It’s almost three years since Kevin Spacey, speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, declared television to be ‘entering a new golden age’. His claim has since been much-quoted, if vindicated – for if back then we were only entering such a heyday, now we’re positively basking in it. There’s rarely been a time when television has provided such all-round quality viewing, and if the small screen is the reigning medium of the day, then the serial drama is the jewel in its crown.
It wasn’t so long ago that the previous night’s soaps and reality shows were the morning talk of the office. But ever since this current revolution in television, the conversation has come a long way from Albert Square love triangles and Big Brother evictees, and moved into an altogether more refined direction. Between period dramas, novel adaptations and original new programming, the serial drama is now the genre on everyone’s lips, captivating audiences to an extent unseen for decades.
Already 2016 has set the ball rolling for another year of must-see television. No sooner had the internationally celebrated Downton Abbey bid farewell to our screens than the BBC provided us with Andrew Davies’ visually stunning, thought-provoking adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We’ve also been spoiled with the sumptuous adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel, The Night Manager: the most expensive drama ever commissioned by the BBC, it’s been almost unanimously lauded as also one of its best.
It’s also proving a strong year for returning dramas, perhaps the most prominent example being the second instalment of Sally Wainwright’s crime series Happy Valley. Flawlessly crafted and intensely gripping, it’s joined the league of other dramas such as Unforgotten and Broadchurch in managing to drive audiences back to watching television in real time, impatient for the finale. And from across the pond, we’re about to be hit with a new series of both the Netflix smash hits House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. As early examples of original programming by an independent online broadcaster, they’re testament to the emerging and improved direction of television in recent years.
It’s been part of our cultural consciousness for so long that, compared to the likes of theatre or even film, TV is lowbrow: a medium of popular entertainment catering to the common masses. And yet, as though a long overdue epiphany, it seems to have suddenly discovered (or remembered) its own potential for high calibre; that audiences have a serious appetite for good television, and don’t want to be patronised with rubbish. With even C4 subverting its trashy associations by commissioning the acclaimed drama Indian Summers, each broadcaster is out to prove its commitment to quality programming.
The tide has turned so far in the direction of television that the once-superior medium of cinema has comparatively lost momentum. The technological advances of the last few decades have invested television with a new and equal grandeur of cinematographic brilliance. Even directors such as Steven Spielberg and David Lynch have migrated to the small screen to work on miniseries and documentaries. As American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh says, ‘In terms of cultural real estate, TV has really taken control of the conversation that used to be the reserve of movies… If you like your stories to go narrow and deep, TV is exciting.’
Indeed, it’s not just the improvement in film-making that has driven change – but also the fact that television, unlike any other medium, offers the possibility of narrative longevity. In a way that evades the cinema, television has the creative space to breathe, the ability to develop storylines and respond to viewers’ expectations. It conjures a more fully-realised world, one which unravels week after week to the growing immersion of its audience. This is particularly true of serial dramas, where writers have the time to drill to the very heart of a story and the characters within it. Finally we’re seeing this dramatic potential being utilised beyond the genre of the soap opera, and facilitating a more intelligent, profound form of story-telling.
Perhaps the main driving force behind this overhaul in quality comes down to our shift in viewing habits, however. Over the last decade, the way we watch and consume television has changed almost beyond recognition. The proliferation of viewing platforms – laptops, phones, iPads – and explosion of available channels – Netflix and Amazon Prime, on top of terrestrial and satellite – means that we’re now able to watch what we want, when we want and how we want. It’s led to a culture of binge-viewing, with audiences now able to devour an entire box set within an afternoon, hence the sudden importance of serial dramas and their long, rich story arcs.
But most importantly, this viewing revolution has sparked a more competitive television market, one where quality programming has become crucial. With no more guarantees that audiences will watch a programme just because it’s on air, there’s no room for complacency. It has to earn a viewer’s attention, for which it has to be good – and producers have stepped up the game to make sure we get the stimulating, intelligent viewing that we want and deserve.
Ultimately what makes this such a golden era of television is that the power is now in the audience’s hands. With programmes engaging more intimately with the needs of its viewers, television has risen to deliver accordingly innovative, compelling and relevant content. No longer modern culture’s answer to comfort food, it’s grown from a mass, mainstream channel of popular entertainment to a respectable, serious medium of popular art – and long may it uncover further potential.