A little while ago people started calling all those HBO dramas and post-Simpsons sitcoms "quality tv." The irony, predictably, was that the moment that term started circulating, new shows suffered a giant dropoff in quality.
Quick recap: when movies dedicated more and more resources to the blockbuster model, and when TV saw ratings drop across the board except for in ultra-cheap reality TV, small networks picked up a lot of writing and acting talent, and gave them a long leash to create 12-episode, novelistic series. These series did everything with character and plot that blockbusters and reality TV weren't doing--or all those high minded ideals about "storytelling" that writers and actors were trained to revere. Meanwhile comedies went surreal, following the Simpsons' model of the (mostly all male) writer's room, where they'd throw jokes around, try to crack each other up, and script whatever worked. Arrested Development came and went, and proved that live action absurdism could work. 30 Rock and Modern Family followed.
Problem is, each new version waters down the formula. Boardwalk Empire substitutes period costume and politics for the malignant everydayness of the Sopranos' New Jersey, which was precisely why that show was brilliant: it didn't glamorize the mafia. Justified takes what I think was the best scripted of the HBO shows, Deadwood, and turns it into a present day backwoods morality play about as sophisticated as the Dukes of Hazzard. With Treme, which I actually quite like, you get all the wide-ranging sociological insight of The Wire, but without the essential plotting motor of cops chasing robbers. Treme's hook? Admittedly incredible music. But is that enough to sustain twelve hours of terse characters negotiating their lives in a devastated city?
I'm not even going to bother with sci-fi after Battlestar Galactica. Partly because that show never lived up to its brilliant first season. But everything after it is laughable.
That leaves Mad Men, Dexter, the Office, and Weeds, which are all, in a sense, holdovers from the "new golden age" of a couple years ago. All of them great, but all of them have proved themselves capable of truly disappointing individual seasons. And all of them, I think, are close to ending, with nothing on the horizon to replace them. Glee? Almost unwatchable pageant television with not quite enough snark to redeem it. Friday Night Lights? Possibly the most sinister bowdlerization of a pretty good source movie I've ever seen. Breaking Bad? Never quite lives up to its intial set-up. Walking Dead? The zombies themselves think the show's a little slow and clumsy.
Just something to remember as Boxee and Google TV and over-the-air Digital Cable roll out in upcoming months and years. If Hollywood's putting money back into TV content, that's not necessarily a good thing.