Saturday 7 December 2019

Sacred Cows: Golden age of TV

There was a time when TV was mere chewing gum for the eyes, says Will Hanafin, but now it's a gourmet experience

Golden Age of TV
Golden Age of TV

Will Hanafin

IF I had a box set for every time someone told me we're living in a golden age of television, I could open a chain of stores to rival HMV. Telly used to be a relaxing pursuit, with people watching programmes once a week and sharing the odd water-cooler moment, if they'd nothing better to do.

A few years ago you would have a brief, bemused conversation in the staff kitchen about what happened to those lads in Lost. It wouldn't be a big deal and nobody died. (Except maybe those lads on Lost).

As Frank Lloyd Wright once said TV was chewing gum for the eyes. The problem now is that the telly box set has become the complicated mushroom and herb polenta for our overstretched minds. It's all gone very stressful with fictional characters like Walter White, Tony Soprano and Don Draper achieving quasi-mystical status.

I blame it all on the tyranny of quality television. Once a TV show like 
Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones receives the quality-telly moniker, it can't be challenged. Quality television is simple to define - it's really just telly by numbers. Most quality-telly shows consist of difficult leading men making life difficult for everyone around them. Just add a few dragons and beards, and a smidgeon of law enforcement and that sums up all that quality telly has to offer.

Establishing which is the current 
quality-television top dog becomes more frantic than school kids swapping football cards, because the shows are so addictive. One minute Game of Thrones is the dog's cojones, until it's trumped by House of Cards and then Orange Is the New Black becomes the new black, before being shaded out of it by Fargo.

The problem with nailing your colours to the mast and asserting that 
Breaking Bad is brilliant - end of - means you've little room for honesty. Some Breaking Bad episodes make that 12-hour-long Norwegian slow-television programme about crackling log fires look riveting. There are only so many scenes involving Bryan Cranston stroking his bald head and grinding his teeth that a human being can take. There's also one unpalatable fact that fans of Cranston's Walter White character find hard to take. Nobody watched Breaking Bad when it was on terrestrial television.

Breaking Bad suffered the ignominy of being broadcast in the graveyard slot on TG4, along with EuroNews and ancient cowboy films. The same fate befell other quality TV shows like Mad Men on other channels. Mad Men may have gone 
down well with the vocal minority in 
box-set-and-download land but most viewers couldn't bear the tedium of Don Draper and his chums.

Not only are aficionados of shows like Breaking Bad in denial, they've also got their heads in the sand about the finale. Spoilers are the last great taboo for the new telly viewer. They'd raise less protest about their granny being sentenced to hard labour on an Offaly turnip farm than about someone spilling the beans on some precious character snuffing it. It's gone so bad that some sad sack will surely complain about the ending of Titanic being spoiled.

I should preface this sentence with SPOILER ALERT! But I'm really giving nothing away by pointing out that a character like Walter White, who's battling late-stage lung cancer and manufactures crystal meth for some very bad people, has limited survival prospects.

This obsession with quality television is so bad that real-life doctors (as opposed to Gregory House on House or Dr McDreamy on Grey's Anatomy) are intervening to tell us our binge-viewing obsessions just aren't right.

American scientist Jeff Galak says binge viewing is like a smoker lighting up. You're elated when you crank up the next episode but that's followed by self-loathing once you realise that you've lost hours of your life watching True Detective or Orange Is the New Black episodes.

Galak is also a fan of the old-fashioned way of watching TV shows every week, as opposed to massive binges. The end of a season can leave you distressed if you watch it straight through, but if you space it out normally, you'll be grand. It's got so bad that doctors in the US now recommend simple techniques for breaking bad habits (pardon the pun) like snapping a rubber band on your wrist or drinking water to stop binge watching. With comforting, old-fashioned telly, you only needed the rubber-band trick to keep you awake during part four of The Late Late Show.

It even happens with Irish television. I've been assailed for giving away bits of Love/Hate season 1, which was made so long ago we actually had a functioning economy when it was first broadcast.

Of course, internet-streaming site Netflix is responsible for a lot of this craziness. It's bad enough that they're recycling every wogeous Adam Sandler movie going. But they're also lashing out whole series of quality telly like Orange Is the New Black, which is worse than 
blanket-bombing a hungry weight-loss class with chocolate bars.

The result is devastating. Dishwashers are left unloaded and dogs unwalked as viewers gorge on prime-time lesbian prison drama. Then when you're done with that, you binge on the whole of 
Breaking Bad and go looking for harder stuff. That's elusive series like Lilyhammer and Hemlock Grove. Finally, you get 
so desperate for that binge-viewing 
hit, you dig out the Wanderly Wagon box set.

In the end you are shunned by your work colleagues in the office kitchen when you ask them over and over if Rory in Wanderly Wagon was bumped off by Godmother.

And to think you could have gone for a walk . . .

Sunday Independent

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