Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The New Golden Age

“It was a great decade for television.”

Thus begins Tim Goodman’s retrospective on television in this first decade of what has otherwise been a stunningly ugly new millennium. In a New Year's Day piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, Goodman (the Chron’s TV critic) makes a case for the ten best shows since 2000, while his blog broadens the discussion to include another fifteen just-missed also-rans. In yet another perceptive piece, he dissects the forces that have shaped television in these increasingly turbulent times.

Mr. Goodman is serious about television.

I’m no fan of lists in general, and usually find year-end lists particularly tedious, but Goodman isn’t your average TV critic -– indeed, he’s one of the very best, backing up his analysis with solid reasoning fueled by a raw passion for the medium that occasionally veers towards the obsessive. But he’s dead right – this really was a great decade to bask in the flickering glow of the Cathode Ray Gun, ushering in a new Golden Age of Television. The world outside our doors and beyond our borders may be plummeting straight to Hell in a flaming, wobbly-wheeled shopping cart, but when it comes to drama on the small screen, things have rarely been better.

Although the kill-your-television crowd would rather belly-crawl naked across fifty yards of broken glass than admit such heresy, it’s true*. As Goodman points out –- and much as it pains me to admit -- most of the best stuff is now produced by cable networks, and has been for a while. The astonishing quality of the premier cable offerings forced some broadcast networks to raise the level of their own game (ie: “Lost”), while others (most notably NBC, which has been spiraling into the abyss ever since Jeff Zucker took the reins) panicked and made some seriously stupid decisions.**

You might quibble with Goodman’s choices, but it’s hard to argue with the overall lineup he’s assembled. With seven of his top ten now over and done, only three shows remain in production, but I’m not worried about a sudden crashing end to this New Golden Age. Cable is only just beginning to come into its own, showing the rest of the Industry how good TV can be when the suits get the hell out of the way and allow the right creative people to take wing.  I think there’s a lot a lot of great cable television in our collective future.

Unfortunately, this decade-long upwelling of excellent cable dramas has been golden for critics and viewers only -- those of us forced by circumstance to work on cable shows get stuck with cable-rate paychecks, which typically means doing 120% of the work for 80% of the money compared to a broadcast network show.  I hate this -- all of us who do the heavy lifting below decks hate this -- but for the moment, it's the new reality.  In this economy, everyone but Wall Street bankers is taking it in the shorts, and Hollywood is no exception.  At this point, many of us feel fortunate to get any work at all, even at the cable rate.

At least when we get home there's a decent chance of finding something worth watching on the Toob...

Will cable eventually over-reach, grow top-heavy, and produce a series of thundering bombs? Probably. Ever since Adam and Eve shared a bite of that apple, screwing up a good thing has been an integral part of the human experience, but I think it’ll take a while for the current flowering of quality-over-quantity to run its course, be co-opted, cheapened, and ultimately turn to shit. Dust to dust, as they say -- what goes up really does come back down eventually -– but for the time being, quality television is alive and well on cable in this New Golden Age. With a little luck, we might even get another ten great years. And who knows, maybe even the broadcast networks will somehow manage to get their shit together and come up with a slate of programs actually worth watching.

Miracles do sometimes happen.

Now if only those of us who do the heavy lifting could get paid union scale on cable shows instead of getting the cable-rate shaft -- that would truly be a miracle worth praying for...

* I’ve no problem with anyone who refuses to watch TV, so long as they don’t wear this vow of Toobal abstinence as a badge of personal virtue. If it makes you happy to strap on the cultural hair-shirt, fine -- just don't let the subsequent itching lure you into the Valley of Smugness and Moral Superiority. Those who sneer at TV because they think it's all crap quite literally don't know what they're talking about -- since they won't watch, how would they know?  I won't argue that most of what's on television isn't a steaming pile -- it is, and our modern 500 channel world remains a carnival of crass vulgarity -- but quality shows of all kinds are there for anyone willing to seek them out. Those who won't make that effort, yet persist in turning their noses up at the medium as a whole, reveal themselves to be as lazy as they are ignorant.

**  Exhibit A: the new Jay Leno show...


nahiyan said...

To quote one commenter from the Goodman article "I am proud to claim that I have never seen any of these shows. Not even one." -hooter96158

That made me laugh for a good 5 minutes. Apart from a few personal quibbles about the order of the list (I wouldn't put The Shield that high up and BSG far too low), I have to agree with the sir Tim on his assertion.
When is the cable-union agreement up? Does it not have an expiry date?

Michael Taylor said...

Nahiyan --

I saw that comment too -- what a maroon. Why is a proud (read: smug) TV hater even reading Goodman's blog and columns in the first place?

I'm with you on "The Shield." It had its moments, and the finale was undeniably great, but I never could get into the flow of the regular season. I just popped in and out every few weeks to see what was happening. The intentionally crappy production values -- all that grain, the overexposures, the absurdly kinetic camera -- just put me off, but there's no denying "Shield" blazed new territory for cable and police dramas, and deserves a spot in TV history. Personally, I liked BSG a lot better, even if the ending left much to be desired...

As it's been explained to me -- the cable deal came in with HBO back in its very early days. To keep production in the US, the IA agreed to a sidebar deal with reduced hourly rates and longer working hours (14 hours worked before double-time kicks in) to induce the then-fledgling cable network to shoot at home rather than in Canada or overseas. I've no problem with that -- HBO was just getting started, with a minuscule market share and a lot to prove. Unfortunately, there was no "sunset clause" included in the agreement, meaning the cable deal has no expiration date. So now, with HBO pulling in somewhere between 15 and 30 million subscribers every year (depending whose figures you believe), HBO is no longer a 98 pound weakling getting sand kicked in its face by the big bad network bullies. Quite the opposite -- and at $15/month per subscriber, do the math: they're rolling in dough.

For reasons I can only guess at, our union reps have thus far been unwilling to reopen and renegotiate the cable deal -- and now, with the Industry reeling under the forces of the economic recession and the digital revolution, there's even less motivation for them to do so. Their line to us is, essentially, "you're lucky to be working at all."

Maybe they're right. But it still sucks.