On Sunday night, several million people will gather in front of their TV sets to discover what is to become of Walter White.
Walter, as fans of the TV series “Breaking Bad” can tell you, was introduced in 2008 as a high-school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. To secure his family’s financial future after his death, Walter starts cooking and selling methamphetamine, aided by ex-student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Violence, multiple deaths and a cesspool of moral decay have followed.
The show’s final episode airs Sunday on AMC (at 7 p.m. Mountain time). And as the show ends — as happened with the final episodes of “The Sopranos,” “The Office” and other series — comes the inevitable conversation about whether we are living in a “golden era of television.”
My colleague and cubicle neighbor, Tribune TV critic Scott D. Pierce, argues that we are. There’s more great television now because there’s more television, period. More channels, more platforms, more content than in the old days before cable and streaming, when only three national networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — dominated the airwaves.
Me, I’m not so sure.
I have seen enough documentaries that tout “the golden era of television” as happening in the 1950s, when anthology dramas like “Playhouse 90” were giving writers like Paddy Chayevsky and Rod Serling a weekly platform to create brilliant works.
I’m also old enough to remember when the 1970s were considered a “golden era” of TV. Then, on a single Saturday night on one network (CBS), one could watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All in the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “M*A*S*H” and “The Carol Burnett Show” — all classics — without getting up and turning the dial.
(Kids, two things you may not understand in that last paragraph. One, TV networks once showed good shows on Saturday night, and people stayed home to watch them. Two, one had to walk to the TV to change the channel. My dad had a voice-activated remote control, which he used by yelling, “Son, get up and change the channel.”)
Now, we’re in another “golden era,” which is often defined as starting in 1999 when “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO — and has included “The Wire,” “The Shield,” “The Office” and current shows such as “Mad Men,” “Girls,” “Louie,” “The Walking Dead” and the soon-to-be-over “Breaking Bad.”
Weirdly enough, of all the shows I just listed, there’s only one — “The Sopranos” — that I actually watched.
This isn’t a snob thing. It’s more just a timing thing, based on my schedule, my household budget (which doesn’t accommodate HBO or Showtime’s premium rates) and a family rule to turn off the TV an hour before the kids’ bedtime — which coincides with the heart of the prime-time lineup.
I’m also one of those viewers who don’t pick up on a big show, like “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” until it’s too late. I won’t notice the “buzz” about a show until several episodes into the run, and by then it feels like the story and characters have developed so much that I’d never be able to catch up. And I never have time to get on Netflix or rent the DVDs to binge-watch my way back into the conversation.
Conversely, I’ve also been burned when I did watch shows from the beginning (“Heroes” and the current “Revolution” come to mind) and they fizzled. Once burned, forever shy, as they say.
As for declarations of a “golden age,” I’m dubious because of some of the TV I have come across. It’s difficult to describe as “golden” any era that serves up “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Dance Moms” and anything with a Kardashian.
Television, just like movies or music or any other medium, follows the “80/20 rule.” That’s the maxim that says 80 percent of anything produced in a particular category is mediocre, but 20 percent of it is really outstanding — and it’s that 20 percent that makes wading through the rest worth the trouble.
In my mind, we are always in a “golden era” of television. We just have to know where to dig.
Sean P. Means, for the moment, writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.