The New Dark Age in Popular Culture
- Friday, August 24, 2012
It's both the best and worst of times for American entertainment, particularly television. The last ten years have seen many of the best shows in the medium's history, what some are calling a new golden age. If this is so, it's a very dark shade of gold as these stories challenge the longtime sensibility of television as escapism that appeals to the lowest common denominator.
A culture's stories usually reflect the times and public mood and the last ten years have included a war on terror, followed by prolonged economic uncertainty. Film and television storytellers reflected this in a new frankness and creativity. But for those who can tolerate the intensity, never has darkness been so compelling as we're offered stories that challenge us to ponder the human condition while riveting us to the screen.
Mostly what I'm considering is television (we'll get to film shortly), the medium of the masses that must attract and hold an audience through the four or five commercial breaks an hour in a hugely crowded programming schedule on hundreds of channels. Most network television, historically a great revenue source for the corporations that own them, have prospered with formula programming such as the many popular crime procedurals, sitcoms, talent and reality shows. This entertainment ethic usually offers scripted narratives with the safe and comforting content that engages viewers, with few challenges.
Dependably happy endings with heroic characters defeating bad ones help us feel that there is some order in a crazy world, even if it doesn't usually accord with the complexity of real life. Americans have always been generally optimistic and our most popular movies and television tend to be more upbeat than other countries'. But for the last thirty years, that broadcast network audience (including ABC, NBC, CBS, CW and Fox) has shrunk considerably because of the vast growth of the cable channel universe offering more diverse programming. Here, unbound by the same FCC restrictions on content, there has been greater latitude in creating series that push the limits of most broadcast TV content.
The watershed event that I believe instigated the creative surge of the last ten years was of course, 9/11: the nation watched as our greatest city and the headquarters of our armed forces was attacked and thousands died in the coordinated attacks. A new national sense of vulnerability was the result. It took a couple of years for this to cycle through the entertainment industry (although one series, 24, was ahead of the curve, already in production and played into our immediate concerns about national security in the age of terror). Several series arrived in the wake of the our new consciousness:
Battlestar Galactica: Ronald D. Moore's science fiction epic followed the remnants of a human civilization nearly destroyed by a robotic enemy, driven by religious zeal to destroy the human society that had created it. Possessing a more grown-up sensibility than the Star Trek franchise Moore once worked on, the grim series regularly posed the question of what a civilized society must do to fight evil without losing its soul.
Lost: Another series based around survivors of a catastrophe who search for meaning in the midst of a mysterious environment where unknown Others are out to kill them. The hit series explored themes of community, destiny and faith in unprecedented ways.
Rescue Me: A New York fireman struggles to keep it together after the deaths of his fellow firemen on 9/11 in this FX series starring Dennis Leary.
Person of Interest: The CBS series, created by The Dark Knight co-writer Jonathan Nolan, addresses issues of security and privacy, as two techno-vigilantes use an all-knowing surveillance computer that predicts murders, to prevent the crime before it happens. In the first season, its two heroes faced the kickback unleashed by their extra-legal activities as they are sought by both criminals and law enforcement.
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