Yes, there was a Golden Age of Television in the 1950s. But was it the best age of television ever? Many have labeled the past decade the New (or Second) Golden Age of Television because it’s been so good. I would go as far as to say it’s the Better Golden Age of Television, or maybe the Platinum Age of Television. (Okay, so I thought I just made this up, but I decided to do a search just to be sure, and it turns out that others have been calling it this for a few years. Because of course.)
Sure, the 1950s were at the beginning, had nothing previous to go on, and had to be innovative in everything they did. There were some great shows for the time…but the “for the time” part is important. Nobody had ever seen anything like I Love Lucy or The Twilight Zone before that, and it was amazing. In fact, many of those shows still hold up, especially for those who view them with nostalgia or an eye for the context in which they were created. But were any of them really better than the best shows of recent years?
The television shows of the last ten years have gone beyond most of what had been done before, and the number of high-quality, must-watch shows is staggering. Following a run-up in the previous ten years with shows such as Seinfeld, The X-Files Frasier, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, television hit its peak in the mid-2000s and hasn’t slowed down. I suspect I might even be make a list of 100 great (or at least really good) shows since 2000 if I wanted to (I don’t).
Keep in mind that these aren’t all the examples of great shows from the past decade, just some really good ones: I’m well aware that The Sopranos, The Shield, and The Wire could easily make this list, but I was trying to stick with shows that had all or most of their runs in the past ten years (with one major exception that I couldn’t bring myself to leave off). That goes for long-running mainstays such as The Simpsons as well. There are other shows that I know people love and rave about, but I have no interest in for one reason or another and will probably never watch, such as The Good Wife and Friday Night Lights. I didn’t include talk shows because they’re a whole different thing to me, but I do love many of them, such as The Daily Show and This Week Tonight With John Oliver. And then there are shows that may have made the list if I had ever gotten around to watching them, such as Mad Men, Homeland, and The Americans, but I only have so many hours in the day. But the fact that there are so many that I couldn’t include in a Top Ten list for any reason is just more evidence of how good TV is right now.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many second-tier shows that aren’t as good as ones such as the series on this list are still much better than most of the best shows of previous eras, including the original Golden Age.
Here are ten examples of recent shows that either premiered or were still running in the past decade that prove just how good this era of TV has been.
1. Breaking Bad
Not only do I consider Breaking Bad the greatest show in the history of television, I’m always freaked out by how close I came to not watching it. Even when critics, close friends, and TV fans were all extolling the virtues of this amazing show, I continued to profess that I had no interest in a series about a teacher who becomes a drug dealer. I even gave it a small chance–TWICE–and decided not to continue after the first or second episode. Thankfully, a good friend finally convinced me to give it a shot one more time, and after hanging in there for three episodes I was hooked like I had begun partaking in Heisenberg’s blue meth, and was there to watch with bated breath as the last two seasons unfolded.
If you haven’t watched this show, I implore you to do so, and give it at least three or four episodes before you give up (if you’re inclined to do so, as I was). I’ve convinced several people to do this, and they have all since expressed their eternal gratitude.
I’m also going to cheat here and throw in Better Call Saul by extension, since the spin-off is by the same creative team and uses many of the same characters. Most spin-offs, with the very occasional exception such as Frasier, are dismal failures, but this one is almost as good as its forebear. Almost.
2. Battlestar Galactica
This is the exception that I mentioned in the introduction. Even though the series went off the air early in the decade I’m talking about, I believe it was a huge part of why TV has become so good. If someone can take an old, one-season-and-out (yes, I’m aware of Galactica 1980), Star Wars ripoff of a series (which, admittedly, I loved as a kid) and turn it into one of the best science fiction–scratch that, one of the best all around–shows of all time, then anything is possible. This show not only helped usher in the Platinum Age of Television, it rejuvenated the science fiction genre on TV and led to other great ones being made. And, previous to me finally getting on board with Breaking Bad, I considered it the best show on television.
3. Game of Thrones
Recently, a popular screenwriter I know shared something he witnessed twenty-five years ago, and it’s one of the best stories I’ve heard in a while. Early in his career, he was at a dinner with a bunch of big writers, including George R.R. Martin, who was a series showrunner at the time. Martin slammed his fists down on the table and shouted that he was done with Hollywood and the way it treats writers. He was going to pack up everything, move to Santa Fe, and start the fantasy novel he’d always wanted to write. He said he’d make it so complex and twisted and full of sex and violence and giant battles that nobody would ever dream of turning into a movie or TV show.
Luckily, he did write that novel, as well as its sequels, but Hollywood finally came looking to make them into a series–and an excellent one, at that. In previous times, this type of material never could have been done, for technical reasons as well as the content itself. But we now live in the Platinum Age of Television (I’ve decided to help make that a thing now), and Game of Thrones is a reality and a phenomenon.
4. The Walking Dead
Where to start? Even though I’m a huge comic book fan, I’d never read The Walking Dead comic before the series came on the air. I’m not a big fan of zombie movies or shows, either. But it looked interesting, and I’d heard it was good, so I gave it a shot. And I’ve never regretted it. As you may have heard (possibly over and over again), the show isn’t about the zombies, it’s about the survivors. And the people who are able to survive a post-apocalyptic situation like this are far more dangerous than any zombies anyway. This is a gripping character drama that just happens to have undead creatures shambling around. (“Look at the flowers…” Holy $#!+.)
Unlike Better Call Saul, I’m not going to include its spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, by extension. I’ve been watching it, and I’ll continue to watch it to see if it improves, but so far I’m not overly impressed.
5. Arrested Development
It originally went off the air in early 2006, but luckily I was able to bring it in on a technicality thanks to the Netflix season in 2013 that is supposed to continue (I would have loved to do the same for The X-Files, but alas, the new season just wasn’t up to snuff). One of the greatest sitcoms of all time, this series brought absurdist comedy to mainstream TV…which may not have been quite ready for it, since it didn’t do so well in the ratings. Fortunately, we have Netflix so people can now discover it, and also to bring us new episodes.
When Noah Hawley decided to do a TV series semi-based on the Oscar-winning film Fargo, everybody (including me) thought he was insane. Everybody couldn’t have been more wrong. Everything about this show, from the writing, to the acting, to the directing, to the tone, is pitch-perfect. And, unlike True Detective (which could have made this list if they’d stopped at one season), the second season was just as good, if not better.
The only thing I don’t like about this show is the fact that there are agonizingly few episodes. Created by two of the guys responsible for another great show that made this list, Doctor Who, this update on the consummate detective who first appeared over a century ago is so well put together that viewers are more than willing to put up with long spans–even up to two years–without an episode. Try that with a series like According to Jim and see how well it goes.
When it comes to semi-autobiographical comedies about socially awkward comedians, Larry David kicked it up a notch from Seinfeld by appearing on HBO and being able to get away with a lot more in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Louis CK then kicked it up another notch over Larry David by making a show that was truly his vision, by writing and directing every episode. He brought the humor, the straight-talk, and the uncomfortable scene to a whole new level with this brilliant show.
Lost has gotten somewhat of a bad rap in the years since it went off the air, mostly because so many fans were dissatisfied with the ending (including myself). But when it was going strong and firing on all cylinders, this was a magical series with so many WTF? moments and edge-of-your-seat cliffhangers that viewers in the pre-binge age couldn’t wait for the next episode.
10. Doctor Who
I know this could be considered another cheat since, technically, the series has been running for much of the past fifty years. But for the purposes of this list, I’m referring to the current incarnation of the series that began in 2005. I watched Doctor Who as a kid and enjoyed it okay, but even in the ’70s I was pretty turned off by how cheesy the special effects and monster costumes were, especially after seeing Star Wars in the theater. But the new series doesn’t suffer from those earlier issues, and I fell in love with the combination of sci-fi adventure and fun. Plus, the actors who’ve played the Doctor in this version of the show have all been such a pleasure to watch.
Top Ten lists are hard. So hard that I almost always have to throw in a few extras to make sure they aren’t completely missed. Some other shows that didn’t make the list and aren’t mentioned in the introduction or elsewhere above, but I really love: Mr. Robot, The Expanse, Archer, Silicon Valley, Preacher, and many, many other shows on Cartoon Network and Comedy Central.
A Note About Reality Shows
I hate them. No, maybe despise is a more accurate word for how I feel about them. Don’t try to convince me that any of them come within light years of being good enough to appear on this list. I’m fully aware that I’m being a snob, and I realize it’s possible that you may really enjoy one or more of them as a guilty pleasure. That doesn’t make them good. Sorry.