In recent years, television’s experienced a glut of truly exceptional programming. This recent onslaught of complex characters, engrossing and unexpected plot lines, as well as genuine emotional connection have meant that television, rather than just movies, is the country’s greatest platform for modern artistic expression. In this article, I will focus on three programs, the latter two of which are deadly serious and violent hour-long dramas, I would like to begin with an extremely progressive and transgressive evolution of the half hour sitcom that was the final season of 30 Rock.
Over 7 seasons, 30 Rock was consistently near the top of 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 tradition 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 end the show and struggles to raise her two adopted children. All of these fantastic references to references create fantastic jokes throughout the episode, which stands as one of the long-running series’ best.
Though 30 Rock was example of the great steps taken in situation comedy of late, HBO’s True Detective 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.
While True Detective demonstrated that great TV is still on premium networks like HBO, Netflix has now burst on the scene as a great exhibitor of programming, and no where was that more apparent than in Netflix’s airing of Happy Valley. Happy Valley, which first aired on the BBC, tells the story of Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a no-nonsense police detective investigating a mysterious disappearance before becoming embroiled in events beyond her pay grade. Sarah Lancashire’s performance as the 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 premium cable can achieve (True Detective), and one showing that new avenues like Netflix can offer us a full spectrum of great entertainment (Happy Valley), all demonstrate that television’s possibilities are always expanding. I for one am excited to see the continuation of this new golden age of television, excited as I am that it may become the status quo.
By Andrew Halter