The Golden Age of Television: The late 50s-early 60s, with groundbreaking live teleplays by Rod Serling (Patterns) and Paddy Chayefsky (Marty), as well as landmark shows like I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone
The Second Golden Age of Television: Envelope-pushing network fare of the late 60s-early 70s: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Mike Douglas Show, All in the Family, African-American shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons
The Third Golden Age of Television: right now.
In May 2007, The Sims and Spore creator Will Wright spoke at my college graduation ceremony. Wright detailed the progressively complex evolution of television narratives by illustrating the vast differences in two famous shows that basically utilize the same core narrative conceit: Gilligan’s Island and Lost. The comparison of these two shows—which both utilize the same basic concept of characters stranded on an island—illustrates the vast changes that have happened in the ways in which television shows are structured and the methods within which we are expected to watch them.
In the last ten years, for better or for worse, practices of storytelling and spectatorship in television have changed drastically, and, most likely, for good. With the establishment of HBO in the late nineties as a source of unique and original television content, the notion of quality television was rendered no longer inherently contradictory to popular television (yes, HBO had good shows before The Sopranos, but that show really solidified both the network’s status and what would happen to TV the following ten years). With its lack of commercials, lack of network pressure to churn out a yearly number of episodes, freedom from normal practices of censorship, and limited per-season quantity of episodes (like the UK shows we imitate or remake so often), original content on HBO allowed for an exploratory, often cinematically uninterrupted experience of television content free from the industrial and sometimes creativity-stultifying industrial practices of network television shows.
Cut to the Lost pilot four years later. With the launch of that show’s final season in the next few weeks, its inevitable bowing out stands as evidence of the changed televisual landscape surrounding that show which occurred in equal degrees inspired by it and contemporaneously with it.
Lost is an example of a storytelling trend called database narratives, or stories that do not exist autonomously within themselves, but whose success and comprehension is dependent upon and ongoing conversation outside of the story occurring across media. In film, the database narrative has hardly met success because of the limits of that medium’s running time, the restraints of this narrative approach, and the intimidating requirements it bestows upon its viewership. Watchmen, Southland Tales, and the Matrix sequels—all requiring research and deliberate action outside the film taken by their viewers—are examples of the limitations of this approach for film. But the television format allows for a sprawling narrative structure that can encapsulate all the complexities necessary to immerse oneself in the database narrative.
Television in its classical sense was constructed to be watched passively, allowing the home viewer to come in and out of focal attention to the screen as they please without becoming confused as to what’s going on, enabled by constant repetition in story structures, situations, and dialogue. Traditional comedy and drama shows were designed to be mostly interchangeable; they could be watched in any order without confusion. What Lost and shows like it (like, say, BSG) represent is a dramatic shift in the reverse. In an information era where our ability to multitask and consume info from multiple media sources simultaneously is enabled by a culture of shortening attention spans and a desperate need for stimulus, it’s refreshing and surprising that a method of TV storytelling has arisen in which we’re required to pay fucking attention to every little detail (while at the same time utilizing our multimedia literacy as the major locale of discourse for understanding these shows exists on the Internet on sites like Lostpedia).
Complex narrative structures don’t automatically bring with them good television, as Lost imitators like FlashForward haven’t met success, and Lost itself is certainly not without its share of distinct flaws. But Lost represents—especially in its shift to shorter seasons (which hugely improved the show) and announcement of its finale in 2010—a transition to a mode of television storytelling structured not in the typical 24-episode year industry churnout, but within means that serves the story best (rather than television’s given structure), up to and including a predetermined end point for the story (giving a breath of fresh air to frustrated Lostphiles like myself who, around Season 3, began to suspect the show of essentially being a rabbit hole without a rabbit). The significance lies in the fact that this method of storytelling no longer exists solely on cable, but on network television as well.
There are network predecessors to shows like Lost. Twin Peaks comes to mind as an appropriate example, as it required a devoted, attentive week-to-week method of spectatorship, had a fruitful afterlife on home video, and developed a cult that dissected every moment. But watching Twin Peaks now makes that show feel like it debuted a decade too early, a show ahead of its time to its own detriment as it should’ve ended (with predetermined foresight, like Lost’s planned ending) with the revelation of Laura Palmer’s killer. Shows like Twin Peaks represent database narratives that had to wait for technology and changing means of watching television to catch up with them.
That alternative resources for network profit for these shows have come about in TV on DVD, iTunes, Hulu (and the like) have assisted this new structuring of story. Shows like Lost and Arrested Development came about shortly before the popularization of TV on DVD, but watching them now it seems they were always meant for this format. And this is where the limitations of the database narrative for network television come into play. I recently took a sabbatical from Lost, refusing to watch the fifth season when it aired and instead waited for it to come out on DVD because I find the show more rewarding when its episodes are watched in quick sequence rather than week-to-week. This practice of forgoing the consumption of these shows in the traditional, commercial-infused format has happened on a larger scale, as Lost’s ratings have dropped consistently each season, and alternative discursive media resources for understanding the show (like Lostpedia and the pop-up-video style catch-up method of reminding viewers of the show’s details in its reruns and recaps) have become requirements for understanding rather than supplements for enjoying these shows (especially with the year gap in between the start of each season). That comedy shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock contain thread narratives and subtle in-jokes that reward multiple viewings suggests a fundamental incompatibility of such narratives with any traditional TV format (evidenced by their low ratings in opposition to their cult success on DVD).
Quality television of this past decade occupies two categories: the database narratives that require careful attention, discussion, and reminder (Lost, BSG, Dexter, Heroes, 24, The Wire, etc.) and more cinematic shows occupying (and changing) the format, pacing, and expectations of televised storytelling (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men). Yet this is not a comprehensive shift into better television. On the other end of the spectrum is the bottom barrel of what television has to offer with reality shows on the no-longer-music-affiliated VH1 and MTV (Jersey Shore being the most recent offender) which capitalize on the most shameless and exploitable of human behavior, manufacture staged “reality” into a forced narrative, and further a parasitic culture that regards celebrity as something that should be a given rather than a status earned. Such shows will continue to exist as long as they are cheap to make and there remains an audience to watch them, but they represent the other side of the pendulum of this decade’s landmark shifts in quality television.
When Lost’s final episode airs this summer, it will have cemented a game-changing means of storytelling and spectatorship that will survive within other shows, regardless of other competing content in the wide spectrum of television.