Is the era of quality TV dead?

It’s been called the second golden age of TV. Led by premium channels and streaming services, the last 5-7 years have seen a massive increase in so-called “quality TV.” While the 2000s gave us a steady stream of well-regarded hits, they rarely came more than one or two at a time. Of late, there are so many great shows that it seems almost like a chore trying to find time to watch them all. The performances are deeply layered, the scripts are of high quality, and the moments of laughter and sorrow are so genuine that it seems like you’re literally living your life through these characters.

There is some sign that the well is drying up. Looking at last month’s Emmys, we saw once again a return to the predictable form of giving awards to performers and shows that are long-standing hits rather than rookie successes. Even Transparent which won awards for season one, is really coming around into a second year with the new season available fairly shortly.

The big concern with quality TV is that it’s expensive; high-priced actors, special effects, top writing staffs and great production value all cost money. The latest trend to hit, almost silently, is super-cheap, super-easy comfort TV. Netflix leads the way here with smart sitcoms and remakes (sometimes continuations) of old favorites. Shows like Fuller House are likely to capture just as much attention in the short term but they’re a lot easier for a network to afford.

Could it be that we’ve just lost our taste for long-form storytelling? After all it does seem like keeping up with all those stories takes a lot of time and sometimes we just want to sit down for a little easy chuckletude. There’s a certain nostalgia now for episodic television, where you didn’t need to keep up. You learned everything you needed to learn in a single episode and if you missed one you could just keep going. Half the time you didn’t even need to tune in on time.

Yes, as much as I’ve enjoyed all the really deep, dark drama that’s been on TV, as much as the soapy machinations of presidents, agents and zombie hunters have kept me enthralled, I’m most likely not to pick up another new heavy-duty contender. I’m not terribly interested in Bloodline, but I sure do enjoy The Muppets. I’ve never been much for totally trashy TV but a little funny goes a long way at the end of the day. Of course, it goes without saying that by eliminating situation comedies from their lineup, NBC once again missed the boat here.

Right now, the demand for easy episodic television is largely served by the huge back catalog of 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s TV available on Netflix, Hulu, and Crackle, but obviously those giants have already seen that it’s necessary to create new “mindless drivel” and have started churning out stuff like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt which, while smart and funny, is still largely episodic and can be caught without a major commitment to time or memory. Shows like that are cheap to make and really, some days… that’s all I want to see anyway.

What about you?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.