I think Marc Bernardin has some good points about why, even in an era full of excellent television shows, we arguably only have two science fiction or fantasy shows that operated at the same level of, say, The Sopranos throughout or through most of their runs: Battlestar Galactica and Lost (his choices, not mine). But I don’t really think this is the case:
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.
All of the best shows of the Golden Age are deeply idea-based shows. The Wire as treatise on capitalism, bureaucracy, and education is almost too obvious to mention. The Sopranos is a meditation on the nature of evil — and the efficacy of therapy, to the point that the show’s ending mirrors the let-down of terminating. Breaking Bad is a similarly stark moral show, one that also touches on everything from health care reform to the War on Drugs. Deadwood is about the emergence of civil society from the quite literal muck. And not only are all of these ideas-based shows, they’re shows that directly comment on the predictability of genres like doctor-lawyer-cop shows. Levy gets called out by Omar. The cops who beat Bubbles don’t get redeemed by their good intentions and concern for victims. No medical professional is compassionate about Walter White’s cancer, but they are very willing to take his money.
And I think more to the point, this may be jumping the gun a bit. We’ll see how Game of Thrones goes, but in between that, its big order for American Gods, and its big Michael Chabon-written magicians-fight-the-Nazis show Hobgoblin, HBO is making heavy future investments in fantasy. It takes a lot of efforts, and a lot of misses, to produce the shows that define our new Golden Age. The halcyon years for genre may just arrive a few years later than the Golden Age for more general interest television.