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Are we in the middle of TV’s second golden age?

Adam Lowes investigates the ever-changing face of television

Published on July 14th 2011.


Are we in the middle of TV’s second golden age?

REMEMBER when US TV imports were considered somewhat of a niche market over here and relegated mainly to Channel 4 and BBC2 at an hour that didn’t exactly spell accessible, and with a screening schedule which would often (and annoyingly) fluctuate on a weekly basis?

This was perhaps a significant tipping point for a medium which was once considered the smaller, inferior kid brother to its big-screen counterpart, but that once noticeable gap between cinema and TV seems to be growing smaller with the arrival of every new, seemingly ground-breaking, show.

Times have changed considerably, and the recent slew of dramas from over the pond have been heralded as the second golden age of TV by some, and it’s easy to see why. At a time when money-conscious film studios are producing safe, predictable and anodyne material, TV, in many ways, has stolen cinema’s thunder and is now poaching its major talents too. Kate Winslet is currently headlining the sumptuous mini-series remake of Mildred Pierce on HBO, and earlier this year saw revered auteur, Martin Scorsese, lend his talents to the channel (as both executive producer and director) in the form of the ’30s-set, prohibition drama, Boardwalk Empire. This was perhaps a significant tipping point for a medium which was once considered the smaller, inferior kid brother to its big-screen counterpart, but that once noticeable gap between cinema and TV seems to be growing smaller with the arrival of every new, seemingly ground-breaking, show.

Mildred PierceMildred Pierce

American cable channel HBO has arguably spearheaded this revival. As it’s a subscription-based service, it doesn’t have to conform to the overly puritanical rules and regulations imposed by the commercial networks, thus meaning that edgier and more morally ambiguous (i.e. grown-up) dramas can be produced without fear of interference and being dumbed-down to appease the masses. Another key factor to HBO’s success from a content point of view is that as a subscription-only service, commercials don’t factor into the show’s running times. Where network dramas (and indeed any type of programme) rests on the contrivance of creating a series of mini cliff-hangers before each ad break, shows on subscription channels are free of this and the constraints it brings to the storytelling process. It would be thoroughly frustrating to keep track of plot elements in a dense narrative like that of The Wire’s, if every fifteen minutes of so viewers were literally taken out of the story and faced with yet another look at the latest washing-up liquid on the market and its new, revolutionary selling point.

The absorbing fantasy yarn Games of Thrones (another immensely popular HBO series which was recently screening on Sky Atlantic), is a superb example of how TV can also sometimes accommodate the demands of a book adaptation in a much more satisfying way to that of cinema. In the case of Thrones (from acclaimed novelist George R. R. Martin’s first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series), instead of having to condense what is a 800-plus page book into a 100 minutes-plus feature, the hour-long, 10-part run on the small screen allows for a more leisurely approach to character development, and where minor events and secondary figures from the book may have been considered superfluous in a big screen version, there's plenty of space for them to breathe and evolve (alongside everything else) in a prolonged TV narrative. 

HBO is now renowned for producing a number of iconic dramas over the last decade, but cable channel AMC has quickly made a name for itself and is turning into a serious rival with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and horror adaptation The Walking Dead finding a loyal and loving fanbase, both here and in the States. The channel is also behind the upcoming English-language adaptation of popular Danish crime series, The Killing, which first screened here on BBC Four in the spring of 2011. Channel 4 has secured the rights to the series, which begins this week.

The KillingThe Killing

While there’s a certain irony in the fact that an American audience can watch their favourite shows uninterrupted (paying for the privilege, of course) while British viewers sometimes run the risk of obtrusive ad breaks being slipped between programmes which weren’t originally designed to accommodate them, this has undoubtedly helped spawn the other hugely successful means of watching a favourite series – the dependable box set. The DVD market has provided a second lease of life for many US cable series (The Wire being a prime example) and it’s enabled friends and couples to engage in day-long marathon screening sessions without fear of any disturbance and, perhaps the most vital of all, that agonising week-long wait for the next part.

With Sky rolling out their Atlantic channel earlier this year, which screens exclusively US product, the appetite for intelligent small-screen work shows no sign of abating. Even the recent UK-made BBC drama, The Shadow Line, has been incredibly well-received by both audiences and critics, and with the aforementioned The Killing and the gripping French police procedural drama, Spiral, making small but noticeable waves over here, it looks like Europe has finally begun to adapt that US model.

The only challenge now is where do we find the time to indulge our viewing pleasure of all this wondrous TV?

The penultimate episode of Mildred Pierce is on Sky Atlantic this Saturday, while the US remake of The Killing continues on Channel 4 at 9pm.

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