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The Trouble With Our “Golden Age” of TV

The idea that a few brilliant men ushered in the era of prestige TV is both inaccurate and damaging.

Monica Schipper / Getty Images

Cultural critics have two main tasks: first to look at something, and then to name it. A lot of the work is taxonomy, and so it is always tempting to rush into naming a new genre. In the introduction to his 2013 book about prestige cable dramas and the men who make them, titled Difficult Men, Brett Martin is quick to coin a term. He calls the period between 1999 and 2013 the “Third Golden Age” of TV, when auteurs like David Chase, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan and David Milch enjoyed near-unprecedented autonomy and created gritty, “dangerous” dramas filled with sex and violence and Bad Men. It was, he writes, a halcyon time filled with sneering anti-heroes, when Walter White could casually threaten his wife’s life in a porkpie hat, when mobsters went to therapy to work through back alley executions, when men were men who drank scotch and slept with their stenos and buried their feelings of inadequacy deep in the back of a desk drawer with their Pall Malls.  

To give Martin some credit, he grappled up front with the fact that his new “Golden Age” was overwhelmingly male, consisting of shows about men, made by men, with an emphasis on the transgressive inner lives of American patriarchs. He claims that this was largely a function of who the Hollywood gatekeepers would give blank checks to at the time: “Middle-aged men predominated because middle-aged men had the power to create them,” he writes. “And certainly the autocratic power of the showrunner-auteur scratches a peculiarly masculine itch.” More about the all-powerful man-auteur myth in a moment, but it is also worth noting that Martin also argues that so many of the shows in his “Third Golden Age” were centered on men because of a Bush-era cultural landscape still awash in postfeminist dislocation and confusion about exactly what being a man meant. In Martin’s definition, the last shining age of television came about because a series of showrunners decided to ask just how hard it was to be a good man, be it in 1870s South Dakota, 1990s New Jersey, or 1960s Manhattan. 

When Martin published his book, House of Cards was just about to debut, but he almost certainly would have roped Frank Underwood into his bigger thesis; he largely left Louie out, but only because he gave himself a formal constraint not to focus on comedies. Still, he wrote that Louis C.K. was exciting, as he represented “yet another model of auteurship, in which creative freedom was granted in exchange for tiny budgets.” Of course, his book is meant to show how the difficult men helming these shows were, well, difficult. Martin doesn’t shy away from detailing monstrous behavior, on-set tantrums, overblown budgets, irrational demands. And yet, like the antihero protagonists of the dramas he writes about, it can be difficult to know whether Martin condemns these showrunners for their bad behavior or heralds them as outlaws—he see-saws back and forth.

As the conduct of several men behind prestige dramas has been reckoned with in the past month—so far stories have appeared about Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Matthew Weiner—it’s more important than ever to look critically at this idea of a Golden Age, both at what it held up, and at what it missed altogether.

It is a mistake to assume that everything powerful about television in the last several years flowed directly from a small group of men, and is somehow compromised if they are compromised. Late at night on November 10th, the entertainment news site Indiewire tweeted out an op-ed by columnist Ben Travers with the teaser text: “With television’s golden age tarnished by Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey and others, the medium’s brightest era has gone dark.” The tweet immediately attracted backlash: Liz Meriwether, the creator and showrunner of the comedy New Girl, quickly posted a retort on Twitter. “Oof. Female creators/stars/showrunners (i am not counting myself) have been & continue to be just as much a part of the ‘golden age of TV.’” The response racked up 5,000 likes within hours.

It was clear that Indiewire had struck a nerve: To mourn to the end of a golden era in the wake of allegations against the likes of Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, and Matthew Weiner was to overlook all the creative work women do in television on countless innovative and acclaimed shows. A screenwriter named Melissa Hunter, who recently worked on the Netflix vampire drama Santa Clarita Diet, also posted a reply that went viral, earning over 100,000 likes:

Since Hunter posted her tweet, two of the shows she mentioned have also fallen under scrutiny—Jeffrey Tambor resigned from Transparent over harassment claims, and Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner of Girls have found themselves at the center of a backlash after publicly defending one of their male writers from an allegation. But her bigger point about women creators still stands: Hanging onto the idea of a “golden age” as something men made and that will now be permanently tarnished by their actions is an act of erasure.

Many brilliant women have innovated and pushed television forward as a cultural project, and they still continue to do so. Some of the most exciting shows of the past five years (fittingly, in the time since Martin’s book came out) were created (or co-created) and run by women. There are those Hunter mentioned, and also Alias Grace, Chewing Gum, Being Mary Jane, Divorce, The OA, Queen Sugar, Westworld, Jane the Virgin, Black-ish, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Masters of Sex, Claws, The Affair, and High Maintenance, just to name a few. We are living in a more diverse and open television landscape than ever before, even though the numbers of women and people of color running programs are still dismal at best; the field is just getting more exciting year over year. If anything, the new great era of television might not be behind but in front of us, and the reckoning we are living through now is an important part of that story. 

That being said, my initial reaction to Indiewire’s tweet, and the piece that went with it, was that it is dangerous to use “Golden Age” terminology at all. Yes, this is cozy language; we all want to be living through a medium’s best time, we all want to be able to say we were there to see it, that its majesty did not pass us by. But this language also runs cover, creating an environment where the artists working within the medium can be seen as indispensable, invincible, and ultimately unaccountable. 

Martin notes that, more than any other factor, his Golden Age was marked by “the ascendancy of the all-powerful writer-showrunner,” the irascible visionary who could do no wrong because he was pushing the medium forward. We are now seeing the direct fall-out from this cultural endowment, the entitlement that some of the most celebrated “auteurs” felt to exploit and abuse those who worked for them or turned to them for mentorship. Television shows function like businesses—they have huge payrolls, with hundreds of people doing hundreds of tasks to make even the most banal sitcom a reality. During the “Golden Age,” the conversation around who made television tended to boil down to one person—the showrunner—and in many ways, we are still living with that legacy. We evaluate television creators as artists, but not often as bosses, which is exactly what most of them are. As Martin wrote in his book, as “a television veteran put it, “This isn’t like publishing some lunatic’s novel or letting him direct a movie. This is handing a lunatic a division of General Motors.”’ 

Television is a collaborative medium: It takes a village to make a show. If we are to see a “golden age” in our lifetimes, I think we will see it when we start recognizing that aspect of the medium—and its huge potential—rather than focusing on the singular appeal of its figureheads. Women like Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay are are already showing the way forward. Rhimes’s new Shondaland site has created an entire online community around her shows. Ava DuVernay has hired all women directors for the second season of Queen Sugar, some of whom had never had the opportunity to direct television before. The Los Angeles Times called Queen Sugar “a kind of filmmaking collective and talent incubator,” where DuVernay has leveraged her power to mint more directors, who have then gone on to work on other shows. 

Golden Age thinking is damaging and dangerous, and it is essential that we are revising and refining the narrative around television’s “best” time. That time may be yet to come, but I hope we never put a label on it. It is better to keep working all the time for utopia than to settle in the comfort of it. We can love shows from the past, but we shouldn’t love a myth, especially when it obscures vital work being done now.