Faced with the dilemma of having a free block of writing time and no particular topic I felt like writing about, I opened Armagideon Time’s request line for suggestions. There were a lot of great suggestions, some of which will (hopefully) be the seeds for future posts.
In the end, I selected pal Ben’s request as it hit the sweet spot in terms of required effort and level of interest.
Ben wanted to hear my take on the notion of “a Golden Era of Television.”
Technically speaking, a “golden age” is supposed to represent a mythic past, an Edenic ideal to juxtapose against the fallen world of the present day. The notion has been vulgarized to include any formative and prolific period, but the bygone aspect is essential to the metaphoric concept. Golden Ages only exist in hindsight, never in the now.
For example, the “Golden Age of Funnybooks” was an after the fact designation applied to the stretch of time between Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the creation of the Comics Code Authority in the early 1950s. Other Golden Age designations — cinema, radio, muscle cars, whatever — follow similar patterns of temporal bracketing. The specific start and end dates may be hotly debated, but the general timeframe is acknowledged.
All of there are backwards-gazing assessments meant to contrast against the diminished luster of current times. Nostalgic longing looms large, along with a tendency to count the hits and ignore the misses. Stuff like The Jack Benny Show and Superman are put on pedestals and cited as pinnacles of since-lost craftsmanship, yet shit like “Rufus and Rastus’s Watermelon Minstrel Hour” (starring Patrick Muldoon and Abe Schwartz as the leads) or “Mr. USA punches the Shifty Slant-Eyed Japs” gets shoved into the margins — even though that stuff was far more prevalent and indicative of their eras.
Under those parameters, the real “Golden Age of Television” took place between the late 1940s and the debut of the Dick Van Dyke Show — a formative and dynamic period when creatives drew from vaudeville, live theater, film, and radio to empirically craft a distinct language for the medium. It was also an era where pundits and critics constantly complained about how television’s vast promise has been squandered on tawdry nonsense and local affiliates would fill gaps with fifteen minutes of an old coot showing off his model train layout.
It’s all about the hindsight, man.
The consensual and codified approach to defining a “golden age,” tends to overlook the fact that nostalgia isn’t a temporally fixed constant. Time moves ever forward, and generational touchstones shift with it. In terms of input, impact, and internalization, my personal “golden age” was the mid-to-late Seventies and early Eighties. (A quite shocking revelation, I know.) One generation’s treasures is another one’s trash. Appreciation can (and certainly does) bleed through the generational boundaries, but the frames of reference remain distinct and inform how a given work will be perceived by a given individual.
What I get out of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” is not identical to what my father gets out of it or a friend who was born five years before me or ten years after me might, even though we may all adore the song. And that’s precluding any specific personal context it might have accrued in each case. Each one of us backfills our own golden age, which too often resembles a prison cell with gilded bars.
As for labeling the current era of “prestige television” a Golden Age? It’s marketing jargon for an era where everything has to be a Significant Event. The phenomenon it describes is the culmination of media consolidation, the shrinking marketplace for mid-budget movies, and proliferation of new technological platforms. TV has been accused of being an inferior medium for so long that any buzz about a newfound respectability will have a similar effect as a fourteen-year old’s first can of hard cider (or Boone’s Farm or Everclear or Purple Passion or whatever pop hootch marked your personal golden age).
Honestly, it strikes me as a lateral repeat of the 1980s miniseries mania, when the airwaves were jammed with expensive artifacts of ephemeral “importance.” Sure, there’s a more cinematic sensibility to the current crop of prestige offerings, but folks also thought the same about Winds of War and North and South back in the day. That’s not a dig against what I hear are some pretty solid programs, but a reminder that almost everything gets graded on a temporal curve in the long term.
If this a Golden Age, it’s also one that gave us The Bachelor, Two Broke Girls, Richie Rich, and TLC’s Let’s All Gawk At The Human Trainwreck to Feel Better About Ourselves.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go back and watch some 1971 episodes of Laugh-In on basic cable.