Golden age of TV gets even brighter

BACK around the mid-noughties, some social gatherings began to take on the air of a strange self-help group. “We did four last night,” somebody would confess.

Golden age of TV gets even brighter

“Kieran said he was just going down to the loo, but he didn’t come back for three hours,” shared another. Floodgates would open for further tales of all-night sessions, neglected chores, and abandoned children. Of obsessions with Stringer Bell, Tony Soprano, or the fate of the 101st Airborne.

The age of boxset binges had arrived. The Wire, The Sopranos, and Band of Brothers were TV shows, but we weren’t happy hanging around for a whole week to watch one. Like a favourite crisp, they just tasted better when consumed in heaps. Once you pop you can’t stop.

A golden age of quality US shows had combined with technology — the DVD — to provide a whole new viewing experience. Obviously, studios and programme-makers had to take notice, and as bandwidths and streaming services improved, the evolution of this experience continues to the point where you might as well drag your knuckles along the ground if you’re still getting up to stick a DVD in the player.

In particular, this has been a breakthrough year for Netflix. House of Cards with Kevin Spacey is up for nine Emmy awards, while the streaming service’s latest original offering, Orange Is The New Black, is also attracting new subscribers and piles of praise.

Being able watch as many episodes as you want in one sitting is all very fine, but the content has to be good enough to tempt us back for more. How do they do it? The big buzz in TV-land at the moment is about serials. Instead of the self-contained episodes of bygone eras, shows such as Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Love/Hate focus on a long linear narrative, often with big plot developments near the end of an episode so we just have to tune in next week.

“I’ve always said that I don’t see my show as serialised so much as hyperserialised,” Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, told Newsweek. “That is something that, honestly, I wouldn’t have been allowed to do 10 or 15 years ago.”

For programme-makers the formula involves a careful balance of a story arcs that can stretch for a whole season and longer, while also providing enough dramatic developments in each episode to propel the plot forward. Carlton Cuse, an executive producer and showrunner on Lost, was one of the pioneers of this approach.

“The audience has so many choices and so many places to go that they won’t wait,” he explained to Newsweek. “So as a storyteller you can’t hold back. You have to spend your bullets quicker and sooner. The event that used to be the series finale better happen by episode six now or your show might be dead.”

The job of ‘showrunner’ has emerged as a new post in TV to suit such developments. Often combining the work of writer, executive producer, and script editor, it’s not a position that’s used much in this country. The closest that Irish TV has to such a figure is Stuart Carolan of Love/Hate. Though he works closely with RTÉ and a wider team, the hit crime drama is very much his baby.

“You’d also find that with Vince Gilligan at Breaking Bad and David Chase with The Sopranos, explains Jane Gogan, head of drama at RTÉ. “All those dramas have big ideas at the very core of them, and the writers/creators are the people who drive what that story is about.”

Another aspect Love/Hate has in common with some of the big US dramas is that it provides us with a classic anti-hero. Nidge joins the likes of Omar, Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Al Swearengen as the sort of person you love to watch on TV but wouldn’t want your sister to go out with.

“Nidge has so many aspects of his life that are relatable,” says Gogan of the ruthless gang leader. “His relationships, the protection of his family, his encounters with schools and hospitals… all these things that we all deal with. And then he’s also in a very interesting place on the moral spectrum.”

Ironically, given Nidge’s profession, Love/Hate and other shows can indeed be attractive because they give us a quick hit of feeling good for a little while. This drug-like effect has been compared to that of a relaxing tranquilliser by researchers Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Viewers’ vague learned sense that they will feel less relaxed if they stop viewing may be a significant factor in not turning the set off. Viewing begets more viewing,” they say.

How all this is going to play out is anyone’s guess. Presumably, technology will again impact the content being offered, and there is much discussion on how second screens such as smartphones or tablets will be used to complement the show you’re viewing. A more interactive viewing experience may also allow you to stick with certain characters or follow particular storylines that the ‘main’ show skips over.

David Benioff, showrunner for Game of Thrones, speculates that some day we might even merge television viewing and video-game playing — “So you’re taking control of a certain character and making decisions for her.”

In the meantime, pull those curtains, block out the sun, and kick back with an episode or six.

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