From The Sopranos To BoJack Horseman: The End Of The Second Golden Age Of Television

Alex Mell-Taylor

In typical Netflix style, BoJack Horseman ended on January 31, 2020, as the last eight episodes of the sixth season unceremoniously dropped all at once. With 77 episodes in total, we part with Diane and BoJack staring off into the LA night sky as they consider the fate of their tumultuous friendship.

There has been much discussion on what this ending means. Writers from the brilliant to the mundane have debated what this gesture symbolically represents for the characters, as well as for the philosophy of the show overall.

This ending represents another, more tangible thing; however: the second Golden Age of Television is a bubble ready to pop.

Depending on who you talk to, there have been several Golden Ages of Television in the US. Many scholars place the first one roughly from the late 40s to 1960 with shows such as Studio One (‘48–’58), I Love Lucy (‘51–’57), and Playhouse 90 (‘56–’60). These shows were diverse in structure, but what set them apart was an emphasis on good writing and humor.

This era ended when network executives of the time began operating under the philosophy of “least-objectionable programming” or the focus on producing, not necessarily high-quality shows, but ones that viewers would object to the least. This reduced the number of prestige shows on the air. As a former NBC television executive, Pat Weaver told the Sunday Denver Post:

“Television has gone from about a dozen forms to just two — news shows and the Hollywood stories…Management doesn’t give the people what they deserve. I don’t see any hope in the system as it is.”

Weaver was fired from the NBC network before he made this statement and never worked for another one — and so his comment was, in part, the result of bitterness — but he was right that “least-objectionable programming” led to very dull entertainment.

The first golden age was indeed over.

Some people believe that there was another golden age in the 1980s with shows like The Jeffersons (‘75-’85), Miami Vice (‘84-’90), and Moonlighting (‘85-’89), but this is debatable. There is a tendency for people to conflate golden ages in entertainment with nostalgia for their childhoods.

When people refer to the “Second Golden Age of Television” or “Peak TV,” they are often not referring to the 80s, but a period of TV that began in 1999. Even more specifically, they are referring to the HBO show The Sopranos (1999–2007).

The mob show followed the life of New Jersey kingpin Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and those close to him, and it is often accredited for changing the way Americans watched television. The Sopranos delivered extensive character arcs where the viewer came to know the internal motivations and psyches of its characters. This type of character development might seem routine now, but it enthralled audience members at the time. As Peter Biskind wrote in Vanity Fair shortly after the series end:

“[Gandolfini’s] performance helped transform HBO from a fights-and-features TV footnote into the Rolls-Royce of pay cable, a critical and commercial behemoth whose impact has recast American television — almost, or at least occasionally — into a medium for adults.”

More shows quickly followed in The Sopranos’ footsteps.

From 2000 onward, the American public was treated to intimate portrayals of anti-heroes with sympathetic or tragic backgrounds. They were awful, but also likable. These characters are household names at this point, such as Don Draper (Jon Hamm) from Mad Men (2007–2015), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from Breaking Bad (2008–2013), pretty much every cast member in Game Of Thrones (2011–2019), and the eponymous BoJack Horseman.

Airing on Netflix on August 22, 2014, BoJack Horseman also fits into the anti-hero mold. The show is about a faded Hollywood star living on the cusp of alcoholism and depression. The world hates (or at least is ambivalent to) BoJack, but the viewer comes to know everything about his past: we learn about his traumatic childhood, his negative-self-talk, and his crushing nihilism.

Beloved by critics, the show is undeniably a continuation of The Golden Age of Television that began with The Sopranos. As Vox cultural critic Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote in her article “The 21 TV shows that explained the 2010s”:

“‘A sad horse” is maybe not who I would have expected to choose as the decade’s finest antihero when BoJack Horseman began in 2014, but Netflix’s animated tale of a middle-aged anthropomorphic equine with addiction problems and a substantial paunch around his midsection hit all the right beats for a story about a character who’s compelling even though he’s awful.

This high praise from a Netflix show wasn’t always a certainty, though. BoJack was part of a content shift that itself represented a dramatic departure from the company’s original mission. Netflix was initially founded in 1997 as a DVD rental service that competed with the late Blockbuster Video Store. You selected a title from their website, and they physically mailed it to you.

As we can see from this 1999 screenshot of their homepage, many of the things we associate with Netflix were not in its earliest iteration: the red color had yet to be settled on, there was an emphasis on keeping the words Net and Flix separate, and their digital subscription was limited just to DVD rentals.

We would not see it start to distribute streaming content until 2007/8, and it would take years for “Netflix Original” programming to be a part of this equation. The start of that shift technically began with the Norwegian–American television series Lillyhammer (2012–2014), but the series everyone remembers is House Of Cards (2013–2018).

Airing February 1 of 2013, viewers and critics alike were entranced by sociopathic politician Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as he vied for the presidency. This was years before Trump, and so his grab for power was perceived by many viewers as compelling, rather than terrifying.

Underwood falls into the same mold as the majority of characters in the Golden Age Of Television — a compromised anti-hero with a troubled past which the viewer comes to intimately know through gritty character arcs. Netflix’s foray into original content was primarily seen as a continuation of Peak TV. As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic about House Of Card’s success:

“Yes, programming costs will continue to rise, and yes, you might have to get used to paying a little bit more for Netflix as it turns into an independently-owned HBO. But the good news is that the golden age of television was built by a group of niche networks chasing TV fanatics with programming that was better than we knew to expect from TV. And that group is getting bigger.

From 2013 to 2017, Netflix was the dominant player in the streaming market, and one of the main ways it did this was by publishing prestige, avant-garde television. It pushed boundaries with comedic and dramatic titles such as Orange Is the New Black (2013–2019), Bloodline (2015–2017), Sense8 (2015–2018), The Get Down (2016–2017), Grace and Frankie (2015–2020), Jessica Jones (2015–2019), BoJack Horseman (2014–2020), and many more — all of which have now ended, or are in their final season.

Not every show produced or commissioned by the network was brilliant. The series also made its living by releasing popular continuations (e.g., Arrested Development, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, etc.), children’s programming (e.g., Ever After High), and schlock (e.g., Hemlock Grove). There was an impression, however, that it was a place interested in fostering creativity and ambition — one that the network itself promoted. When pressed in 2013 on what the direction of the original content would be, chief content officer Ted Sarandos said: “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.

They were looking to emulate The Sopranos, not Nickelodeon, and therefore put an emphasis on shows that, at the time, outpaced the programming and budget of anywhere else. For example, the show Sense8, which was helmed by the Wachowskis sisters of The Matrix fame, filmed on five different continents and reportedly had a budget of $9 million per episode. It was a truly ambitious project in scope that earned praise from critics for its dazzling character work and direction.

These shows would go on to earn large followings, and in the case of tentpoles like House Of Cards, win many awards, solidifying the network’s place in American television. Netflix became such a fixture in the media ecosystem that it seemed all anyone could talk about. In much the same way that Google became synonymous with searching for something on the Internet, Netflix & Chill became a shorthand “to hook up with someone.”

Somewhere along the way, this direction changed. While we still have a lot of fantastic shows, the market is so oversaturated right now that they are not what stands out amongst the crowd. This is a sign that we are on the tail end of a bubble.

The Second Golden Age is coming to an end.

People have been predicting the end of the Golden Age of Television for years now — something social critic Emily Todd VanDerWerff lampooned back in the early 2010s in her brilliant article “The golden age of TV is dead; long live the golden age of TV.” Critics talked about the end in 2013 when Breaking Bad and Mad Men were going off the air. It happened again in 2018 when shows such as The Americans and The Leftovers kicked the bucket. Now I’m saying it’s happening again in 2020 with the show BoJack Horseman.

The reason this Golden Age is ending, however, is not because BoJack Horseman was such a good show that television will never be able to produce anything like it again. People have produced excellent content at all periods of history, and they will continue to do so until humanity kicks it for good. This market won’t end for lack of creativity, but because of oversaturation.

Netflix contributed to part of this oversaturation by buying up a ridiculous amount of TV shows and movies. In the year 2019, they singlehandedly scheduled the release of over 90 films, as well as over 371 new shows. The website Variety remarked on how this number was more shows than what had been released by all US networks in the year 2005. Some of this content was good and even great, but the sheer volume meant that there was a noticeable dip in quality. As Jennifer Wright wrote in the New York Post: “The problem with such a glut of programming means a lot of it is extremely forgettable.”

Quantity was not the network’s only problem.

In large part because of Netflix’s unprecedented success, the market also started to experience more serious competition in the mid-2010s. The streaming venture Hulu technically had original programming as early as 2011, but nothing that gained much notoriety. It was only in 2016 that original content ramped up with the release of James Franco’s 11.22.63 (2016) and the psychological thriller Shut Eye (2016–2017), among others. This investment culminated in the widely successful dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017 (a show that hardly needs an introduction).

Since then, we have seen a rise in video production from the likes of Amazon Studios (2010, but really 2015), AppleTV+ (2019), and Disney+ (2020). The traditional cable networks have also launched their own platforms (e.g., CBS All Access and NBC’s Peacock ) — each with their own roster of programming, which means there has been a veritable gold rush to get out new content.

The spending on this new content has been obscene, and the price tag for top talent keeps rising. Drew Barrymore was paid over $350,000 per episode for the Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. Kevin Costner infamously was paid $500,000 per episode to star in the Paramount Network’s TV show Yellowstone (2016-present). Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Anniston were paid $2 million each per episode for the New AppleTV+ series The Morning Show (2019).

It’s not that all of these shows were unsuccessful — though some of them have been prematurely canceled — but that they were constructed out of whole cloth using name recognition as a starting point. All these new platforms are trying to outspend their way to viewership, and it has led to inflation. As FX original-programming president Eric Schrier told Variety in 2016:

“When you’re competing with businesses that don’t have to show profit and can just pay crazy amounts of money, that inflates the marketplace in terms of what the general costs are. You try to manage it as best you can, but you also stay competitive.”

Apple and Amazon might not have to justify their expenses right now, but they will eventually. When Netflix started its original programming, it also spent big on ambitious projects such as Sense8, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, and John Fusco’s Marco Polo. They were all canceled prematurely because the price tag of these projects did not justify their viewership.

You cannot spend big forever.

The difference between then and now is that Netflix was still the dominant player in the market, and that cost was coming from other successful video projects. Apple and Amazon are starting with expensive projects in the hope that it will lead to profit down the line. They are burning money from other, non-content related sectors of their companies, and they are doing so to compete for an increasingly smaller slice of the pie. There is only so much attention that can be monetized, however, and it’s being spread among more and more platforms — and not just big ones either.

Following the collapse of ad revenue for YouTubers in 2017 (sometimes referred to as “adpocalypse”), even smaller creators have moved to a subscription-based model to cover their expenses. The number of small creators that rely on subscription-services like the crowdfunding website Patreon has swelled in recent years.

In truth, Amazon Studios isn’t just competing with Netflix, but a network of subscription services chipping away at the entertainment market as a whole. It is now common for a viewer to get their entertainment from smaller sources such as exclusive videos on Patreon, a podcaster they donate to yearly in a fundraising drive, and a content creator they follow directly to a smaller website. Everyone wants to become 2014 Netflix, but that prize has fragmented into a thousand different pieces.

BoJack, sadly, appears to be a reflection of something that will never be again.

The thing that makes BoJack Horseman’s ending so sad is that it’s currently rare for a project like this to exist on the platform for as long as it did. The series ran for a total of six seasons, and although critics liked it since the beginning, it really did take seasons to hit its stride.

Nowadays, a project gets about a single season of runtime (if that) to prove itself, and that’s a shame because it means that we aren’t going to get the sort of growth experienced during the beginning of this Golden Age Of Television. The much-beloved animation Tuca & Bertie, for example, was canceled after one season, despite being liked by many critics. From Schitt’s Creek (2015–2020) to One Day At A Time (2017 — present), there is a myriad of well-loved shows that have to fight to keep on the air.

This creates an environment where much like how least objectionable programming killed the first Golden Age, we are starting to see streaming platforms plug safe, affordable shows to bolster their libraries. There are currently more adaptations of Nailed It (2018 — present) — a baking show about amateur cooks recreating professional desserts with spinoffs in Mexico, France, Spain, Germany — than there are ongoing projects this blogger cares about on Netflix.

That absence says something about the lack of quality in the streaming world.

Netflix was always about making a profit, and so maybe the conflux of factors that led to unique projects such as Sense8 was coincidental. The market was disrupted, and now things are starting to solidify back to the safety of least objectionable programming, but whatever it is, the energy is gone.

In the closing scene of the show, BoJack might as well be staring out into the uncertainty approaching the world of television.

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Alex is a culture writer working at the intersections of digital life, politics, and entertainment.


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