“Please don’t tell anyone this, but I want to be happy.” –Hannah Horvath, “Girls”
It’s always a dangerous thing to make grand, sweeping statements about epochs of pop culture. For every example you can offer up supporting your argument, there are as many (if not more) counterexamples there to prove you wrong. But the fun thing about discussing pop culture is that you rarely actually hurt anyone when making such bold declarations. Nations don’t go to war over outlandish statements. Only comment boards do. There are times at which the former seems preferable to the latter, but those are few and far between.
But the events last Monday here in Boston have me feeling bold. This is after making me feel numb, then bored, then scared, then confused, and then another dozen or so dizzying shifts in attitude that have landed me here in front of my keyboard. It wasn’t just that knowing how quickly things can change in a heartbeat suddenly prompted me to finally expunge what’s been percolating in my brain. Rather, it’s the way in which certain events reveal just how slow change actually occurs, and thus it’s difficult to see changes that move at the relative speed of continental drift. And it’s important when a instance of illumination occurs to document what’s actually shown in that briefest of moments. So it’s time to write things down before they, like the all too acute fear in the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, soon dissipate.
Last Fall, in his preview for the second season of Showtime’s “Homeland,” Grantland’s Andy Greenwald suggested that show represented not simply the end of the recent, so-called recent “Golden Age” of television but in fact represented the first salvo in the “Silver Age” of the medium. Part of that had to do with the show’s surprising number of Emmy wins over such stalwarts of the Golden Age such as “Breaking Bad”. But part of it also had to do with the show being a critically-acclaimed drama without the biggest common thread amongst many shows of the previous era: the anti-hero male figure at the center, with whom the audience was supposed to be simultaneously revolted by yet inexorably drawn towards. Nicholas Brody may not have been the hero everyone except Carrie Matheson assumed he was. But he also wasn’t cut from the same cloth as Tony Soprano, Walter White, or Don Draper.
What I propose is that we take Greenwald’s Silver Age as an entity that consists not only of “Homeland,” but a host of other shows that simultaneously already fall into it. It’s not easy to see how all of them fit into a singular age, because 1) they don’t have an easily identifiable thread connecting them, such as “male anti-hero”, and 2) they come in the wake of other golden age shows that pushed the boundaries outwards to allow for this current crop to exist in the first place. (Shorter version: It’s far easier to be the show that follows “The Shield” than to be “The Shield”.) But the real reason why it’s difficult to categorize the disparate types of shows that make up this Silver Age is that half of them are at odds with the other. And it was only in trying to hold onto hope in the week after seeing smoke float into the sky from mere blocks from the Boston Marathon explosion did I understand that friction didn’t negate the existence of the Silver Age. In fact, that friction verified it.
In short: programs that make up the Silver Age of Television force viewers to grapple with the same question many asked while trying to make sense of the Boston Marathon bombings: Is the pursuit of happiness worth it, or is misery all we can expect? It’s as simple yet as complex as that. (See what I meant about grand, sweeping statements?)
Of course, most of us would like to side with happiness. But we also understand that happiness works more often as an ideal than a practical achievement. Small victories abound in everyday life, if you’re lucky. But even if you are, there are seemingly crushing forces against which no good will can seem to do much good. Those fears and concerns are reflected in a show like “The Walking Dead”, which literally offers no fucking hope for anyone to ever have a happy ending. Even if a walker doesn’t get to them, those few survivors can look forward to dying of old age and turning into a zombie anyways. And this is a show that, despite all this, is a ratings juggernaut. People can’t get enough of that show, because as Todd VanDerWerff noted a few weeks ago, the central protagonist in that show is death itself. A show about the relentless of mortality is a hit, even amongst those in the 18-49 demo for whom the Grim Reaper ostensibly won’t visit for quite some time.
(Is “The Walking Dead” as good as the shows that constitute the Golden Age? I would argue “not remotely,” but its preeminence in the current television field simply cannot be ignored. If the Golden Age was defined almost exclusively by quality, the Silver Age is defined as much by its cultural relevance and resonance.)
While “The Walking Dead” is the most death-driven show on TV right now, it’s far from the only one. “Game Of Thrones” is another immensely program that takes an almost perverse delight in making life as difficult as possible for all involved. Death lurks around every corner, and the best most can hope for in the world of Westeros is to die with some measure of dignity left intact. Everyone scrambles for control of The Iron Throne. Once upon it, they do everything in their power simply to stave off those who would claim it. Tens of thousands of relatively innocent men and women die in this game, with the show itself depicting dozens caught in its web. We cheer when Daenerys Stormborn orders her dragon to kill a slaver, which inspires The Unsullied to rise up and kill those who only recently sliced off their nipples for sport, but….I mean, LOOK at that sentence! That’s still some seriously dark shit. Moments of victory are still soaked in sacrifice.
More often that not, dramatic nihilism plays out the way it does on “Mad Men”, a show ultimately with one foot in each era. That’s appropriate, in some ways, as the long-running drama is all about transitions between eras and the difficulty some have in adjusting during that time. But as we get to the end of the show, the spectre of death, or at very least perpetual malaise and depression, hangs over the show the way a well-tailored suit hangs on Don’s shoulders. It looks fantastic, but it’s steeped in misery from head to toe. Is the ultimately point of “Mad Men” that happiness is an illusion, one that we sell to ourselves alongside cleaning products? Not necessarily, especially when it comes to its one potential beacon of light: Peggy Olson. But even Peggy isn’t guaranteed to come out of this rising like a phoenix as a beacon of optimism, progress, and the promise that life isn’t just a gradual slide into the meaningless grave.
Misery pervades drama, because it helps drive conflict. If people are unhappy with what they have, they will often try to fix that in order to create happiness. But many shows currently take the “Mad Men” approach and suggest that such pursuits ultimately fail. Why? Because it makes for a more “honest” approach to the stories they tell. I put “honest” there since part of the Silver Age is an increased insistence that there are equally honest stories that can be told from people pushing aside nihilism in favor of open-hearted earnestness. It’s about the unsexiest thing possible to portray, but that gives the shows that do something akin to a radical edge that no amount of zombie kills could ever hope to achieve. These shows don’t pretend like problems don’t exist, but refuse to show characters cowering in the face of them.
In this realm of shows, “Parks and Recreation” sits atop the heap. As of now, it has produced nearly five seasons of programming in which lead character Leslie Knope has singlehandedly gotten results through not only her own optimism, but by convincing those around her that her philosophy is a better force for change than pessimism. Many find fault with “Parks” for being “low stakes”, as if not having constant threats of diseases, mutilation, and assassination somehow makes this program a less important piece of cultural criticism. Shows that traverse in this particular part of the pop culture world don’t have easily digestible conflicts that make for good promotional ads, but do represent a strong, positive strain that exists in those watching alongside the impulses that wonder if any participation in the world is ultimately futile. If Andrew Lincoln is the face of unrelenting pain and misery, Leslie Knope is the beacon of possibility and self-actualization. To put this in terms related to one of my all-time favorite books: If The Silver Age Of Television was “The Stand,” you’d have “The Walking Dead” as Randall Flagg, and “Parks” as Mother Abigail.
“Dead” and “Parks” are the two origin points for the two circles of programming that overlap into the Venn diagram that visually represents the Silver Age. “Bob’s Burgers” and “The Middle” are two other shows that fit comfortably in the optimism circle, both depicting lower-middle class families that encounter weekly problems but choose to face them as adversities to overcome rather than roadblocks preventing forward movement. A show like “Sons Of Anarchy” depicts weeks of hang-wringing that ends in a shocking, surprising bout of violence. But Gene Belcher and Sue Heck manage to avoid overthinking their problems, but instead approach them head on with a smile on their face and a determinism that puts most characters in purportedly premium dramas to shame.
The above circles are, by necessity, wildly incomplete. For each show mentioned above, you could throw in an additional half-dozen and would get little argument from me. But rather than talk about what other shows belong in those individual spheres, I want to start approaching the finish line here by talking about four shows in the overlap between those two circles. These are shows that represent the apex of the Silver Age because they wrestle equally with the angels and demons on proud display in the separate categories of optimism and pessimism. Those shows are “Louie,” “Girls,” “Justified,” and “Homeland”.
Four shows. Four word. But in those four words, we see a pretty amazing spectrum of what it means to be alive at this particular point in time. Hannah’s quote at the outset of this analysis sums up the struggle these shows depict quite succinctly: all four programs contain equally amounts of joy and despair, equal desire to see its characters to succeed while all too realistically depicting the ways in which they fail to achieve their goals. They are shows in which we want the characters depicted onscreen to somehow get their shit together, yet empathize each time they do not. But the key factor uniting all these shows? Each attempt to overcome one’s own limitations isn’t a carbon copy repetition of the last iteration, but rather a brand new attempt based on lessons previously learned. It’s achingly slow growth. But it’s growth all the same.
That type of growth isn’t always linear, and it isn’t always pretty, and it quite often looks like defeat. Anyone rooting for Carrie and Brody to continue being the only sane thing in an insane world would have a hard time seeing the end of “Homeland”’s second two as progress. But it was still necessary for that to happen, not just for the storytelling of the show but also their growth as individuals. Hannah slipped something fierce after telling Joshua that she actually wanted to be happy, but that doesn’t mean her reunion with Adam at the end of the season was the end point to her ultimate journey. Boyd Crowder sees his dreams apparently squashed at the end of the fourth season of “Justified,” but neither he nor Raylan Givens traverse in pure misery. Both see a light at the end of the tunnel. They just are fantastically good at tripping themselves up on the way towards it.
Ultimately, though, “Louie” sits at the epicenter of the Silver Age, the single show around which everything else orbits. All respect to Greenwald for putting the notion of the Silver Age in my brain, but “Louie”, not “Homeland,” is the show I’d point out to people looking for the origin of this new age. In its refusal to be one single thing, “Louie” went ahead and became everything. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s autobiography. It’s sociology. It’s profane. It’s profound. More than anything, however, it’s a philosophical inquiry into existence itself. Everything on “Louie” starts by asking an honest question to the universe, and then following the signals it emits back. Sometimes those paths lead to horrendously terrible outcomes. And the fictional version of Louis C.K. often gets beaten to within an inch of his psychological limits. But he, along with the show, never stops asking questions. Neither ever ceases to be fed up with the world, no matter how many bad replies they receive. And by staying open to the world, “Louie” opens itself up to us. To watch “Louie” is to receive “Louie”. The generosity onscreen pervades our pores until it changes us on an atomic level. It provides the opportunity to hope, even if it never guarantees it.
That’s the Silver Age distilled to its purest form: an act of investigation into the very meaning of existence itself. We all wonder about it ourselves, when we actually have a free moment to think about it. But most of our free time is spent not thinking, but watching television. Whether we know it or not, however, we have a slew of entertainment that’s helping us think as we watch. Our own hopes and fears are in the shows that constitute this Silver Age, reflecting the social energy that pervades 21st-century living. We’ve changed in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But we also changed after Newtown, Hurricane Sandy, and a host of other maladies stretching back to 9/11 and well beyond even that. We change, but we don’t. We’re still here, and trying to make sense of what that means. The best of the Silver Age of Television is trying to help us figure that out.