Emmy Awards 2013: Is Modern Television Really Better Than It's Ever Been?

We live in the age of water-cooler shows with massive online engagement from a rabid fan base. The small screen isn’t small anymore. The best content shows up streaming into my living room for pennies on the dollar compared to what I paid to watch DVD boxed sets a decade ago. It’s an age where the best movies can be measured by analyzing which ones are the least disappointing.

Is the new modern era of TV lead by Lost, Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Game of Thrones really better than what we had in a pre-Sopranos era?

Yes. 

The quality of the average one-hour drama has skyrocketed over the past 10 years.

The Sopranos broke amazing ground and 24 and Lost finished paving the way for the golden age of television that we’re in now. Ripoffs galore competed and died for the sake of our attention. It was the perfect breeding ground for evolutionary change — for differentiating between competing members of what was once a homogeneous population of one-hour dramas.

But the evolution was spurned by something so much more radical: DVR. Three little letters that gave the viewer the freedom to watch what they wanted, when they wanted to watch it. Very close behind DVR came streaming. With iTunes and Netflix, we could consume series in a single 37-hour session (You know you’ve done it, too.)

This change meant that we stopped watching “This happens to be on” shows and elected to follow the shows that kept us religiously hooked. Finally there was a reason for a TV show to take itself seriously enough to believe that every frame should be cherished. The average viewer really could sit there and ingest all those frames and dissect what was in them. We were rewarded for paying attention. 

This was simply not the goal of shows like MacGyver and Magnum PI. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation and the X-Files were initially meant to be “caught” when they happened to be on. Sure, you could follow from season to season, but modern TV dramas are designed to be unmissable. And shows need to be unmissable today, when your average hour of TV has to compete with Halo 4, Twitter, Facebook, and iPads.

Does that make this new generation of shows better? 

Truly, yes. 

While I’d have to say that the modern comedy has certainly gotten better over the past few years, it hasn’t jumped by the leaps and bounds that drama has. Shows like Community, 30 Rock, Episodes, Louie, and Modern Family push the boundaries on what we’re used to. But comparing to some of the great shows like Cheers, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld, we haven’t seen the genre evolve a whole lot further from what was already pretty good. 

The TiVo/streaming revolution hasn’t forced the modern comedy to evolve in the same way. We can still casually watch a comedy for 22 minutes in almost any order we want. They still work great. Given the shorter block of time, we can just sit and relax in front of a comedy and forget our problems for half an hour. 

I’m not an expert on kids’ shows, but I don’t it doesn't look like we’ve come too far in that department either. But as there is an upcoming generation of babies who will have grown up on nothing but an iPad, I have to imagine this will shorten the already-too-short attention spans of a generation who will simply tune out all but the best TV. 

We’ve also lost a lot of ground in Hollywood movies. We cannot release the modern equivalents of The Godfather, Taxi Driver, or Kramer vs Kramer in theaters today. No one today would bother reading the script for The Princess Bride. But TV has taken up the slack. The demand for great content that challenges us hasn’t diminished. It’s just that the majority of thinking adults can get what they need from TV. We’ve conceded that movies are too difficult to market, so now movies are for a different audience entirely.

The space continues to evolve as new players compete for attention in the space. The new Netflix series Orange is the New Black is a perfect example. This is another concept that could never have existed in a television format 15 years ago. This year, it won’t get the recognition it deserves because of so much other great content on TV. If this show had popped up on HBO in 1999, it would have become the pop culture icon that The Sopranos did.

We’re lucky to live in a time of amazing TV shows.