Here is a fun experiment you should do sometime: rewatch some of your favorite shows from years ago and apply to them today’s standards and sensibilities. What you will find is that you will be shocked at how far over today’s social justice line many of those shows were, especially those in the period that I define as the Golden Age of Television. We’ve seen incredible TV shows in many different generations, going back to I Love Lucy and Bewitched through the Simpsons and Seinfeld, and up to the more recent era of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. So what then would be the Golden Age, and how do you define it?
First, one should define the Golden Age of TV as a time when creativity peaked, and writers were free to see their visions come alive on screen, without any shackles; where the quality was overwhelmingly high across multiple shows, genres, and channels. I am aware there are those who ascribe that term to the 1950’s and a second in the late 90’s. I define the beginning of the Golden Age as January 10, 1999, with the pilot of the Sopranos. The Sopranos ushered in a new era of TV, with a nearly unheard of levels of critical acclaim, and brought about the ability for studios to take the gloves off writers to tell more engaging stories. For the first time, television could meet and in many cases exceed the storytelling of movies. The HBO triple threat of Sopranos, The Wire, and OZ, all firing in succession, showed what was possible with modern dramas. In a rush to capitalize on this newfound freedom and chasing HBO to the awards and ratings line, virtually every studio went all in on hardcore dramas. In addition to the quality being churned out yearly by HBO, two of my favorite series of all time premiered within a year of one another: The Shield in 2002 and Battlestar Galactica in 2003.
From approximately 1999 to 2015, television was scintillating virtually every week. My DVR was packed during that time with unbelievably high-quality tv in both the drama and comedy realms. From FX hitting home run after home run in the Shield, Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck, Sons of Anarchy, and more to HBO continuing their legacy of greatness, and the emergence of Netflix and Amazon, this span of time included the highest density of greatness ever seen on television. All good things come to an end, and as time went on, I started to notice my DVR wasn’t quite as full as it used to be. Everything from drama to stand up comedy seemed to be reduced dramatically in the quality and quantity I had become accustomed to having. Don’t get me wrong; there are still great shows out there, but not to the level that we had in the Golden Age. Recently, I rewatched my favorite series, Battlestar Galactica, and I think I’ve figured out where the Golden Age went.
Social Justice killed it.
In rewatching BSG and thinking back to that era, I had forgotten how far shows were willing to go to tell a story, and networks were quite willing to run storylines you couldn’t possibly get away with in the modern era. Even innocuous shows like the Office likely would never get made in today's climate of oppressive social justice without severe alterations. The Shield, which I believe to be the best police show ever created, would have ZERO chance of being green-lit in 2018. The reason for all of this?
Writer’s handcuffs and the boycott outrage machine.
In writing my own novel, I’ve done a tremendous amount of research on the do’s and don’ts of writing fiction. Read any number of recent articles entitled “10 Mistakes Writers Make,” and you will be presented with a litany of things you should not write about or characters you shouldn’t have. A great example of this is YouTuber/Writer Jenna Moreci, who has a massive hit channel on YouTube with many videos telling you what the “rules” are for writing, with a distinctly left-wing bent. After watching about 10 of these types of videos, I came to the conclusion that modern writers are shackled to an incredibly lengthy list of handcuffs, to stay on the pleasant side the social justice warrior crowd. For example, it used to be that representation was one of the most significant problems, as people wanted to see more diverse casting decisions. Once that came to fruition, then it became about dictating how those people were written. Keep in mind, no one has a problem with the representation of minorities, but that is no longer enough, now they have to be portrayed exactly a certain way to conform to these rigid guidelines.
Let me give an example, featuring the show I consider to be “Patient Zero” in the new era of social justice TV: Quantico. Back in 2016, the writers for this show came out and stated explicitly that they would never have a Muslim terrorist on the show, becoming one of the first times that writers publicly took certain types of characterizations off the table. Fast forward to 2018, ABC and the show’s writers were forced to issue a public apology for a storyline involving Indian Nationalists framing Pakistanis for a terrorist act. Think of it: one of the most politically correct shows on television, featuring an Indian lead, still got crushed for veering off the social justice highway even for a moment. It turns out that doing so much restricting of your characters and storytelling doesn’t make for particularly compelling TV, as Quantico was canceled after three seasons.
There’s another elephant in the room: the complete lack of black or minority villains. Shabazz Malikali wrote an excellent article on this over two years ago that remains true: Hollywood is petrified of making black villains. Go ahead and google the phrase “black villain on tv” and you get a grand total of nothing. Outside of the all black properties like Luke Cage or Empire, there are zero black villains on any mainstream TV show. The problem used to be representation, as in there aren’t enough black people on TV, now the problem is that all black characters have to be portrayed as comically overpowered in every situation, giving them no actual arcs, depth, or flaws. Also, one can go right down the line of every ethnicity, gender, or orientation and find the same. Essentially, 99% of the time your villain has to be miscellaneous rich white guy number 424, relegating minorities to playing superhuman caricatures of real people.
To sum up: the rules that were created with good intentions have spiraled out of control, stifling creative expression across all forms of media. Books, TV, and to a lesser extent, movies have all become artistically subverted to a fascistic left-wing orthodoxy that demands rigid adherence to the rules; thus creating a stale environment where every show has to follow a long list of guidelines in order to ever get produced. Since every show is working from the same social justice guidelines, it stands to reason they would share many of the same characteristics, inducing boredom with everyone competing to see how woke they can be. Maybe it’s possible that the Trump era killed TV, as he scared liberals so drastically that they figured maybe they needed to crack down further on the culture; making sure to pound home their message in a more blatant manner. Whatever the reason, it is highly likely we will be seeing average TV for the foreseeable future.
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Steve is the author of Forging the Iron Mind, and is the founder and CEO of Americana Prime.