Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Golden Age of Television lasted from 2003-2006

I know every age is a golden age and every golden age is also a time of terrible, debased junk, but I have been watching The Killing and Game of Thrones and Mad Men, and I can tell you that they are fine/good but they're just not exciting the way premium TV used to be. Sorry to Justified and Dexter and Modern Family, but they simply aren't as good as the best shows on TV used to be.

So when was the Golden Age of Television? Let's take a look***:
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
  • Futurama (original run) (1999-2003)
  • Angel (1999-2004)
  • The West Wing (1999-2006)
  • The Sopranos (1999-2007)
  • The Wire (2002-2008)
  • Arrested Development (2003-2006)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
  • Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
  • Deadwood (2004-2006)
  • Lost (2004-2010)
  • The Office (2005-present)
  • Heroes (2006-2010)
  • Mad Men (2007-present)
What this data doesn't capture, of course, is that not every one of these shows was amazing for the entire length of its run. It's not really clear, for example, how many seasons of The Office really count as classic, for example. Obviously only the first season of Heroes was any good. Others like The West Wing and The Sopranos started to get a little questionable in their late seasons. Even The Wire, painful as it is to admit, had a weak final season.

So I would offer that the sweet spot here is from about 2003 until about 2006, maybe 2007. After that these shows were either no longer on the air or else noticeably grasping at straws.

Why am I wrong?

*** Not on this list: The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, all of which were making terrific television at the same time period. For that matter, there were also a number of great reality shows on at the same time. It's just easier for our purposes if we stick with scripted shows.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Very brilliant and very long. The Thomas More plot is sort of oddly submerged for much of the book but the novel ends on Thomas More, making you wonder if that was the point of the whole thing. Also, this business of always referring to Cromwell as "he" forces the reader to constantly second-guess who exactly is speaking. Also, why is this book named for Jane Seymour's Wolf Hall?

Quibbles. It is as sharp as a novel can be. It throws you into its world and holds you there -- no winking at the present day, no sly reveals of the many massive historical ironies we all know are in store for Thomas Cromwell, the main character, who is followed from childhood.

The novel positions itself at the moment of a great shift (the great shift?) in European institutional powers, namely Henry VIII's split with the Catholic Church. Cromwell is the bureaucratic operator most responsible for making it happen -- a canny, self-preserving social climber, yes, but also a real reformer with clear eye for making changes happen. In that respect, More is a foil for Cromwell: More is the self-righteous ideologue, Cromwell the ultra-pragmatist. That both would eventually come to the same end is sort of a grim comment on the nature of power.

And while Wolf Hall invites you to read it as the anti-A Man for All Seasons, to me is feels a bit like a 16th-century The Wire -- a granular portrait of big, creaking institutions, corrupt and massively powerful compared to the puny individuals they chew through.

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