Breaking Bad Season 5 and Mad Men Define the Ongoing Golden Age of Television

Over the next several weeks, Paul Anderson will provide weekly reviews of FX's Louie and AMC's Breaking Bad. Below, he explains why today's television shows are worthy of analysis. Part One covers the advances in TV drama with a focus on the rise of story arcs, while Part Two will cover recent advances in comedy.

Several years ago, we entered a golden age of television drama. Shows like Breaking Bad would not have been produced in the past, and if they were produced, they would have been quickly cancelled. TV is the new novel, and things are only getting better. 

Don't believe me? First of all, please exclude all reality TV from consideration. I'm comparing the best pre-2000 TV with the best of TV of today. Still not with me? Spend an hour watching an Emmy Award winning show from the 1980s. You may enjoy it. Now watch another episode. You may also enjoy that one. But after four or five, you will feel oddly unfulfilled. After an entire season, you will wonder why you wasted your time. The problems with older TV are numerous, but the biggest problem was an aversion to story arcs and character growth. 

To understand why this happened, you need to understand the economic forces that drove the television industry in the 80s and 90s. Networks dominated the landscape and there were very few alternatives. In order to remain profitable, each network needed to reach for 33%+ of the total audience. This number declined as cable viewership increased, but you get the picture. This meant that TV shows needed to be tailored to mass audiences else they would lag behind competitors. 

With so much pressure to achieve sustainable popularity, shows tended to be creatively risk averse.  TV execs feared story arcs and character development, because they confused casual viewers who lacked any viable options for catching up with the story. Therefore, in order to hold onto a sizable audience, shows tended toward self-contained plot-lines that concluded within one episode and could be understood by even the most casual viewer. In 42 short minutes, each show needed to introduce guest stars, introduce the narrative hook, set the tone, and end the story with a satisfying conclusion. All of those things waste quite a bit of time, and it left very little time for storytelling that diverted from a formulaic model.

Another problem that I will get into in Part Two ("The Rise of TV Comedy") was the delicate sensibilities of viewers. Social norms dictated that TV characters adhere to various silly rules that resembled the ridiculous rules that European churches forced composers to follow during the 1600s, else they frighten people with dissidence or chords that failed to resolve in a timely fashion.

If the network's stranglehold on television created problems, then the rise of cable would solve those problems, right? Not exactly. In the 90s, the number of households with cable began to increase exponentially. This actually exasperated these creative problems, because networks realized that they could sell lucrative syndication rights to cable stations. Syndication might be a great revenue model, but it comes with a catch: syndicated shows need to make sense when watched out of order. This means that shows with story arcs tend to perform poorly in syndication. TV execs forced writers to minimize character growth and confusing plot-points that relied on knowledge of past episodes. To some degree, this pattern still persists. Most network television continues to eschew plot arcs and character development, instead opting for tightly produced one-off stories. While this can be quite enjoyable, it stills leaves me wanting more. 

In the late 1990s, the economic dynamics changed. The rise of television DVDs, on-demand, DVRs, and eventually, Internet streaming TV allowed writers to create rich stories with multi-episode story arcs and character exploration without worrying about losing an audience. Once viewers had a mechanism for  catching up on episodes, writers were free to explore complex topics like urban crime and interesting characters that broke the typical mold.

As network viewership continued to decline, cable grew, and TV studios' influence waned, increased competition lowered fixed costs, and cable channels began to realize that they could stake their claim of the Long Tail by creating fewer episodes but taking the time to add more density to those episodes. Advertisers also began to realize that complex and thought-provoking shows like Mad Men draw audiences that skew toward lucrative demographics (young, educated, and wealthy). This meant that lower rated shows could still draw decent advertising revenue. Furthermore, digital TV has allowed cable companies to track viewership with greater levels of sophistication, offering advertisers better avenues for targeting. When you factor in episode sales and rentals, you can see how today's economic model allows for greater levels of innovation.

While challenges lie ahead (illegal downloading robs advertisers of highly educated Internet-savvy demographics), I expect continued improvement of television. Decentralization will continue, and this will give TV viewers more power, advertisers a greater ability to target niches, and artists more room to explore new ideas. Imagine a world where viewers can organize effective grassroots movements to save a show. We already live in that world! 

Television writers have only begun to understand how to use this new format. It's no accident that quality shows like like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Dexter experienced a significant downturn in their later years. While the writers of these shows were ambitious enough to explore creative concepts, they lacked the experience and confidence to think beyond the short term pressures of cancellation. 

With some practice, TV writers will master this long format and TV will continue to grow as an art-form. Eventually, I believe TV will surpass novels as respected art. Novelists need only write things down. Show runners must create 100+ hours of story, engage with hundreds of people (including actors) in the show's production, select appropriate music, and present it in a way that is visually stimulating. I'm excited about the future, and I hope you will join me as I review two fine examples, Louie (premiering Thursday, June 28) and Breaking Bad (premiering in mid-July).