The period from 1999 to 2013 was a golden age for American television. Without the shift in American TV programming that occurred in 1999 there would have been no Breaking Bad. Walter White would still be a schoolteacher. Well, who knows what happens to characters outside the heads of their creators.
One night in 1981 I was heading towards downtown Atlanta. On the way Wolfman Jack played early rock ‘n’ roll hits on the car radio. The United States had fabulous music memories back then and needed them. The television was awful. Prior to the drive downtown I had sat on a motel bed and waited for someone who took longer to dress than me. While I waited I checked the schedule for the TV on a Saturday night in hip Atlanta. Fantasy Island began at 8pm. Charley’s Angels followed at nine, and The Love Boat occupied what was left of the American mind. Some viewers must have gone crazy watching what was pure and uninterrupted pap. Elvis Presley found an alternative. During his final days Elvis played Monty Python tapes and popped pills. Unlike Elvis, not everyone had DVD players or corrupt doctors supplying an unlimited number of amphetamines. That came later for the American working class.
The revolution in American television was made possible by various factors but was always inevitable. The programmes had to improve. American TV was not all bad. Sports programmes had viewer appeal, and the comedy sitcoms employed writers that could deliver slick one-liners. There were some moments in its drama output but nothing that could be described as quality. The Rockford Files had charm but was also simple escapism. The pilot of The Night Stalker was a fine horror tale but the TV series soon became tired. The rest of American TV was dire. Dependent for their revenue on advertisers who wanted programmes that offended no one the main networks were conservative and risk averse.
HBO arrived in 1972 and carrying a different business model. The cable channel collected subscriptions from viewers and delivered exclusive sporting events and a bigger selection of movies. Almost a quarter of a century after it was launched someone at HBO realised that the subscriptions guaranteed revenue whether an individual programme attracted an audience or not. The movies and sporting events also ensured some advertising income. Besides being able to take chances HBO had other advantages. Censorship on network American TV was restrictive. As a pay-per-view network, HBO could insist on the rules that applied to the Hollywood movies its subscribers had paid to see. HBO viewers saw naked women, heard the kind of expletives favoured by American Presidents and witnessed lots of violence. Before 1997 the fashion had been for TV series with seasons of 22 episodes. Reducing the number to thirteen required a smaller financial investment. The technical teams had also become more adept. Versatile cameras meant a more polished product could be achieved in the statutory eight days allowed for filming a series episode. Neither did camera film have to be overexposed. The lighting crews would never equal the best of Hollywood cinema but they understood shade and ambience, something that had been avoided in the previous decades. Audiences wanted their TV programmes to look like movies, especially if they were paying for them.
After deciding to broadcast original material HBO was obliged to raise standards. Without any recent precedent in American television for quality drama the network gave freedom to its writers. Previously scriptwriters had been referred to as ‘schmucks with Underwoods’. Vince Gilligan was the executive producer or showrunner of Breaking Bad. Like other showrunners, Gilligan is a writer. He had to operate within a budget decided by the AMC network but Gilligan could also ensure that the writing succeeded and what finished on the screen captured the cinematic potential of that writing. Only a talented writer with experience of collaborative working can do that.
Although the non-subscription channels relied exclusively on advertising revenue they learned how to imitate HBO. The Shield was a gritty crime drama from the FX network, a cop show that deterred most of the advertising agencies. But the folks at FX were clever and realised that they only needed to appeal to a small percentage of advertising agencies. The advertisements that interrupted The Shield belonged to a niche market and promoted products aimed at young and middle-aged men.
It all meant that male American heroes could now lose their temper. There had to be a reason for those expletives. If the heroes were more complex, they were mainly male. Damages and Homeland arrived in the following century. Both failed to maintain the standards of The Sopranos and The Wire but at least the main protagonists were women.
The Sopranos and The Wire have been described as modern equivalents of Balzac and Proust. In Breaking Bad The Official Book the editor David Thomson refers to Chekhov. The creative revolution did unleash talent but these are pointless comparisons between apples and oranges. It is doubtful that Vince Gilligan is capable of anything as note perfect as The Seagull but even Chekhov would have flagged if he had needed to deliver 62 episodes of Breaking Bad. All that can be said is that American TV showrunners create shows that take a long time to watch and the books of Balzac and Proust require heavy lifting.
Rather than settle for harmless fantasy the best writers in the golden age of American TV were intent on revealing a troubled way of life. The best of the programmes from the golden age introduced Americans that were violent, sexually complicated, addicted to drugs and materialism, and living in loveless or oppressive families. The potential of these anxious Americans was also distorted by an unrecognised class system. Excess, amorality and irresponsibility defined this decadent American empire. But the weaknesses of modern America were explored mainly through character. Walter White in Breaking Bad becomes a criminal in order to pay for his medical bills. Nowhere in Breaking Bad is it suggested that perhaps America should have an alternative health system. The Wire had a political agenda but it operated within the crime genre which meant that the message was lost on most of the audience. Conservative MPs in Britain assumed that The Wire condemned the poor for their behaviour and supported Tory arguments for more extreme neoliberal policies. Actor and old Etonian Dominic West was interviewed about working on The Wire. West had no idea that the TV show was intended as left wing polemic.
The American TV programmes that appeared after 1999 deserve praise but what had happened previously in British television cannot be ignored. It has not helped that the Thatcher neoliberal hegemony contributed to the decline of the BBC as a creative force. American TV from the golden age is accomplished but when compared to the best of British television it still feels timid. Over 40 years ago The Naked Civil Servant had an unapologetic gay hero that protested against traditional gender identities. In the 1960s, Cathy Come Home and the other films of Ken Loach exposed the uneven economic rewards of a lopsided British class system. Boys From The Blackstuff had a thick eared sensibility but it remains a principled primal scream against Thatcherism and the nightmare that followed. Armchair Theatre in the 1960s not only utilised great British theatrical talent that included Billie Whitelaw and Harold Pinter but also heralded the defiance of ordinary people, a resistance which would be echoed and amplified by the arrival of The Beatles. The low budget Z Cars may appear modest today but as a paid up member of the new zeitgeist it rattled the British establishment and was condemned by the British Press.
Madmen was not the only American series to present real and complex adult characters. British television at its best, though, matched polemic with entertainment in a way that is still beyond American television. History and the moment are important. British TV was at its best when there was left wing hope. Leeds United was the story of a strike, and its black and white photography paid homage to Eisenstein. Written by Colin Welland the programme was unequivocal agitprop but also hilarious. Of course Leeds United benefited from a faith in the worth and humour of the Northern working class, a faith that has since been lost. But even without left wing polemic British TV has had programmes that are incomparable. Nothing on American TV is equal to the adaptation of the Charles Dickens short story The Signalman, not even the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. And for those who want serious ambition there is Talking To Strangers written by John Hopkins, a six hour forensic and epic investigation into a family whose restrained discourse and polite British manners do nothing to prevent its four members becoming emotional cripples.
Recent American TV has exposed how people behave in a decadent empire but the people making the programmes are also shaped by that decadence. Witnessing the work of not to be missed talent has been intoxicating but the same creators have been too ready to approve of villainy and to relish rather than criticise excess squalor and opulence. Modern American TV programmes have indulged licence and avoided digging beneath and beyond familiar genres to analyse the society that is making their admittedly interesting characters so miserable. This may sound harsh but what was once an explosion of creativity soon became routine programming. If no one should be surprised, we do have essential series like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire and Madmen.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.