It has become quite the critical cliche to proclaim we are living in a new "Golden Age" of television. That may be true from a technological standpoint: The advent of high definition and now 3D (even though no one except the 1 percent can afford it) make home viewing at minimum equal to almost anything you can see at multiplexes. The continuing dip in flatscreen prices has resulted in more people owning 40-plus-inch screens at this point in the video revolution than attended the birth of either color TV or the VCR. Couch tubers with the latest in supporting devices (Blu-ray DVD, 7.1 channel sound, etc.) can enjoy an experience so remarkable that leaving home makes little sense, other than to ensure that life continues.
But from a content standpoint, the lament about "500 channels and nothing to watch" too often rings true, particularly if you are not a big sports or film fan. (That's largely what I watch these days, especially in real time.) The onslaught of remakes and reboots reflects a lack of creativity and originality, glaringly so at the network level. Anyone who doesn't have a three-digit cable/satellite bill either gets most of their content online — via DVD/Netflix — or just doesn't care for much TV. Fortunately, cable channels are not hamstrung by the outdated restrictions that force the networks to keep recycling the same old stuff (much of which was putrid the first time around).
Many longtime hits are showing their age. Law & Order finally bit the dust after 20 seasons. CSI is in year number 13, and its cast will soon be down to two originals; spinoffs CSI:Miami and CSI:NY are on the endangered species list. Insiders are speculating that the procedural drama may now be in 2011 where the situation comedy was in 1984 prior to the arrival of The Cosby Show. Even reality staples such as Survivor and The Biggest Loser are declining, while new arrivals like The X Factor didn't deliver the anticipated ratings or viewership boost.
CBS remains the dominant broadcast network. Two weeks ago they had 18 of the Top 20 rated shows, with NBC getting only two programs on the list — and those were Sunday Night Football and its pregame show. ABC and Fox continue to have periodic successes. Fox's blend of animation, reality and a handful of scripted programs keep it on top with the 18-49 demographic, even as it falls further behind CBS in the overall ratings war.
At any rate, here are a few personal favorites that represent oases of quality in an otherwise bleak TV desert:
1. Homeland (Showtime)
The 24 crew shifted its focus, but retained the elements that made the prior show a success. These included two compelling characters (Claire Danes, Damien Lewis) and lots of terrorist paranoia. There was also an ongoing storyline that revealed just enough weekly to retain interest, yet never so much you felt you could skip an episode. The producers also wisely maintained in the season-ending episode the right balance between climactic events and cliffhanger suspense.
2. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Not only does crime not pay, it exacts a monstrous toll on everyone involved. As stone-faced crank kingpin Gus Fring, Giancarlo Esposito gave (arguably) the year's finest guest portrayal, and was rewarded with (arguably) the most grotesque exit ever for a TV villain. The saga of teacher turned druglord Walter White (Bryan Cranston) may be the most hypnotic since the days of Richard Kimble and J.R. Ewing. Online speculation on how the fifth and final season will conclude is already being stoked.
3. Castle (ABC)
Occasionally the updated Thin Man patter can get more cloying than sophisticated. Still, the writers and producers have smartly advanced the on-again, off-again romance between Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) and Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) with style and flair. The mystery component remains the show's weakest link, but the character interaction usually salvages weak plotting and pacing.
4. Modern Family (ABC)
Just the best sitcom around, the only one that approaches the alternately funny and poignant storytelling that distinguished standard-bearers such as M.A.S.H. Multiple characters weave in and out of an ongoing narrative that celebrates diversity without fanfare, and makes numerous points about the family's evolution without preaching or pandering.
5. Parenthood (NBC)
One of that embattled network's few successes — though its ratings are hardly robust — this does somewhat the opposite of Modern Family, opting for a dramatic look at a multi-generational set of parents and their crises. Yet it injects enough humorous touches and surprises to keep things varied and entertaining.
6. The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Adding two more female characters was a stroke of genius. Now audiences see even more clearly how flawed and inept otherwise brilliant men can be in the company of women. Any worries that the uproar on Chuck Lorre's other show (Two and a Half Men) might capsize his comedy armada have long since faded.
7. The Good Wife (CBS)
Inspired soap opera that also integrates into its fabric compelling legal and political drama. The producers finally brought main characters Alicia (Emmy winner Julianna Margulies) and Will (Josh Charles) together, then just as suddenly tore them apart again. That scenario brings new issues into an already convoluted environment, and promises to raise the stakes for everyone the rest of the season. Maybe once the NFL season ends, folks will rediscover it on Sunday nights.
8. NCIS (CBS)
No one saw this program becoming a juggernaut, and it still gets zero critical respect. Yet while the plots are utterly predictable, the characters have become beloved figures. It is doubtful anyone would have picked Mark Harmon many years ago to be the foundation for a No. 1 hit, but that has proven the case.
9. The Killing (AMC)
Until it stunned and disappointed its eager audience by not revealing the killer, this slow but effective police drama was captivating. Much of that was due to Mireille Enos, whose portrayal of weary detective Sarah Linden was a revelation. Hopefully, the misguided finale won't kill momentum for the show's second season.
10. Blue Bloods (CBS)
Tom Selleck gets his third act since Magnum P.I. (the second being his popular Jesse Stone films). Nothing is remarkable in these stories about three generations of cops. But the writing and acting are solid, and it's the type of broad-based family show seldom seen these days.
Rizzoli & Isles, The Closer, Game of Thrones, Community, Justified, Mike & Molly, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Burn Notice, Psych, The Mentalist, Person of Interest, Harry's Law, Chuck, Blue Collar, Covert Affairs, Necessary Roughness, Royal Pains.
Smallville, Friday Night Lights, Law & Order, Rescue Me, Men of a Certain Age.
Horrific beyond words
Charlie's Angels, The Playboy Club.
Terra Nova, Prime Suspect.
Time to say goodbye
House, both CSI spinoffs, Law & Order: SVU.