In recent years, television’s experienced a glut of truly exceptional programming (no, not everywhere, but bear with me). This recent onslaught of complex characters, engrossing and unexpected plot lines, as well as genuine emotional connection have shown that television is one of this country’s greatest platforms for modern artistic expression. In this article, I will focus on three programs, the latter two of which are deadly serious and violent hourlong dramas. So to start with, I would like to begin with an extremely progressive and transgressive step in the evolution of the half hour sitcom; the final season of 30 Rock.
Over 7 seasons, during which 30 Rock (2006-13) was consistently near to topping the list of the best comedy’s on TV, and in its final season it achieved greater freedom and silly hilarity than any other sitcom before or since. In the last episode of the season, “Hogcock!” (a combination of hogwash and poppycock) the show subverts traditional series finale tropes at every turn, creating what may be the funniest episode of the decade’s best comedy. Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), ever smiling and eternally helpful whipping boy of the entire series becomes the new head of NBC, Jack (Alec Baldwin) who for the entire series was the man in charge undergoes a crisis of direction, and Liz (Tina Fey) prepares to stop working and struggles to raise her two adopted children. The show uses fantastic references to references, creating completely off-the-wall jokes throughout the episode, which stands as one of the long-running series’ best.
Though 30 Rock was an example of the great steps taken in situation comedy of late, the first season of HBO’s True Detective (2014-15) went even farther than The Sopranos or The Wire in making it’s hourlong runtime a truly cinematic experience. While the stars (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey) create compelling focal points to a story about true horror, evil, and violence. One episode, “Who Goes There?” opens with a breathless six minute single shot of a botched drug bust/robbery that left me shocked and stunned. This sequence, taken as exemplum for the outstanding series as a whole, illustrates that True Detective sought and achieved true dramatic greatness.
While True Detective demonstrated that wonderful TV is still on premium networks like HBO, Netflix has now burst on the scene as a great exhibitor of original programming, and no where was that more apparent than in Netflix’s airing of Happy Valley (2014). Happy Valley, which first aired on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), tells the story of Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a no-nonsense police detective investigating a mysterious disappearance. As might be expected, she becomes embroiled in events beyond her pay grade. In the face of these new intense developments in her personal and professional life, she shows an almost magical backbone, like Sergeant Marge Gunderson (France McDormand) in Fargo, she is a picture of effectiveness. Sarah Lancashire’s performance as this protagonist is complex and intense, and makes Happy Valley the greatest television show I’ve seen in what feels like decades.
These three shows, one representing the persevering effectiveness of network television (30 Rock), one showing the great depths to which premium cable can plunge (True Detective), and one showing television’s exciting future (Happy Valley), have left me more excited about the future of television than ever before. It remains to be seen just how much entertainment will change in the coming decades, but I, for one, am thirsty to behold what the future will offer.