Are we in the midst of an era when television is in its prime? Can it soar higher than it is now, or is it as good as it’s ever going to be? These are two questions that circulated through my mind after finishing the critically acclaimed first season of HBO’s Westworld (2016), a television show based on the 1973 movie of the same name. Westworld is about a fictional, western-themed amusement park where attendees (or “guests”) pay large sums of money to fulfill their darkest desires. In essence, the guests are permitted to murder or have sexual intercourse with the park’s “hosts,” human-like androids that occupy the park, while the “programmers” write the scripts for the hosts and control all of their behaviors.
Westworld is renowned for its thought-provoking examination of the relationship that mankind has with its own technology, and of key themes that include fate, free will, life, death, God, reincarnation, and the nature of human consciousness. I could spend hours—literally days—talking about these things, but keeping within the scope of this article, I will save that for another time.
I didn’t think Westworld could live up to the standards I’ve set for other shows that I hold such a high opinion of, but Season 1, Episode 10 (“The Bicameral Mind”) proved me wrong. In this 95 minute finale, the writers managed to deliver an unbelievably satisfying payoff to the preceding 9 hours I spent with the show, addressing almost every single inquiry into the world, characters, and narrative direction. Even better, almost every scene had its own “Shyamalanism,” a term I coined that describes how the revelation of a plot twist incentivizes an audience to re-watch a television show or movie to spot out the Easter eggs they didn’t notice the first time around. I won’t spoil anything here, but let’s just say that much like M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies, there are certain story bits in Westworld that you would easily overlook upon first watch, but would blow your mind upon a second or third watch. That is the mark of brilliant storytelling, because to truly deliver a satisfying payoff to any great piece of media, you have to display things in plain sight and subvert attention from them until they become relevant to the twists that you want to reveal.
I bring up Westworld because it’s one television show out of the dozens of high-grade shows that have come out in the past two decades. Between 1999 and today, we’ve gotten amazing shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Dexter, Prison Break, The Walking Dead, Black Mirror, Orange is the New Black, Narcos, Sherlock, Stranger Things, and my personal all-time favorite, Breaking Bad, which I consider to be the Mona Lisa of Television for its complex layered writing and exemplary character development. Let’s not forget the spin-off to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, another show commonly considered to be golden entertainment.
So are we living in a golden age of television? As a matter of fact, we are. Don’t believe me? There is already a Wikipedia article aptly titled “Golden Age of Television (2000s–present).” Apparently, there was a golden age of T.V. in the 1950s as well, but the 2000s golden age is being dubbed the “New,” “Second,” or “Third Golden Age of Television” because of transformations in the way that we consume media. In addition, the critically acclaimed aforementioned shows have (each in their own right) changed the language of episodic filmography, effectively revolutionizing how stories are told on the small screen. After all, television is a language, and every good show has helped us see it as one.
But if film is a language and every language evolves with time, then what has modern television done to evolve the way in which it is being communicated? There is a long list of examples, but here is a condensed version: Breaking Bad was the first show to take a seemingly innocent and virtuous character, and transform him into a cold, calculating, and ruthless one. Dexter was the first show to make its audience root for, and empathize with, a serial killer. The Walking Dead was the first show to combine realistic human dramas with a zombie apocalypse. Game of Thrones was the first show to depict adult themes in a fantasy setting and regularly kill its lead characters. Stranger Things was the first show to successfully emulate ‘80s media. And finally, Orange is the New Black was the first show to make its side characters more interesting than the main character.
It might seem overly reductive to say that these shows were the “first of their kind,” and while that is true to a certain extent, they were unarguably the first of their kind in the modern era of television. That’s why we’re living in the New Golden Age of Television.
However, golden ages by definition don’t last forever, so when will we see television start to drop in overall quality? It’s hard to say, as it could be in another 10, 20, 40, or even 100 years. Nobody knows for certain, but what is certain is that if our beloved T.V. shows can continue raising the bar, they’ll never get boring.