The Golden Age of “Good Enough” TV

Though there are some who would still embrace the rhetoric of the “Golden Age of Television” for marketing purposes, we all know that that storied era is over. If there was any question about it, the conclusion of Mad Men — part of the undisputedly canonical Big Three that also includes The Sopranos and The Wire — dispels any ambiguity. While we might dispute whether a particular show belonged to the classic “high-quality cable drama” genre as established by The Sopranos, no currently running show belongs in that category.

And you know what? That’s okay. The final season of Mad Men reminds us how exhausting the “high-quality cable drama” can be — how much pressure there is to watch, to have an opinion, to be up to date on the online dialogue. You probably felt many things when that Coke commercial came to an end, but the emotion you should have been feeling is captured in a timeless Don Draper line: “That’s relief.” Freed from the burden of High Art Television, we can finally get back to enjoying Good Enough Television — a genre that is truly entering into its own golden age.

It was High Art Television that made the blossoming of Good Enough Television possible. First, there were the aesthetic innovations — the greater artistic ambition on the level of the visual experience (more creative shots, lighting, experimental dream and hallucination sequences, etc.), the greater range of acceptable subject matter (including but not limited to supposedly “edgy” themes), the focus on very specific geographical regions (New Jersey, Baltimore) or milieux (the culture of advertising) as opposed to the generic “suburbs or New York City” format of most previous TV. All of those experiments have born their fruit in the Good Enough Television of today, and the result is more visually interesting television that has more room to explore. Second, there are the commercial innovations, above all the explosion in competition to produce original dramatic content among cable networks. Even AMC may never be able to recapture the cachet AMC once enjoyed, but it has given birth to a number of “middle-brow” cable networks (FX) as well as more mass-produced content (USA).

Against all odds, some of these benefits have even accrued to the traditional networks. For me, The Good Wife is the ultimate Good Enough show — attractive people in an attractive setting, with a plot that (with rare missteps, like Khalinda’s husband) keeps moving you along and sometimes even manages to trick you into thinking that you’re pondering an actual idea. There’s a reason we all marathoned the whole thing when it was first released on Hulu, and that’s because it gives us all the beautifully packaged #pureideology we crave from television at its best.

6 Responses to “The Golden Age of “Good Enough” TV”

  1. Anime Kotsko Says:

    Though there are some who would still embrace the rhetoric of the “Golden Age of Anime” for marketing purposes, we all know that that storied era is over. If there was any question about it, the conclusion of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders — part of the undisputedly canonical Big Three that also includes Code Geass and Neon Genesis Evangelion — dispels any ambiguity. While we might dispute whether a particular show belonged to the classic “high-quality anime drama” genre as established by Neon Genesis Evangelion, no currently running show belongs in that category.

    And you know what? That’s okay. The final season of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders reminds us how exhausting the “high-quality anime drama” can be — how much pressure there is to watch, to have an opinion, to be up to date on the online dialogue. You probably felt many things when that Dio fight came to an end, but the emotion you should have been feeling is captured in a timeless Daniel J D’arby line: “GOOD.” Freed from the burden of High Art Anime, we can finally get back to enjoying Good Enough Anime— a genre that is truly entering into its own golden age.

    It was High Art Anime that made the blossoming of Good Enough Anime possible. First, there were the aesthetic innovations — the greater artistic ambition on the level of the visual experience (more creative shots, lighting, experimental dream and hallucination sequences, etc.), the greater range of acceptable subject matter (including but not limited to supposedly “edgy” themes), the focus on very specific geographical regions (Area 11, Egypt) or milieux (The fashion-conscious eighties) as opposed to the generic “small town or Tokyo” format of most previous anime. All of those experiments have born their fruit in the Good Enough Anime of today, and the result is more visually interesting television that has more room to explore. Second, there are the commercial innovations, above all the explosion in competition to produce original dramatic content among anime studios. Even Madhouse may never be able to recapture the cachet Madhouse enjoyed, but it has given birth to a number of “middle-brow” anime studios (Trigger) as well as more mass-produced content (David Productions).

    Against all odds, some of these benefits have even accrued to the traditional anime. For me, Hunter X Hunter is the ultimate Good Enough show — attractive people in an attractive setting, with a plot that (with rare missteps, like Greed Island) keeps moving you along and sometimes even manages to trick you into thinking that you’re pondering an actual idea. There’s a reason we all marathoned the whole thing when it was first released on Crunchyroll, and that’s because it gives us all the beautifully packaged #pureideology we crave from anime at its best.

  2. bob mcmanus Says:

    anime kotsko made me laugh. jojo?

    All kidding aside, I am very happy with my decision a couple years back to abandon mainstream tv and move to arthouse movies (currently films of Marguerite Duras) and anime. 90% is dreck (although with moments of actual art); but the auteurist 10% that the economics make possible once or twice a quarterly season is leaps and bounds superior, visually and thematically, to the best of Golden Age TV. Yes, it’s all allegory and fairy tales…but the anti-realism, the cognitive estrangement, is the point. (I also have about 40 years of material to choose from)

    Ping Pong and Yuri Kuma Arashi, available by streaming, each about 4 hours of your time. Or not. Or read an online review.

  3. Daniel Says:

    I want Anime Kotsko to be a running thing. (But Code Geass? Really? Not Sunrise’s best show, and not a trend setter in the way that Eva was. Kyoto Animation is surely the AMC analogue here; Haruhi really was striking when it first aired (the episodes were out of order! the animation was cinema-quality!) but now the animation quality is par for the course, and nothing structurally as ambitious as Haruhi has been done since. KyoAni themselves surely jumped the shark with “Endless Eight”, where two thirds of Haruhi’s second season was the same boring episode repeated eight times with different directors… or maybe it was already a bad portent when the Haruhi episodes were reordered chronologically for the DVD release. But the decline between KyoAni’s run from Haruhi to K-On!! to the doldrums of Tamago Market and Free! is comparable to AMC’s current status as “the home of The Walking Dead, which is somehow still on, and nothing else you’ve heard of”. And the anime parallel breaks down entirely when you look at ufotable, who are literally doing cinema animations for weekly shows now. Unlimited Blade Works was just gorgeous.)

    On the other Kotsko: I wonder how much of the shift from the “golden age” to “good enough TV” is linked to basic cable becoming a competitor to HBO and Showtime etc. when it comes to dramas. The basic cable shows are by definition going to be easier to watch: part of why you put a show on a premium channel is to be able to show people stuff you can’t get away with on basic, and the premium cable audience wants to feel like they’re watching something basic cable wouldn’t be able to provide, which leans towards more experimental and cinematic shows. (“It’s not cable. It’s HBO.”) Having “premium cable drama” shows on basic cable as competition pushes the premium channels to be gratuitously “shocking” in the way that “Game of Thrones” is, which pushes their quality down. I think “Mad Men” is an outlier because, despite being on basic cable, it clearly didn’t care about being easy to watch. I feel like “Breaking Bad” really has to be an important part of whatever exactly has gone on in this transition, but I’m not sure how the story should go.

    “Yuri Kuma Arashi” is very bear. I liked “Mawaru Penguindrum” more. These shows have fun names. Lesbian bear explosion!

  4. bob mcmanus Says:

    I wasn’t going to continue, but I had to come back to say that many many people think that Kyoani’s Hibike Euphonium from last season is an “Indisputable technical masterpiece” and a major comeback. Spoilers don’t matter it isn’t about much and what’s there is entirely predictable, but the art and animation, cinematography, BGM etc just astounded the audience. I just read several thousand words over at Reddit on the creation of “mood” I’ll just quote an anonymous comment without linking:

    “KyoAni really out did themselves with this show. It is simply a cinematic treat packed with insane levels of detail. From the use of depth of field, lighting and shot angle, chromatic aberration, bloom, lens flare, fluid dynamics and reflection KyoAni spared nothing to make this show an indisputable technical masterpiece. What most people will be surprised about is that all the instruments are CG. Adding to the fact that absolutely nothing ever stays still in their shots, I absolutely adore this show.”

  5. bob mcmanus Says:

    Upon further reading and reflection, it is very unfair to say Hibike! Euphonium “isn’t about much.” HE is a serious examination of, among other things, individualism/collectivism/hierarchy in the context of a Japanese HS concert brass band, as performed by a mostly female membership at the emotional intersection of bodies and tools/instruments. Whew.

  6. Daniel Says:

    I assumed it was just K-On! with tubas. I’ll give it a watch.


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