Probably the best illustration of television’s place in the culture at the beginning of this decade are the routes taken by its most prominent auteurs to the field.
David Chase, the creator, head writer, and executive producer of The Sopranos, settled for a career in television when he was unable to break into film; when Fox didn’t pick up the pilot, Chase planned to re-edit it and release the first episode as a film. Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, was a screenwriter for plays and films; The West Wing was actually developed from unused plot elements from his script for 1995’s The American President. Joss Whedon, creator of cult hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and others, originally wrote Buffy as a film. Friday Night Lights, of course, was developed loosely from the film—and book—of the same name.
And, of course, David Simon and Ed Burns, the creative duo behind The Wire (as well as The Corner, Homicide, and Generation Kill) came directly from the subject matter they would be writing on: Simon as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun and Burns as a homicide detective, and later a school teacher, in Baltimore.
In short, good TV was something that seemed to happen by accident. Accidentally or not, though, the television produced during the Aughts was better than anything that came before it.
A lot of factors combined to cause the creative leap that television took this decade: the proliferation of pay cable, a pool of talented writers and producers in the medium, the gradual breaking up of traditional network models, the medium’s acceptance as a legitimate source of art, etc. The best way to sum it up, however, is that people like Chase, Simon, Sorkin, Whedon, Matthew Weiner, J.J. Abrams, Peter Berg, and so many others, whether TV was their original goal or not, figured out how to take the medium to new heights of artistic expression.
It’s not as if the TV of the 1990s was bad. The ’90s, after all, saw two of the best comedies of all-time—Seinfeld and The Simpsons—as well as critically acclaimed dramas like ER, NYPD Blue, and Chicago Hope. Even The Sopranos, arguably the best television show of all time, debuted in 1999 and always remained, in many ways, essentially a ’90s show. TV’s ascendancy predates the Aughts, but this was the decade in which television that was smart, well-written, and well-acted went from being a rare exception to a new standard.
A lot of that can be attributed to The Sopranos. I’ve already gone over what was so great about the first season of The Sopranos in creative terms, but maybe just as important is what the show did for television in general. For one, it ushered in the halcyon days of HBO; between 1999 and 2004, HBO premiered The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood—four shows often included in discussions of the greatest series of all time—as well as such miniseries as Band of Brothers, The Corner, and Angels in America.
In addition to the quality programs HBO aired, The Sopranos put cable TV as a whole on the map. Cable television was formerly the home of reruns, niche programming, and cheaply produced TV. Imagining the television landscape without cable now, though, is like imagining movies without sound. Cable—both premium and basic—produces some of the most original, groundbreaking television, including Mad Men, The Shield, Dexter, Rescue Me, and plenty of others. Since cable networks are not bound to the same constraints as broadcast networks—constraints like traditional seasonal scheduling, having to appeal primarily to advertisers, higher ratings standards—shows on cable are often the most daring and inventive: They can be more violent, more sexually explicit, and more linguistically realistic than shows on network television.
But the increased quality of television this decade wasn’t limited to cable. If anything, the immense popularity of The Sopranos proved to networks that large audiences were willing to watch a show that was smart and gritty. Contrary to popular opinion, viewers didn’t like only formulaic, predictable procedurals; they could keep up with long plot threads. As a result, networks not only stopped shying away from complexity and dark subject matter but actually encouraged it.*
*Of course, complex and dark shows weren’t invented in the Aughts. Shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files were around in the 1990s. But Twin Peaks was cancelled after two seasons. The X-Files persisted for nine years, but began as a cult hit. Compare these shows, for example, with Lost—a series whose complexity has thousands of websites devoted to it—which has been one of the most popular shows on television since its debut.
The Sopranos was a symbolic moment for audiences—in that it lent the medium artistic credibility—and a telling moment for the industry—in that it demonstrated the possibilities of both cable television and less familiar stories. But it could have just as easily been the exception that proved the rule–the one bright spot in a perpetual abyss of mind-numbing programming. What prevented that and allowed for a more general and sustained qualitative leap, however, was the growth of the serial format.
Serialization, of course, was not new to television, having existed since soap operas made the transition from radio to TV. Most scripted shows had always had varying degrees of its story serialized. The Aughts, however, saw the full embrace of serialization and its use for powerful dramatic ends.
The dangers of serialization had always been that audiences wouldn’t be able to keep up with a story. Or that if they missed one episode, they’d be unable to catch up with the series. Instead, shows stuck with, for the most part, telling complete stories in each episode. Occasionally shows would introduce a two-parter, or a muli-episode arc, but generally they would stick with one plot per episode. It’s no accident that almost every one-hour drama on TV during the 1990s was either a legal, criminal, or medical procedural, or a primetime soap opera; these are genres in which a variation on the same story can be done for every single episode.
Eventually, though, writers started to realize that the most compelling parts of these procedurals were the elements of the story that persisted through each episode. A show like NYPD Blue was known for its treatment of police officers as real people, enriching their characters from episode to episode.
Procedurals still exist, of course, but they are now accompanied by a wide range of shows that specialize in their ability to sustain a story over a full season. 24 was probably the first show where the season-long arc was the primary draw for viewers. The suspense sustained and accumulated throughout the season brought viewers back for each episode. Shows like Lost, Desperate Housewives, Heroes, and Dexter became adept at ending each episode with a cliffhanger.
Serializing to facilitate suspense was a key trend of this decade in television: It allowed genres like Thrillers, Mysteries, and Sci-Fi (or SyFy, as the network is now annoyingly spelled) to do things on television that they could never do in movies, since movies generally tell one self-contained story. But if suspense were the only element added by serialization, then TV never would have attained the status of high art that it did this decade.
What truly Great Shows started to see during the Aughts was that serialization allowed television to employ a kind of storytelling that was novelistic, and even epic. It has often been pointed out that Charles Dickens wrote in a serialized format, and the similarities are telling: Modern show-runners, like Dickens, view each installment as a piece of a larger puzzle, but also as a complete piece in and of itself that keeps the audience engaged; show-runners, like Dickens, are willing to gauge an audience’s response to certain characters and developments, and incorporate their findings into future stories; show-runners, like Dickens, understand that dumbed-down writing and broad jokes and stories are not the only way to appeal to a wide audience.
This novelistic style allowed certain shows to create large and rich worlds, in the style of Victorian novels. Episodes were part of a larger story–one that grew to include characters, themes and stories that were far-reaching, vibrant, and relevant to a modern audience, and not mere escapism or predictable melodrama. Look, for example, at the way The Sopranos, originally just a story about Tony Soprano, grew to vividly illustrate his entire family and all of his associates, doing so in a way that allowed the show to cover stories from the college admissions process to gays in the Mafia.
The best example of a show that used its serial format to tell a story epic in scope is The Wire, the prize jewel in TV’s artistic crown. If there are any remaining skeptics of television’s ability to produce beautiful and poignant work, then they haven’t seen The Wire. The Wire is the greatest work of art to emerge in the Aughts, regardless of the medium. And part of what makes the show so great is that it perfectly utilized its medium: The Wire could not be a movie—its story is too grand. It could not be a novel—the visual element is too important. It could not be a play—too many scenes are nonverbal. And yet nothing feels extraneous or wasted. Unlike other shows, even shows of the quality of The Sopranos or Mad Men, none of the stories are uninteresting or irrelevant; it does not feel padded or built around any fluff. Every episode has an arc of its own while remaining integral to an overall story that is more important and has an even bigger emotional and intellectual payoff.
What’s important about The Wire—and Mad Men and Lost and The Sopranos and so many other shows from this decade—is that its format and medium is so important to its success. They were not good in spite of the fact that they were on TV, but because they were on TV. And this is a necessary step for a medium to become an artform. People don’t think Hamlet is good “for a play,” or The Brothers Karamazov is good “for a novel,” or The Godfather is good “for a movie”; those things are just good.
And the truly great works of television that have been produced this decade are works of art on par with those works. The characters on Mad Men are just as rich, the dialogue on The Sopranos is just as witty and realistic, the portrait of the world on The Wire is just as incisive and important, as those offered by a novel by Dickens (or Hemingway, or Faulkner, or plenty of other novelists).
Of course, most TV still sucks. But so do most movies, most books, and most plays. What’s important is that TV has now come into its own. TV clearly can, and does, produce great works. People can make good TV and people will watch (they don’t always, but they usually do). And now, at the end of the Aughts, people are even making great TV on purpose.