Pretty much everything that can be done within the medium of television had been done by 1970. The variety show, the family drama, the crime procedural, and the sitcom all were well into their evolution by that point. In The Platinum Age of Television, NPR TV critic David Bianculli argues that the quality of programming has only recently reached its apotheosis, but in showing us how we got here, he inadvertently demonstrates the broad stagnation of programming structure that’s been present for many decades now. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the new season of Bosch or Louie, but it does mean we should be careful not to mistake minor permutations on old themes or excellence in production and writing for the truly novel.
At any rate, it is fascinating to learn the lineage of one’s favorite shows and the career arcs of popular performers, producers, and writers. The Platinum Age of Television is organized by program format, so there are chapters on medical shows, family sitcoms, and legal dramas, etc. These chapters trace the development of a particular format chronologically, showing how each built on the other until most major innovations were accomplished. Interspersed with these format-oriented chapters are brief profiles of television professionals of all kinds.
Although there is an overarching thesis to the book, the linkage between chapters is fairly superficial. This works to the book’s advantage, though, inasmuch it gives it an encyclopedic character allowing for selective consumption of bite-sized chunks. Whether it’s Breaking Bad, The Simpsons, or The Sopranos that interests you most, each show is listed in the table of contents and can be found easily in its respective chapter. Overall, this makes for an effective and enjoyable reading experience.
There are all kinds of fascinating personalities and bits of history explored in Bianculli’s book such as study of just how subversive and groundbreaking the Smothers Brothers actually were. Taken in relief however, the most obvious conclusion the reader will likely reach is a truism of entertainment in general – it’s all been done before.