It's long gone, replaced by inferior plot-driven shows designed to keep us hooked, says Pat Fitzpatrick
I was crossing the South Mall in Cork during the summer when I saw this guy watching Game of Thrones. He was sitting in his van at the traffic lights, an iPad up on the dashboard, glued to what looked like one of the early episodes of the new season. It was disturbing, and not just for road-safety reasons.
It's as disturbing as Money Heist, a Spanish bank-robbing caper that's a big hit on Netflix. The problem is we can't stop watching it in our place, even though it's drawn out over 30 episodes and you'd drive a tank through most of the plot. It's literally addictive, in a bad way.
And still we're told we're lucky to be alive in the golden age of television. Who cares that the planet is going to explode, or you'll get knocked down while crossing the street in Cork by a guy watching TV? The important thing is we'll never run out of things to stream around the clock.
Come on, the golden age of television has come and gone. Anyone who feels the same about Game of Thrones as they did about The Sopranos has shut down part of their brain. Along with sex, violence and laugh-out-loud Italian stereotypes, The Sopranos found time to tackle the meaning of life; it felt meaty, as if it had something to say. All that Game of Thrones had to say in the final series was, 'Give me $15m an episode and I'll get you millions of viewers all over the world'.
These viewers aren't numbskulls - Game of Thrones was really enjoyable, while you were watching it. You could say the same about House of Cards, Line of Duty, Homeland, Transparent, Mindhunter, or whatever you're streaming yourself. They're sugar-rush TV shows that don't make you feel that much, but leave you wanting more.
Sound familiar? For example, the way you have one last scroll of Facebook or Instagram before heading off to bed, even though you know deep down that social media is the stuff of nightmares.
That's where Big TV is now. We've been too busy worrying about Big Tech giants watching our every move to notice that the streaming giants got in on the act themselves. This isn't to suggest that the streaming giants are harvesting data to sell on to others - even if Netflix did include a physical-movement tracker in their app earlier this year. (Sounds like something you'd see on Black Mirror, if Black Mirror hadn't moved to Netflix.)
No, the problem is that Netflix and others have an incredible amount of data around our viewing preferences, which they use as the basis for their new commissions. As far back as 2006, Netflix offered $1m to whomever could create the best algorithm to predict how much an audience would like a movie based on past ratings. According to an article on insidebigdata.com, the use of algorithms saves the company $1bn a year in customer retention. In other words, they know how to keep you watching. And it isn't just about the quality of the product.
This is why loads of us feel like we are in abusive relationships with a TV series that went on long after the original idea had run its course. Anyone who watched Homeland will know the feeling - it was done after Season Two, but they just kept dragging us back every time for more of the same, like a Mayo fan at the start of every season, who thinks, "This time will be different".
You could say the same about The Handmaid's Tale. That was the one show that could stand comparison with The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, at least while it stuck to Margaret Atwood's book. The thrill was gone once they ran out of Atwood's elegant plotlines, but Hulu still knew how to keep fans coming back, giving them just enough of the good stuff to keep them hooked for years after that.
Again, to repeat, these shows aren't awful. Netflix spent a reported $12bn on content in 2018, so it's not a huge stretch to make passable, addictive shows that are better than a lot of things on legacy broadcasters.
They're feeding off a phenomenon that didn't exist before this so-called golden age - nowadays, you need a decent answer when someone asks, "What are you watching?" It's nearly a sign of moral and intellectual weakness to confess that you're in between shows, and happy to just flick around scheduled TV for a few hours before going to bed. That's a shame. It has ruined the pleasure of vegging in front of a stumbled-upon episode of Can't Pay, We'll Take it Away on Channel Five+1, which you forget about five seconds after the credits roll. It's no longer enough to sample TV, we must be addicted to the latest thing on Netflix or Amazon, getting our minds tickled every night by something that feels like it was part-written by a team of algorithms.
You know you're hooked when you start looking for episode recaps of a show, 20 seconds after you've just watched it, to find out what you missed. These recaps are written by an army of saddos who can achieve orgasm by spotting a stray Starbucks cup in an episode of Game of Thrones. Despite this, people who should know better - myself included - gorge on their every word, to try and satisfy the cravings.
This is going to get worse before it gets better - Apple, Facebook and Disney have plans to pour billions into their new streaming platforms, flooding the market with a glut of new fairly good shows that will probably cause us all to die due to lack of sleep. If you're looking for a phrase to capture the first two decades of the 21st Century, try, "Will we watch another one?"
It would be nice to think we could go wean ourself off this stuff, but there is no competing with the spending power of the people who make golden-age TV. Our only hope is we'll just get sick of it over time. Or maybe that something new comes on to keep us occupied until The Crown returns next month - that baby is like crack cocaine.
'Three is a magic number" was the ubiquitous jingle when the country's first commercial TV station went on air on September 20, 1988. Twenty years on, the TV3 Group - recently rebranded Virgin Media Ireland - has become a significant part of Ireland's daily life.