In 1999, HBO–then known for offbeat original programming such as Mr. Show with Bob and David, Tales from the Crypt, and The Larry Sanders Show–aired the first episode of The Sopranos, changing the face of television forever.
Well. Or at least for the next 20 years.
The Sopranos, as any media nerd worth their salt will know, is widely seen as the vanguard of the television renaissance beginning around the dawn of the 21st century. It began life as a concept for a feature film, which creator David Chase was then persuaded to turn into a TV series, and the vestiges of its original format lingered in the complex, high-production-value, cinematic quality of the series. Three years later came The Wire, following The Sopranos’ mode of dark, character-driven ensemble dramas, and a few years after that came AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The youngest of this family of large-scale cable dramas, Game of Thrones, drew to a close last year; regrettably with more of a whimper than a flourish. This ignoble end of a nearly-decade-long cultural juggernaut, coinciding so neatly with the end of a decade, seems as good a reason as any to pause and reflect on the state of the American epic cable drama. Was the poorly-received conclusion of Game of Thrones an unfortunately-timed aberration? Or has the Great American TV Show, after twenty years of glory, collapsed under its own weight?
I should pause for a moment to clarify what exactly I mean by a Great American TV Show. When I refer to a “Great American TV Show,” I don’t mean any American TV show that’s great–otherwise, we’d be talking much more about Arrested Development (shame they only made 3 seasons, huh? Exactly 3 seasons and no episodes after that. Pity.). When I refer to the Great American TV Show, I refer to a specific genre of television drama originating in the early 2000s, in the mode of The Sopranos,featuring most or all of the following features
- First aired on cable
- Has a dramatic, dark, and/or challenging tone
- Features an ensemble cast
- High production value
- Critically acclaimed and highly-rated
- Has a major cultural influence–quotes, characters, and references make their way into everyday conversation, even for those who have not seen the show
I’m sure that many people reading this piece will have plenty to say about shows I’m leaving out of the pantheon of Great American TV Shows. Fans of Six Feet Under, The Walking Dead, The Americans, and Boardwalk Empire: I hear you. And these are, indeed, great American TV shows. They’re just not the Great American TV Shows I’m talking about. Great American TV Show, as I use the phrase here, is a genre, not simply an assessment of quality. And it’s a description of a cultural phenomenon as much as an artistic one. We don’t, after all, quote catchphrases from The Americans the same way we joke about being “the one who knocks,” or describe someone “bending the knee,” or compare a suave, mysterious man to Don Draper. It’s crucial that the shows we’re discussing here have a similar cultural and social sway to their great-granddaddy, The Sopranos, because (as I will soon address), their social impact is perhaps their most important aspect of all.
Philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously noted in his 1964 book, Understanding Media, that in modern popular culture, “The medium is the message.” This sentiment is particularly relevant in an age with an unprecedented variety of available ways to consume media. And in looking at the way the medium of Great American TV Show affects how its message is consumed, we can notice some distinct patterns. For one thing, it’s a profoundly temporal medium–unlike streaming series, which are released in large chunks for consumption at viewers’ own pace, each installment of a cable drama is released at prescribed, evenly-spaced intervals. What this lends to the medium is a distinctly communal, social element that’s lacking from other media. Not only does it expand the period of time during which the series is a relevant topic of conversation, it also ensures that most viewers consume the show at the same rate, and at roughly the same time. True, when the new season of The Crown premieres on Netflix, for instance, we do still discuss it communally, but each viewer will make their way through the series at a different pace, on a different timeline, and, in general, over the course of less time than the standard TV series. Streaming series also remove the element of sustained anticipation that drives chatter and speculation–they function, in other words, like feature films more than the traditional forms of their medium.
Not only do these forms of consumption shape how we socialize around storytelling, but social changes, conversely, also shape forms of consumption. Fewer and fewer households are willing to spend the extra money on cable when services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are available with a simple internet subscription. And the more we become acclimated to this means of consuming media, the less patient we are with the drawn-out, sprawling, personally expensive experience of following a TV drama over the course of weeks and months. The convenience and accessibility of streaming TV series–a format that’s only growing in popularity over time–reshapes our expectations for media, and older formats, such as the Great American TV Show, are at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping pace.
Of course, I’m not arguing that people no longer enjoy long, drawn out, episodic storytelling. We need look no further than Avengers: Endgame to see that episodic stories, told over the course of many years, can be hugely successful and satisfying. But we also can’t deny that Endgame is a tremendously unusual piece of storytelling, one that could just as easily be the beginning of a trend, or an impressive one-off feat. And just because Endgame was, for the most part, successful and popular, doesn’t mean it wasn’t still an enormous creative risk. Beyond that, too, feature films have the benefit of being spaced out enough to be evaluated on individual merits more easily than TV episodes. Where films are points, TV episodes are vectors. Each installment points, quite immediately, to the direction things are going, with little time to evaluate before the next episode either continues or alters the previous course. In this sense, traditional TV dramas occupy an uncomfortable midpoint between film franchises and streaming services–just enough time between installments to whip up conversation, not long enough for feelings to cool before the next installment is consumed.
So, why was Game of Thrones the cutoff point for the end of this era? Well, let’s get the most obvious (and cynical) answers out of the way. For one thing, people like neatness and tidiness. Game of Thrones was no more “the end” of this era than a single bad movie is “the end” of an actor’s career. But a large-scale HBO drama crashing and burning so spectacularly, exactly twenty years after the debut of The Sopranos, is a bit too poetic for most people to ignore. It’s also the last of the “Big Five” shows I listed earlier (the others being The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad), which allows pop sociology discourse to neatly claim an end to the era without denigrating the other four well-received series in the process.
But on a less glib level, the reason we can expect Thrones–and by proxy, the 2010s–to be remembered as the cutoff point for this style of television is simply that so many of its faults are caused or amplified by the same qualities intrinsic to the art form. Over its eight-year run, the show became bloated with characters and increasingly sprawling plot lines, putting ever more pressure on its conclusion to live up to an impossibly large amount of buildup. Its massive budget in early seasons, which allowed for the lavish visuals and sophisticated CGI sequences that became a trademark of the series, only served to underscore the decreases in quality when HBO cut some of the show’s funding in later seasons (look no further than audience’s outcry when the CGI budget didn’t even allow for Jon to pet his Direwolf, Ghost). It also made minor production hiccups (a Starbucks cup, a water bottle, a missing prosthesis) look even shoddier by comparison. And the longform format, as alluded to before, lends a degree of volatility to fan reactions via the medium of online communication. The drawn-out nature of the form, historically, has allowed for greater discourse and communal interaction with the show. However, it also allows fans plenty of time to speculate, develop investment in theories, and, in more recent episodes, use online forums to amplify and reinforce each other’s disappointment when those theories don’t come to pass (or when the show is simply disappointing in general). Where a sub-par season of a streaming series would be met with a singular explosion of derision a day or two after its release, GoT’s fall from grace was not only precipitous, it was also prolonged. And each disappointing episode brought another week of collective anguish as fans pieced apart its inadequacy on Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and of course in real life.
In other words, many of the things that once made the art form so prestigious–its scale, its production value, its social nature–ended up becoming a liability. Like ornate architecture that goes from elegant to fussy as the generations pass, the grandeur of the Great American TV Show has grown from impressive to stale. And the end of the 2010s, for better or for worse, was a very apt cutoff for when that transition happened.
There is good news, however, in this seemingly tragic ending. The end of the Great American TV Show, as I said, is not the end of great American TV shows. The new critical darlings of television are, in general, no longer solely sweeping epics, but also tight, clever, often conceptual streaming series such as Netflix’s brilliant Russian Doll. There are even epic dramas on streaming services, like The Crown (a British/American co-production) still making a place for themselves in the public consciousness, while adapting their structure to fit the new medium. Changing the cast to age them every two seasons for instance, as The Crown does, is a particularly clever way of maintaining the sense of temporal scale of a Game of Thrones or Mad Men in a format not naturally conducive to it. The Walt Disney Company’s foray into streaming services alone–something, I confess, I don’t view with unmixed delight–signals a change in the storytelling medium of TV series. Shows like The Mandalorian and the upcoming Cassian Andor series bring blockbuster cinematic franchises into the TV series conversation as well, further broadening what a prestige TV series can look like. And, though I don’t count them in the same echelon as Game of Thrones or its ilk, critically-acclaimed cable dramas such as Westworld and True Detective do continue to be made, and do continue to garner respect and praise. Art forms are destined to evolve and change, by their very nature. And inevitably, once the reign of these current shows runs long enough, various factors will drag those modes of storytelling down, too, paving the way for others to ascend.
It’s strangely appropriate that a series about ruthless jockeying for leadership should wind up being the marker for the fall of one artistic regime and the rise of another. In the early 2000s, The Sopranos was noted for causing mass waves of viewers to purchase HBO subscriptions for the sole purpose of watching that particular show. Last year, in the wake of Thrones ending, countless other customers cancelled the subscriptions that they bought merely to follow that particular show. And so it goes, in both art and in capitalism. I don’t, of course, mean to say, that the ignobility of this era’s end was inevitable–the Game of Thrones finale, if treated with a modicum of care, could have been a moving swan song for an art form ready to fade into the patina of history. But fade it will, gracefully or not, and something new, and hopefully equally great, will rise to take its place.
The Great American TV Show is dead. Long live the great American TV show.