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We are living in the golden age of television

Opinion Columnist

Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013

Updated: Thursday, January 17, 2013 15:01

Walking Dead

CAROLYN COLE/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Andrew Lincoln is shown on the set of “The Walking Dead,” the zombie series on AMC, in June 2012. “The Walking Dead” is one of many newer “serial dramas” on American television tackling compelling subject matter and maintaining complex storylines over multiple episodes.

“Too much television will rot your brain.”
You’ve heard it at some point during your childhood. We all have. Whether you heard it from a parent or a babysitter or a scary old man, we’ve all been warned that watching too much television will cause our heads to explode or result in some other form of neurological catastrophe.

I’m here to tell you (and you’ll want to sit down for this) that it is simply not true.

Now, I’m not a doctor, so I can’t say with any certainty that watching an episode of “Jersey Shore” on MTV won’t result in the loss of precious brain cells, but what I do know is that television is not what it used to be, for better or worse.

Back in the ‘90s, sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Home Improvement” were among the most popular shows on television.

These shows were simplistic, endearing and, most importantly, good for at least a laugh or two. Each show was a half hour long and the best part was that few episodes had a connection to the ones that came before it, making it easy for first-time viewers to catch a random episode and not miss a beat.

I have nothing against these types of shows, but they required very little commitment from their audience and they rarely tackled material that could be considered edgy or thought provoking.

At the very least, these shows served an admirable purpose, even if that purpose was merely to provide a half hour of lighthearted entertainment for the hardworking men and women of America.

But the success of these sitcoms left the television landscape flooded with the same family-friendly content, with only a few serious dramas like “The X-Files,” “NYPD Blue” and “ER” able to claw their way to the top of the ratings.

Television at the time was passable at best, stuck in the shadow of the film industry that had dwarfed it for decades in terms of artistic value.

But while Hollywood has become a recycling bin of remakes, sequels and reboots in recent years, the television industry has seen a creative boom.

On AMC (of all channels), groundbreaking shows like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” have captured the attention of critics and audiences alike.

“Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire,” despite the fact that they air on the premium cable network HBO, have found new life (and new audiences) on DVD. The same can be said for “Dexter” and “Homeland” on Showtime.

That’s not to mention the surprising reinvention of FX, where shows like “Sons of Anarchy,” “Justified” and “American Horror Story” have been allowed to thrive.

And these are not sitcoms – not even close. These are serialized dramas, where a viewer misses an episode at his or her own peril, for fear of missing out on crucial plot points or character developments.

These kinds of shows rely on the audience investing in character and plot to keep them coming back every week, rather than hooking them on the promise of cheap laughs.

Shows like “Breaking Bad” are a perfect example, where fans watch in earnest as the lead character transforms from a regular high school science teacher to a ruthless drug kingpin over the course of the series.

These shows challenge us with morally ambiguous characters, shocking and unexpected plot twists, and the invitation to ponder and consider the events of each episode long after we’ve finished watching.

People don’t just watch these shows and forget about them anymore either. No, they debate over them with their friends and coworkers or they take to the Internet, where they discuss them with fervor on Twitter and Facebook.

Suddenly, watching a television show has become a communal experience, in that we become so attached to a show that we feel the need to share in it with others, lending out whole seasons on DVD or encouraging nonviewers to catch up on Netflix or Hulu.

Now, more than ever, we are witnessing television at its creative peak.

These are some of the most compelling and original television shows in years, and the obsessive fan culture is a direct result of this upward surge in quality.

And the best part is that there is something out there for everyone, whether you appreciate the aforementioned dramas or still prefer to spend your nights in the comforting arms of a good old-fashioned sitcom like “The Big Bang Theory” or “How I Met Your Mother.”

You don’t have to feel ashamed to turn on the television anymore, because chances are there is something out there that will give you something to think about.

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