Exploring the golden age of television

The golden age of television is a name presented to a period spanning two decades, from the early 2000s to the present. This article hopes to answer an often-asked question: “Are we still currently living in the golden age of television, or has the sunset finally begun to set on this era of quality television?”

Before we can start to answer this question, we must first look towards the beginning. The dawn of the golden age of television can often be credited to David Chase’s The Sopranos, a six-season-long HBO show entailing the struggles of Tony Soprano, an Italian-American mafia boss he constantly has to face: at home and within his criminal organization. Unlike stories of the late 20th century, a characteristically complicated antihero took centre stage, constantly enacting morally questionable acts for what he deemed was for the good of his family.


David Chase’s goal with the sopranos was to create much empathy for its title character, mobster Tony Soprano. Chase hoped that the audience would soon come to accept some of Tony’s less heinous actions ,so that we would become willing to look beyond his more cruel acts of violence. So, that by first empathizing with Tony, we would willingly accept the man beyond the murderer.

Acceptance of morally grey characters soon became a staple of the golden age of television, with this dramatic change rightfully being accredited to the success of The Sopranos. Fortunately, for fans of the show, a prequel film is set to be released in late 2021 in which Michael Gandolfini will be paying tribute to his late father in his most renowned role of Tony Soprano.

Due to the success of The Sopranos, television execs decided to move away from the inoffensive cookie-cutter mass-produced television of the 1990s to a different new land of dark and gritty television programming. Television became the medium of choice for budding screenwriters to sink their feet into; TV gifted them the opportunity to spin out deeper emotional tales, away from the constraints on the big screen. With big names, such as David Chase, Vince Gilligan, and David Simon, they became the equivalent to Scorsese or Coppola seemingly overnight.

There are great debates at the moment, directed towards modern television programmes, that it’s beginning to lose its initial appeals, with it becoming far too saturated regarding its over-the-top extravagant storylines often centring around violent antiheroes/protagonists that attempt to break the boundaries towards what we regard as good and bad.

It’s self-evident that television as a medium of entertainment has become a lot more nuanced with its content creation in recent years. Television studios are far more willing to take risks with their programming nowadays. Television was once seen as the quintessential for families to gather and safely watch an evening of entertainment.

But, it has since become normalized for modern programming to completely forgo these restraints; this can be witnessed best by the television powerhouse that was Game of Thrones, with its love-to-hate characters partaking in many acts of nudity and violence being seen throughout the span of its 73 episodes.  

People have discovered from theses polarizing characters that a great deal of entertainment can be found when you witness the character that makes you question your own core beliefs regarding the morally permissible acts that can be found on the line between good and evil, from The Peaky Blinders’ violent mobster, but great family man, Thomas Shelby, to the morally reprehensible characters that sit on both sides of the law in David Simon’s masterpiece, The Wire.

But the question remains: are these characters of previously unique luxury slowly becoming mundane? The people who raise this question remember that 15 years ago these shows were diamonds in the rough, but with the quick access of quality programming that came with the introduction of modern-day streaming services, have allowed these shows to become part of everyday viewing.

Plus, when you include the constant battle to have the most content that is fought between the streaming services of Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, and Hulu, we can see that the current supply of these shows has far exceeded most consumer’s possible demand. We are living in the era of binge-watching, especially due to Covid-19s requirement to stay indoors; fewer shows are still asking for their audience to wait each week to watch the next instalment in the series.


Unfortunately, for those who fell in love with the likes of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, these slow-burning pieces of expertly crafted television, with their often provocative emotional characters, just can’t be devoured whole, like the modern shows these streaming services provide.

Another issue that comes with the introduction of the streaming age of television is the need to keep audiences engrossed for longer periods of times; it’s no longer there. Nowadays show creators are not required to keep audiences engaged for days after their episodes have aired, with non-overarching plot points now stemming for episodes on end, sometimes seeming like they’re going nowhere.

Instant streaming has changed the game, with the audience now seeming responsible for introducing these plot points, just by their continued viewership. Although binge-watching isn’t inherently bad, it has affected the future of television.

But, what do you think? Has the golden age of television reached its foregone conclusion or has Netflix revitalized the age of great TV programming?

Sean Barrett
Sean Barrett

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