PURSUITS
Small screen, big picture
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, March 30, 2012

Is this the golden age for television?

About a decade ago,   it became the conventional wisdom that today’s TV shows were rubbish and nothing like the great hits of the 1960s and 70s. As the consensus took hold, old TV shows began to come back to haunt us. That 1970s piece of fluff, Charlie’s Angels became, first, a series of movies and, then, a TV show all over again. Mission Impossible became a Tom Cruise franchise. Pretty soon, everything — from Starsky and Hutch to I Spy — was being recycled.

That process continues. The new Hawaii Five-O is a big hit on American TV and plans are underway to turn The Man From UNCLE into a movie. With a bit of luck it will fare better than the film version of The Avengers which, despite boasting of a cast that included Uma Thurman and Sean Connery, was a complete disaster.

 Legitimate claim: American legal show The Good Wife has captured the hearts of  television watchers all over the world with its subtle acting and fine drama

While I have no objection to the recycling of old shows and, in fact, am quite looking forward to The Man From UNCLE movie, I disagree with the consensus about the quality of today’s TV shows.

 

 

A bit of a drag: Mad Men is a girlie show about girlie issues, which pretends to be deeper than it really is by painstakingly recreating period detail

I admit that there may have been a time, a decade or so ago, when TV was caught in a rut. But that phase has passed. And today’s TV shows are better written, better directed and better acted than virtually anything made in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the golden age of television.

In a league of its own: After 24, no ordinary thriller show will ever seem as satisfying. In that sense, 24 is to television what The Bourne Identity was to cinema

Before you start looking for the obvious examples, let me make my prejudices clear. I have no time for Mad Men which is a girlie show about girlie issues but which pretends to be deeper than it really is by painstakingly recreating period detail. I loathe all medical shows on principle so you won’t find me singing the praises of House or Grey’s Anatomy or Private Practice or any other show where a stethoscope is employed.

 

English thrills: British TV is also hitting new heights. Spooks is the best spy show ever made in England

And, more controversially, I think that The Wire is the most overrated show of our times. Perhaps it makes sense if you live in an American inner-city area or if you are fascinated by Baltimore street slang. But it bores me to death.

Period classic: With Martin Scorsese as its executive producer, Boardwalk Empire, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, approaches the standards of Scorsese’s best work

My claim that we are living in a golden age has nothing to do with these overrated shows. Instead, I would argue that for every great show of the past, there is a better version made in the last five years. Take cop shows. I don’t think that there has ever been a better police show than The Shield (and it’s a lot better than The Wire certainly).

Holmes and watson: Sherlock Holmes 
is a brilliant reworking of the story of the master sleuth in a modern setting by the team behind Dr Who

How about thrillers? I 
accept the criticism that in its last two seasons, 24 seemed completely unrealistic even by its own extremely loose standards, but it is hard to deny that the show redefined the genre. After 24, no ordinary thriller show will ever seem as satisfying. In that sense, 24 is to TV what The Bourne Identity was to cinema.

Legal distinction: The last five years have thrown up some of the best legal shows ever made. Boston Legal’s mixture of drama and humour is a case in point

If you want something that is more realistic and better acted than 24, there’s Homeland, possibly the best adult thriller ever made for TV. It has the power of 24 but the characters are more complex, the acting is in a different league and the themes are far more mature.

 

 

Class act: Damages is quality television at its finest. Plus, it benefits from Glenn Close’s brilliant performance

It is hard to feel nostalgic about a legal show from the 60s or the 70s. Perry Mason now seems pretty ridiculous in retrospect. On the other hand, the last five years have thrown up some of the best legal shows ever made. I loved Boston Legal’s mixture of drama and humour.

Damages is quality 
television at its finest. Plus, 
it benefits from Glenn Close’s brilliant performance. And what about The Good Wife? The current season is even better than season four of Damages.

The same holds true across genres. I doubt if television will ever do something as good as The Godfather but Boardwalk Empire comes close. With Martin Scorsese as its executive producer, the show, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City with Al Capone as a minor character, approaches the standards of Scorsese’s best work. If you are looking for period detail, this is where you will find it, not in the made-up world of Mad Men.

Even historical shows have rarely been better made. I concede that The Tudors, which played fast and loose with the Henry VIII story, lost its way after the second season. But Rome held its own throughout its run. And, if you like violence and bad language, then Spartacus can be a lot of fun.

On the other side of the Atlantic, period drama is experiencing a revival. I enjoyed the first season of Downton Abbey though the second one moved at too fast a pace. The first season of the new Upstairs Downstairs received a mixed response from critics but I liked it. Any show that co-stars Art Malik as a Sardarji who has been imported from India to live with the English aristocracy, can’t be all bad. (I have yet to see season two of Upstairs Downstairs so I will reserve judgement.)

British TV is also hitting new heights. Spooks is the best spy show ever made in England. Hustle has been consistently enjoyable. And if you like something darker, then The Red Riding Trilogy about the north of England in the 70s is worth watching.

I could go on. I could talk about the brilliant reworking of Sherlock Holmes in a modern setting by the team behind Dr Who (though I am not a Dr Who fan). I could point to the sly humour of Entourage. Or I could join in the general euphoria over 30 Rock, one of the best comedy shows ever made for TV.

But I think you get my point. The days of recycling old TV shows will now slowly shudder to a halt. Today’s 
TV is better than anything that has gone before. And for the first time in the history of the medium, television actually offers a quality alternative to cinema.

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow Vir’s other writings, visit www.virsanghvi.com.)

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