“What do you want to watch?” Every time you turn on the TV you are greeted with choices. In many respects, modern television has swelled to such an enormous size to fit the demands of fandoms large and small. The result is a landscape that reflects a variety of views and interpretations of different genres. Fantasy—medieval or comic book? Comedy—rom-com, dram-com, or sitcom? Viewers are no longer restricted to a handful of shows that dose out drama, horror and comedy, but instead with programs that take the genres and run wholeheartedly in many different directions. With this comes a power to choose to which content we give our precious time. Surrounded by choices, a better question would be: What can’t we watch?
In the past, “genre” may have been established by the tropes set up within the shows. Staples like guy-gets-girl or season finale shootouts characterize the type of show you are watching. While some shows struggled to work within these confines, Golden Age programs showed what the very best of these tropes looked like.
During that age, the swath of genres was dominated by these few monolithic shows who drew everyone’s attention. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad stunned viewers with their morally ambiguous leads. Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men set up compelling timepieces, with again, morally ambiguous leads. And The Office and Parks and Rec still infatuate fans with their comedy. All of these series set precedents and trends which laid the ground-work for the variation seen in the current Silver Age.
A rightful analogue to the greats, our current TV climate expresses the next level of evolution. For example, take crime dramas, which had large shoes to fill following the departure of Tony Soprano and Walter White. It may seem inconceivable that newcomers like Fargo, Gotham, and The Bridge could even stand up to Mr. White in any capacity, but in many respects they do. Expanding the crime genre on television to encompass comic-book fiction, Gotham sees the streets of the DC world ridden with crooks and soon-to-be crimelords. In Fargo, police deal with cover-ups and misinformation in the Midwest and The Bridge, the escapism and helplessness of police on both side of the Mexican-American border. These works exemplify the exploration of different stories told through the same medium of its particular genre. Each is a testament to the dynamism of genre which can be used to tell stories that could not have been told any other way.
Many might say that these new shows shadow the greats of the past decade, latching on to a bit of the gold they left behind. This would be an unfair assessment as these series have come brandishing their own unique existence, while merely emulating the striking qualities of older shows. And because of this these newer shows might not be for everyone. While it can be said that most people could and did watch the escapades of Heisenberg and the Blowfish, not everyone will willfully embrace the young James Gordon as he mingles with vigilantes. But the audience exists nonetheless, for those who care enough to find something better suited for their tastes.
While some genres take of tangentially from their forerunners, other have sprung up and found unseen markets. Horror and gore have benefited handsomely from such attention as shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and even Teen Wolf and True Blood, have developed followings that revel in the grotesqueness presented on screen. These series do well to mesh characterization and narrative fluidly with an onslaught of gore that the audiences crave. Such a craving for blood has made horror a vessel in which new ideas can be tested out. Horror has been able to adopt characteristics of other genres to capitalize on the variety of audiences that television, and especially television in the Silver Age, can offer. Shows like iZombie, Scream Queens, and How to Get Away with Murder have developed the drama past the menacing of a masked monster, inate in many stories, and translated it into episodic mysteries. Specifically, looking at iZombie, wonder in what capacity this show would have existed in the past? The answer — in would not have. A girl turned zombie, turned crime solver, on top of a career, love life and hunger for brains? An undead Veronica Mars, perhaps? If it seem far out there and odd, that is because it is. This era has allows for weird, quirky ideas to be fostered and obtain broadcast time.
It is at least partially true that TV has shifted away from being a zero sum game. Writers, producers, and directors are able to pursue projects that interest them artistically rather than financially. Original ideas can be fueled and pushed into production thanks to the way we now consume media. Streaming online and the precedent set up by the Golden Age raised both the expected level of quality and quantity of the shows we enjoy. After having the Golden Age show us what TV could be, the utility of streaming said, ‘Why can’t we?’ As we see in many of these newer shows, the stories being told are not restricted by convention or genre specifically. Consequently, the shows in a particular ‘genre’ have been increasingly effective in differentiating themselves. This leads to variety. Some may say that due to the quantity, the quality suffers, while I would say it is merely the birth of a new age. As it matures, the execution of new, odd ideas will be honed and dialed in. The shifting paradigm of TV represents a shifting way of thought in society.
The millennial generation has often been self-absorbed and self-interested, which may be in part responsible for the variety we are seeing emerging. There seems to be a show for everyone. While the notion of a selfish generation may be troubling, it seems to produce unique TV driven by the personal choice of artists or creators. As a result, things like ‘genre’ begin to blend, creating a work that breaks convention rather than conforming to it. In many ways the art of TV is starting to shine through more brilliantly as a medium unfettered by the industry. Without the zero sum game, the more choices we give an artist the more choices we give ourselves.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Editor