We are, most people would agree, in the midst of a Golden Age of Television. Since the late-1990s, the programming that's been pumped into our homes has been as good as it's ever been — and, in many respects, better than the movies that have long sat atop the Pop Cultural Quality Pile. But why aren't we also in a Golden Age of Genre TV?
Let's count the number of legitimately great sci-fi, fantasy, or horror TV shows of the past 10 years. Not simply good, mind you. I'm talking great. Battlestar Galactica, for sure. Lost probably qualifies if, for no other reason, than it actually managed to be a science fiction show and win an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy. Doctor Who hovers ever-so-close: Its best episodes are time-capsule terrific, but Who gets stranded on one too many space pirate ships to be a lock.
Given that they're both in their first seasons, it's too early to anoint the fantastic Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. So what else is there? Fringe has its moments, to be sure, but not quite. Syfy's current crop of programming is fun, to be sure, and often pretty good, but no. (Hell, I'm a writer on Alphas and I know we're not there... yet.) True Blood seems to have gotten freaky for freaky's sake: It's too busy amusing itself to be concerned with things like "quality."
I'm talking great in the way that The Wire was great - the universally lauded Best Show Ever To Exist On Television - or The Sopranos or The Shield. Or the way that Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Good Wife or Louie are killing it week-in, week-out.
Why are there no genre shows performing at the same level? Why are we not able to turn on the TV any day of the week and find something shiny to watch? Here are some theories:
GENRE IS THINKY. If you look at the average night of television, you'll see that most drama shows are about doctors, lawyers or cops. Because people - from the audience all the way up to network heads - understand how those shows work. Because a patient will always roll into the ER, some schmuck will always go to court, and someone will always get murdered in "the Big City."
But science fiction, particularly, is a genre of ideas - ideas that usually resist the reduction into the doctor-lawyer-cop mode. And all too often, when people don't understand a thing they either don't let it on the air - unless they monkey with it to such an extent that the ideas are gone and it's a husk of what it could've been - or they don't support it once it does get on the air. A show with no marketing or scheduling support is a show no one knows to watch, or when to watch it even if they wanted to.
GENRE IS EXPENSIVE. Because, if you can't have thinky but still want scifi, you end up with flashy. And flashy costs money. You can't be a sleeper hit if the network is constantly watching the ratings to see if their vast wad of cash is earning its nut back. When Heroes was good, it was good because the network didn't know what they had. That first season wasn't overly expensive, especially the first five or six episodes, which were all loaded glances, cheerleading, and floor-painting. When it started to get the ratings, NBC poured money into it. And with that money came attention. And, as the story goes, the network wouldn't let Tim Kring and Co. kill Sylar at the end of the first season the way they wanted to - and that was the beginning of the end.
GENRE FANS KIND OF SUCK. Wait. Let me clarify. You know that old saying, nobody picks on my kid brother but me? That's how genre fans are towards the product directed at them: They either love it to death, or they pick it to pieces. You don't see people who love police procedurals getting on Law & Order message boards talking about how much NCIS blows. But sci-fi fans are not above using the comments for an article talking about how one show got renewed to rail about how it sucks and why didn't they bring back that other show instead. If you looked at it from the outside - where most network honchos live their lives - the genre audience is a splintered one that can't be counted on to deliver numbers because they're too busy infighting. If we could ever put aside our differences and just rally behind the good sci-fi we get, instead of whining about the stuff we don't, then maybe the networks would give us the Thinky we're always asking for.
There are more channels than ever, more outlets for quality programming: Why can't I find 20 shows as good as The Twilight Zone or Nowhere Man or The Prisoner or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Angel or Space: Above and Beyond? Or, at least, 20 shows trying to be as good. I'd rather see noble failures than a lack of ambition. There are a legion of writers and producers waiting in the wings, ready to make shows like the ones that inspired them, lo, these many years ago.
Let's get our act together, people.
Follow Marc Bernardin on Twitter, and watch his episode of Alphas tonight at 10 PM on Syfy.