Recently, David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, said he believes the Golden Age of TV is over. The drama that followed mob boss Tony Soprano alongside his family and work life recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, but Chase didn’t see much to smile about. Instead, he thinks the anniversary should instead be seen more as a “funeral” for ambitious, so-called peak television. Like Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, that first season of True Detective (probably for the best we won’t talk about the others).
Chase is one of the most highly regarded creators in television history, and for many TV viewers, The Sopranos is still one of, if not the best show ever put on our small screens. So all of Chase’s woes got me thinking. Are we really leaving the Golden Age of TV, or is there more to come?
To look at this properly, we will have to travel back in time and see what The Sopranos meant at the time of its release. Now I didn’t watch The Sopranos until recently, but it’s clear to see when you compare it to the other series at the time that it opened the gateway for cutting-edge shows that demanded more of their audience. You can’t just turn on The Sopranos after a hard day’s work and leave your mind numb; It would do a disservice to the excellent writing and performances of these gangsters. They are mostly terrible people, and yet I found myself several times with my head in my hands wondering why these mobsters can’t just get along. It’s the same heartbreaking experience I’ve had watching Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, Succession, the first seasons of Game of Thrones.
Many of those shows probably wouldn’t exist without The Sopranos, but fortunately we live in a timeline where they do. So how can the Golden Age of TV be dead, when we have consistently seen shows of similar quality released in the 25 years since Tony Soprano first walked into his therapist’s office? Well, Chase believed that this Golden Age could not last forever, and now that most of those shows have come to an end, we will see less of their quality over time.
That’s not to say that high-quality, ambitious shows won’t exist. The White Lotus and The Bear come to mind as incredible shows capable of really demanding more from an audience. But even if these prestige programs are still kicking, they are now fighting for viewers in a different world. Streaming is often seen as the great enemy of thought-provoking film and TV. That is not to say there is nothing good on streamers. Stranger Things, especially in its first season, was a must-see show, and Amazon’s The Boys continues to impress audiences with its cynical take on a real world full of superheroes. I think the main criticism of streaming platforms is not that they never put out anything good, but that they increasingly create content intended to be as digestible as possible. It’s better to make sure you involve as many people as possible, even if that means turning away from those who want more. Looking at something like Netflix’s The Witcher, or the later seasons of Stranger Things, there isn’t much that isn’t explicitly explained to you in the dialogue. Making theories might as well be a dead art within these shows, since most “theories” these days are just people explaining the plot. It’s not just streamers who are guilty of this. Game of Thrones in its later seasons stopped delivering incredible monologues and moments that made you think this fantasy world was entirely real and instead focused on creating as many dragon scenes as possible to cater to the people who watched the series on big pub screens and booed every time they thought they caught the word Dracary’s.
The ambition, the audacity, it feels like it can be lacking sometimes, because even though we have shows where these things exist, they are fighting like never before to stay relevant. In a Twitter bubble, it’s easy to think that these kinds of shows dominate the world, but looking at ratings, it’s clear that people’s investment in weekly, prestige drama isn’t as strong as it used to be. At the height of its popularity, The Sopranos drew an audience of about 12 million people a week. Looking at the latest episode of Succession, for example, the ending of Jesse Armstrong’s brilliantly detailed story drew 2.9 million viewers when it premiered. Of course, as mentioned, the world is different now. We all have instant access to hundreds of TV shows and can watch whatever we want, whenever we want. You don’t have to wait for commercial breaks to pee or make a snack for yourself, you don’t have to watch something when it’s convenient, and yet much TV today still beats Succession.
The absolute comedy slop fest that is The Big Bang Theory drew a whopping 17.31 million average viewers per episode. That’s beating peak Sopranos by a mile. Now that viewership has dropped and streaming “content” is taking over, does this mean the prestige drama is officially dead? Well, no, not really. I think David Chase could be right in one respect. It is unlikely that we will see any solid, ambitious drama for some time, aside from the few we already have going on, but there will always be one or two TV shows for audiences who want to pay attention. They may not be the most successful in terms of viewers, but they will have an audience, and there will always be someone who wants to write an award-winning, engaging series, because who wouldn’t?
The only downside is that I’m not sure we’ll ever see anything on appointment again. Not in the way The Sopranos was, not in the way Breaking Bad made you want to see that last episode as soon as possible or risk the wrath of your friends and colleagues. Everybody is watching something else these days. They’re catching up on an old series, or even if they catch something new, it’s not even likely to be the same series as you. No matter how I try, I have yet to convince anyone at team Gamereactor to watch Succession, but my efforts will continue.
In any case, I think we only need one. A really great show to raise its head over the slop. As someone who tries to watch The Sopranos and have his partner finally experience Breaking Bad, I can tell you that there is a limit to how much prestige drama you can tolerate. Maybe in a few years I’ll long for series like this, but for now I still hold out hope that even if we don’t live in a Golden Age, we can still find a little gold in our TV shows from time to time.