As recently as 20 years ago, television was such a “vast wasteland” that Bruce Springsteen could accurately sing about “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” A decade after that, his guitarist, Steven Van Zandt, was on a television show that Norman Mailer called “the closest thing to the Great American Novel in today’s culture.” And shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy have complex plots, conflicted characters, and more human intelligence than almost any movie in theaters.
What happened to television in the last decade is like what happened to pop music in the sixties: Auteurs took what was generally disposable culture and turned it into art. In both cases, a new medium helped them realize these possibilities. In the sixties, the LP allowed recording artists to stretch out beyond the confines of the seven-inch single. More recently, cable made it practical – which is to say, profitable – to produce sophisticated serialized dramas for a relatively small audience.
Could it be that we get what we pay for? In an article for The Wall Street Journal based on my book, I show how the same rising cable bills we love to complain about turned the “idiot box” into a medium for some of the smartest popular culture made today.
Needless to say, you won’t see anything like this on YouTube.
ALSO: I am running a contest on my Twitter account, @RobertBLevine_ . The best explanation of why there’s only one artist on the Creative Commons Board of Directors wins a free, signed book. (Second prize: Two books!) Feel free to post or Tweet answers.