‘Don’t tell me what to do’ – Television’s Lost Age

I wonder occasionally if the pandemic will mark the end of this platinum age of TV we’ve been living through. While productions ground to a halt for a while, they have picked up again, but there are other factors at work. Netflix and Amazon, as previously noted, have really bad taste, so their quality control is way off beam. And HBO isn’t really HBO anymore; even when it was, it has struggled for a proper hit since Game of Thrones was young. The BBC is hovering under the sword of a thousand cuts (and as long as people keep voting Tory its future looks bleak). And with a weak BBC, other UK providers don’t have to try. I can envision a future of endless hours of cheap, rolling not-even-news. Just wall-to-wall twats with opinions.

If you watch as much television as I do, you’ll have surely reached the stage that I am at: slim pickins. Slim Pickins means that things like Mare of Easttown come, get some good press, then get forgotten within a couple of months; things like Perry Mason come along, get indifferent press, and then get forgotten within a couple of months. In reality, popularity, good press, bad press, means nothing. Things come and they go.

As my friend Roy once said, in another time and another place, it’s a big wash.

Platinum Age TV comes in 10-13 episode chunks. If it’s good, and you’re lucky, you might get 3-5 seasons, rarely any more than that. The Americans: six seasons, an average of 12.5 episodes per season, 75 in total, is fairly exceptional. That’s probably one of the best shows of the past 10 years, which I mention because almost nobody watched it.

Game of Thrones, the behemoth, an average of 9 episodes per season, 73 in total. I mention it because it managed the rare feat of increasing its audience season by season, until it reached its frenzied finale… and everyone complained.

People complaining about how shows end has become such a cliché that even the articles complaining about people complaining are getting old. Needless to say, nobody really knows anything. You occasionally hear praise for, say, the ending of Mad Men (92 episodes over 7 seasons, 13 per) or The Sopranos (86 episodes, 6 seasons, 14 per). But for every person dishing the praise there’s me shrugging my shoulders and not really being able to see the difference. Things… end. Endings of long-running TV shows tend to be fairly arbitrary. 

Travelers (3 seasons, just 34 episodes) left me wanting a little more. It falls short of classic status because of the short run time, because I suppose, with a high concept show, sometimes the well runs dry. But Travelers is typical of our current era: Netflix and Amazon are peppered with these half-decent abandoned shows, and both services are pretty rotten at curating them. It’s almost as if these faceless global corporations just see it all as… content.

As I said, 10-13 episodes, 3-5 seasons, this is a fairly typical run time.

But back in the pre-Platinum Age, when all of this good TV started, well, those were different times. In the Golden Age of networks, you might expect a show to run for 20-23 episodes per year, and a good one would go on for 5-7 years, or longer.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 144 episodes
  • The X Files: 218 episodes
  • NYPD Blue: 261 episodes
  • ER: 331 episodes.

Now, you might suggest to me that Mad Men was better than The X Files (it wasn’t), or that Game of Thrones was better than Buffy (it wasn’t), but the fact remains that back in the Network Age, they produced a lot of television, and how something ended is neither here nor there.

Perhaps the apotheosis of the Network Age, and the beginning of the end, was Lost. Six seasons, 121 episodes, means it just about compares to some in the list above. If it was made for Netflix today, it might run for between nine and twelve years, in much the same was as The Beatles’ output would take 30 years or so on current album release schedules. ER, made for Amazon Prime, with a 10 episode per season order, would last 33 years. Or 700 years if you try to watch it all.

Lost was a show with an ending that caused a lot of complaints. People were probably wrong, or at least exaggerating their feelings, catastrophising, as people tend to do. 

Having reached the slim pickins end of things, I’ve been rewatching Lost: my third or fourth time. It was really good you know. They threw away more great ideas in the first season than most shows have in their entire run. The drug plane in the forest. The Hatch. The French Woman. The Numbers. And in the second season: The Black Rock in the jungle. The inside of The Hatch. The Others. The Dharma Initiative. The ideas just kept coming. Sure, they might not have known where they were going — or they might have. “We all died three days ago,” says Jack, in episode 3. “See you in another life,” says Desmond, as he helps Jack with his sprained ankle in season 2.

Sure, there were faults. It was one of many shows with a lead character called Jack, which is and was really irritating. And a number of the characters were really annoying: Michael. Claire. Charlie. Walt. Also, it was really remarkable that so many fugitives, criminals, con artists, and People With Secrets were on that one flight from Australia (although I guess that explains the criminal element, fnar). But at least this is a show that remembers that half the population are women. And you can forgive Lost its faults because its ideas were so good, and so much better than the somewhat plodding fare we’re being offered at this arse end of the pandemic.

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