The Golden Age Is Over, Long Live Peak TV
The ends of 'Community', 'Justified', 'Glee', and the classic shows of the 2009-2010 season also mark the end of a television era.
Shows that end or get canceled are always one of the biggest stories in television, but 2015’s casualties aren’t just completed shows: they also mark the end of an era, with shows like Parks and Recreation, Justified, Glee, and Community coming to an end. 2015 saw the end of most of conventional television’s last great crop of new shows. Across a roughly 18-month period, from spring 2009 until fall 2010, TV rode a hot streak, but it was one that fit under our expectations of television.
NBC put energetic, slightly weird sitcoms like Community and Parks on Thursday night, as they’d done for decades. The two were paired as the best sitcoms on television — and arguably the best shows on television — through their second and third seasons. Parks slowly aged into irrelevance, its once-bright tone slowly turning comfortable and grumpy. This year, NBC gave it the chance to say goodbye, with a shortened final season, which was well-received, the final push giving it the motivation it had lacked since its election in Season 4.
Community was not so lucky. What was once the most creative show on network television wobbled to an ending, with three years of behind-the-scenes drama leading to a last season on Yahoo. Not that NBC did better replacing it — it’s taken comedies off Thursday nights, ending a tradition that had included Seinfeld, The Office, and 30 Rock.
Fox’s Glee had arguably the biggest cultural impact of any new shows of the era. It was an instant hit, giving the network the cool, weird cachet it’d had through the 1990s. But Glee fell from grace swiftly as well, first critically, then in the ratings, as it succumbed to speedy recycling of plots, inconsistent characterization, and focus on iTunes hit singles. Its grand finale this spring was little more than a footnote, while Fox has struggled to air a new drama of impact until last year’s Empire.
Meanwhile, Fox’s little cable brother, FX, had one of the most astonishing sets of strings of new shows possible that year. FX, long seemingly on the verge of joining HBO and AMC at the top tier of cable networks, may have even passed them as their 2010 shows matured an improved. The stylized modern Western Justified was the most conventional prestige drama, and quietly superb for much of its run. It got to say goodbye in a sixth season that was a quietly wonderful return to form after a disaster of a Season 5. (One FX show that didn’t get a goodbye — the 2010 drama Terriers, which recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of its devastating cancellation).
FX’s comedies were arguably even more impressive. The hyperviolent spy comedy Archer was consistently great through most of its run, and, into its sixth season, is still quietly good, even if its best days are behind it. The experimental short story series Louie was the rare comedy to actually win “Best Show of the Year” polls. But it’s lost some of its luster as well, and, while not canceled, is currently on indefinite hiatus. Despite these shows ending or declining, however, FX is the rare network that’s maintained its quality, with The Americans, Fargo, and You’re the Worst keeping it at the top of its game.
The CW was a struggling “netlet” in fall of 2009 when it launched The Vampire Diaries, a show that initially didn’t look like much more than a cheap cash-in on the Twilight craze. But it quickly became apparent that TVD was a legitimate phenomenon in its own right. With cliffhanger after surprise stabbing after cliffhanger, it helped create the model for hyper serialized network soaps that also landed critical acclaim, like Revenge or Scandal.
But unlike most of these, TVD didn’t entirely collapse under its own story weight. It struggled a bit, especially in its fourth and fifth seasons, but always had potential greatness, as it demonstrated in a largely great sixth season, which ended in 2015. But that conclusion came alongside the end for its main character and lead actress, Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), who left the show. The show hasn’t officially ended, but its seventh, Dobrev-free season has been little more than a footnote. TVD’s influence remains over The CW, however, which has, alongside its vampire hit, transitioned into a speculative fiction network recently, with shows like Arrow, The Flash, iZombie, and The 100 turning it into one of the best-loved networks on TV.
There are a handful of remaining successes from 2009-2010, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re the most traditional of network shows. CBS’ The Good Wife has long been considered the best procedural on television, and although it suffered a controversy from losing a major character/actor this year as well, continues to be well-liked.
Meanwhile, two of ABC’s sitcoms from September 2009 continue to anchor its comedy block. Modern Family is a ratings bonanza, even if its stranglehold on the comedy Emmys finally ended this year. The Middle has long been held up as one of TV’s best secrets, but steadily continues to churn out strong episodes, including a recent acclaimed coming-out story.
But for the most part, television has moved on. The premiere prestige networks tried their hardest — AMC with Rubicon, HBO with Treme, and Boardwalk Empire, but none of those managed to bring back the magic of their biggest hits. Instead the two biggest shows of the past few years, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones — neither of which have shown any sign of collapsing — are largely from the era immediately afterward, with TWD launching a short season in October 2010, and GOT the following spring.
But those two water cooler hits are outliers. The narrative around television now that we’re in the “Peak TV” era, where every network has great shows. Instead of the major networks alongside HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX, we’ve got Lifetime with Unreal, The CW with The Flash and The 100, Yahoo! with Other Space, BBC America with Orphan Black, Amazon with Transparent, and the list goes on.
We regularly describe the current era of television as a “Golden Age” — a term with a long history of being over-used for TV. Yet there was still a clear through-line for a generation of shows, starting with Buffy and The Sopranos and leading through to Mad Men and Justified, or on the comedy side, The Office and Arrested Development to Parks and Recreation and Archer.
But in the Peak TV era, those lines are more difficult to read, so much so that it’s worth delineating this era from the last. Alongside Mad Men, the 2009-2010 crop of new shows was the last gasp of that era, and in 2015, the torch was firmly passed.