Golden ages are supposed to be joyous eras. Jazz, rock and roll, social democracy – we look back at these periods and smile. It’s difficult to see us doing that about television’s current golden age. Will we gather in thirty years and reminisce about watching unhinged Swedish detectives mentally profile a psychopath?
The first wave of television’s golden age was defined by something hideous called character development. This is what television writers call meandering scenes where nothing happens. It is a bad habit they learned from reading literary fiction.
It started with the Sopranos, a show ostensibly about a mafia boss but all too often about his children’s struggles with their homework. The Sopranos was the answer for anyone who enjoyed watching The Godfather but thought it would have been improved by a thirty minute focus on Michael’s children filling out college application forms. Character development reached its peak with Mad Men, a series celebrated for taking 920 hours for absolutely nothing to happen. Don sometimes won a contract. Often he didn’t. Mostly he was drunk and abrasive, which is how I felt after series two.
These days we have no time for character development, what with our Snapchats and our Cold War. Today’s television plots are like our lives: fast paced and tumbling towards a vast pit of emotional emptiness.
Television executives have left us drowning in a sea of monsters, sociopaths and Claire Danes’ tears. With each new series comes more kidnapped children, mutilated bodies and embittered cops. Television used to be about escapism, now it’s about watching what could pass for a particularly grim episode of the Six One.
Television’s golden age has left me so brittle I’m seeking comfort from unlikely places. Tyra Banks has become my chief comforter. She is the host of America’s Next Top Model, a programme I have grown to enjoy more than I ought to or than I’m proud of. I remembered Tyra from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but since then she has apparently become a supermodel, icon and business mogul. It is likely that one day she will be US President and make potential Secretaries of State undergo competitive challenges to determine who gets to bring the country into war.
The premise of the show is Tyra dangling a lucrative modelling contract over the heads of young women and making them fight for it. It’s what would have happened had Russell Crowe walked onto the set of Zoolander in full gladiator costume. The contestants are all named after perfumes or aspirations: Chantal, Shannice, Liberty. Their names are often spelt with Ks and Is where Cs and Ys should be.
Each week they undergo a modelling challenge. This ranges from walking in a straight line to looking at a camera. Each episode forces the contestants to learn about themselves because this is American television where, unlike real American life, people always learn from their experiences to become better people.
The show is edited to contrive ‘a baddie’. We hiss when Jeanna, a 20-year-old with alopecia, appears. Last week the judges criticised her for giving an editorial look when they wanted commercial. “Your photos are too sexy,” they told her and, even though we’ve all made that mistake, we laughed and tossed popcorn and designer sunglasses at the screen.
At the end of each episode, Tyra and her judges rank the models. The judges are beautiful on the outside but their hearts are filled with darkness. They say things like “you’re not wearing the wig, the wig is wearing you” and I nod sagely at this age old problem. Each week, the worst performing model is fired. Likely candidates cry and babble about their upbringings in the mistaken belief the judges have hearts made of anything but Vera Wang dresses. Nothing prepares you for the raw human emotion of watching their shallow dreams crushed. Through yet more tears – they are American so they cry a lot – they pack their bags, leave the show and set off on their new careers as Instagram influencers.
Come to think of it, that last bit does make you reminisce about the psychopaths.
Originally published in The Times Ireland Edition, April 26th 2018.