westworld cast shot

The cast of Westworld

This week, video streaming colossus Netflix was beset by worldwide outages. The papers are calling this a mystery disappearance; I call it a clear case of over-demand. Of course Netflix servers broke during the Kim-Trump summit. Network TV gave itself over so fully that day to hours of saying nothing real or unexpected, fiction became our realistic choice.

I didn’t want to watch one hundred junior journalists ask Trump why he had demeaned the office and the West. I did not care to hear, again, that there could be nothing worse than the violation of human rights. I probably wasn’t the only one who turned back to House of Cards for a more instructive view of US politics. The fictional US President Underwood violates human rights routinely, just as in real life.

No, not everyone is Helen on her hegemon high-horse, consciously repulsed by the eagerness of reporters to call North Korea a “prison state” and their long-term failure to say the same of the US. I’m aware that I’m a cranky lass who refuses to understand the difference between “advanced interrogation” and torture. We are all aware, however, that network TV isn’t one nth as much fun to watch as Netflix.

Netflix, HBO and a range of US online and cable businesses have produced what is now widely recognised as TV’s golden age. Network offers soft-scripted “reality” that serves as background for family meals and procedural drama about weird sex crimes that serves, we can suppose, as background for psychologists of the future. On-demand services make stuff we actually and attentively watch.

There is, of course, much mild refuse on Netflix et al. I do not care, for example, to endure another 18-part series on the grisly murder of a woman. We all know the husband did it. But, goodness. The era that began with The Sopranos has been rather something. We now watch streaming drama and comedy as we watched network television in its earliest days: avidly.

HBO was not the first choice for Peter Chase. The creator and producer of The Sopranos — in this golden age, the golden title of “showrunner” is now awarded to such nobles — had aspired first to make a film in the Coppola style. Tony Soprano, a mobster who spent more time in therapy than he did ordering dismemberment, did not appeal to investors in established film and TV. HBO’s rep before the mid-nineties had been as a profitable provider of mediocre biopics and sexy rot and so, as TV lore has it, Chase gave his dreams unwillingly to the Time-Warner channel in return for a stack of cash and a guarantee of creative freedom.

For 20 years, HBO has held to this model. Executive producer of the program Westworld, JJ Abrams, recently described the production values afforded by the firm as “preposterous”. This is the guy who now makes Star Wars, so we can safely presume that he knows a generous screen budget when he sees it.

That your reporter knows a great TV program when she sees it may be a matter for mockery or debate. It is my view, however, that Westworld is one of the best, most arresting visual stories to emit from any screen in recent years. It is my suspicion that this golden age is soon to end.

In recent days, a merger between US data provider AT&T and US media giant Time Warner has been approved. The New York Times holds that this is a marvellous win for consumers because, of course, don’t we always win when there’s a monopoly? No. Of course we don’t. When a single company begins to command a market, the need for innovation is diminished. A golden age in the production of art, and other commodities, is always preceded and followed by an era of unmitigated crap.

Netflix, HBO, FX, AMC, etc, currently offer artists the money and freedom to create new and surprising works. I offer Netflix and other services my dosh because nothing on network surprises me. Programs like House of Cards, The Thick of It or Veep are not merely engrossing and painstakingly made, but they offer a critique of power simply unavailable in mainstream news.

Breaking Bad is not just a jolly good tale about a narcissistic speed king; it’s a hard look at the withering of the white middle-class. The show has been criticised as racist by some for its depiction of white Walter White as the architect of the world’s greatest meth, but lauded by others for its portrait of a chap who believes his cultural, ethnic and educational credentials separate him from the criminal class.

This era has given us Walter, Tony, Frank, Ilana and Abbi from Broad City, Dolores and Maeve from Westworld, Elizabeth and Philip from The Americans and more stories of quality than even a person (moi) whose income is largely dependent on TV criticism can watch.

Which is fortunate. Soon, Netflix, Amazon and AT&T Time Warner will battle it out to the death of another golden age. Soon, it will no longer be profitable to make good TV. Soon, innovation and capitalism will be on bad terms again and there will not be another Mad Men, but just the pale and profitable echo of another golden age lost to its final commanders.

Still. We’ll have some time to catch-up with all the good stuff we missed. Spend your time with all nine seasons of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm as the world burns!

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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