

Have a favorite that I’m missing out on? Let me know in the comments. I’m always happy to add to my rotation. If we don’t support these shows, it’s like letting "CSI" and "Wipeout" win.