Everybody knows we live in a golden age of television. A combination of factors – mostly due to American cable television’s ability to create long-form drama without worrying about mainstream appeal – has resulted in a wave of the best television the world has ever seen. If you like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Girls that is. Those are the shows that get talked about on the internet, and they get talked about incessantly.
Today isn’t a golden age because television is universally excellent. If you think a bunch of celebrity-hosted talent shows are elevating the art form, that’s an exciting and interesting opinion you can hold as far away from me as possible. In many ways today is a golden age because a lot of cultural critics are talking about television, and they’re hardly going to tell you that television today is rubbish. Not if they want to keep their jobs anyway.
Television is full of golden ages. The early to mid 90s had both Seinfeld and The Simpsons at the heights of their power, and they were shows that huge numbers of people actually watched. The real peak of US cable television’s quality may very well have been a decade ago, when The Wire and Deadwood (and even the tail end of The Sopranos) were setting the bar at a hight that most current shows can’t hope to match.
The one way that today is undeniably a golden age is in the depth of the shows available – and yet oddly, hardly anyone seems to be arguing that case. If the greatest shows today maybe aren’t the best shows ever, at least the shows right behind them are almost as good – and these days there’s so many more of them. The early 90s had two great sitcoms and a lot of average ones; the early 00s had a handful of amazing shows and then nothing. Today if you’re willing to look there are brilliant shows all around.
But who can be bothered to look? Instead we get a constant microscopic focus on the same few shows. Endless conspiracy theories about Mad Men? Why not? A story about celebrities’ reactions to a twist on Game of Thrones? Sure! People want recaps of their favourite shows, so that’s what we get. Examining a new series? Who has time when there’s a post on the makeup secrets of The Walking Dead to read?
As far as overlooked classics go, I think Roman-era slave drama Spartacus (which finished up a few months ago) was a great show. Not only that, it covered a lot of the same ground Game of Thrones does and does it better. Exposing the horrors of a pre-Enlightenment civilisation? Done. Shock twists? Done. Epic battles? Done. Sexposition? Spartacus invented it. Great costuming? Okay, that’s a no because it’s all togas and loincloths. But insane amounts of blood and gore? If you thought a man getting his genitals cut off was shocking, Spartacus did it in its first series then started cutting off everything else including the front half of someone’s face. And half the cast was Australian or New Zealander – the ANZAC spirit doesn’t stop just because the guys are shirtless and oiled up, right?
Comparing Spartacus to Game of Thrones is obviously not the only comparison to be made here. It’s just an obvious one, because in many ways they’re very similar shows. And clearly there’s an almost-but-not-quite as strong case to be made for Game of Thrones as the better and more deserving show. But if anyone out there is doing more than the occasional ‘**** is the best show you’re not watching’ article – yes, just like this one here – to steer audiences towards lesser known series, they’re drowned out in a flood of articles covering the series that everyone already knows they like.
In the kind of divide that the internet was supposed to erase but has only made stronger, it’s the show with the pre-existing advantages (high profile network, name actors, pre-existing fan base) that increasingly that gets all the coverage. Fans who want recaps are taken care of; those audience members interested in something more – even if it’s basically more of the same – are left in the dark.
Put another way: at the time of writing, website Grantland has one, unrelated hit for Spartacus; Mad Men gets 146, Game of Thrones has 105. Over at Vulture, we have 49 hits for Spartacus (mostly news related), while Game of Thrones gets 535. Vulture’s example of how to use search quotes? “Mad Men recap”.
Anthony Morris is a Killings columnist and has been reviewing films for almost 20 years for a variety of publications, many of which have closed down through no fault of his own. Though his insistence on reviewing every single Adam Sandler movie may have played a part.