The last 12 months in television were not without exciting newcomers. Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen boldly reinvented the mythology of superheroes by appropriating one of its most seminal critiques. Natasha Lyonne’s Russian Doll turned firsthand knowledge of downtown New York’s seedy underworld into a meditation on free will and personal choice. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s Pen15 bravely plunged its creator-stars back into middle school’s humiliating hormonal maw. The Mandalorian brought a galaxy far, far away to our living room TV sets. With this many series being produced, a handful of gems will inevitably rise to the top.
Looking back on the past year, though, the beginnings stand out far less than the ends.
The following is an incomplete list of shows that concluded in 2019: Broad City, the raunchy tribute to female friendship as an anchor through the tumultuous time that is young adulthood in New York; Catastrophe, the caustic comedy that made the trials of long-term partnership seem as romantic as a meet-cute; The Deuce, David Simon’s vivid, devastating portrait of an illicit industry on the verge of decline; Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, two CW series that deconstructed the romance out of a complicated kind of affection; Fleabag, the one-woman show that turned Phoebe Waller-Bridge into an omnipresent icon; Lodge 49, the Pynchonian tale of a surfer stumbling into a mundane sort of occult; Orange Is the New Black, the sprawling ensemble that kick-started dual revolutions—the streaming era and an increased emphasis on representation—that have an uneasy relationship with each other; Transparent, a show that explored gender and sexuality (and Judaism, and contemporary Los Angeles) until it was undone by sexual misconduct; Veep, the political satire that explained our national dysfunction while offering a partial reprieve. Soon, hacker drama Mr. Robot will add to an already staggering body count. And all that is before one even factors in Game of Thrones, the multi-ton CGI dragon in the room.
Leading up to its widely watched, less widely admired culmination in May, much was made of Thrones’ status as the last of its kind, a great unifier whose most fantastical flourish of all was reviving the monoculture for an hour at a time on Sunday nights. Nearly seven months later, those eulogies for Thrones still echo, though they take on a different tone when held up against the context of all this year’s other finales. In truth, television as communal mass consumption is a model that was de facto extinct long before Game of Thrones artificially expanded its lifespan, White Walker–style—and may in fact be better represented by The Big Bang Theory, another monster hit that wound down within days of its flashier peer. However warranted, the noise around Thrones may have obscured the passing of a different kind of cultural moment.
In terms of volume, TV is in no danger of slowing down. With the dual launches of Disney+ and Apple TV+ within weeks of each other, 2019 will surely be remembered in retrospect as a dividing line, the near side of which will be filled with well-financed streaming services like the impending HBO Max, Peacock, and even short-form specialist Quibi. Yet the beginning of a new era implies the end of another. And while whatever this latest phase of TV’s ever-accelerating expansion holds, we’re still years away from grasping its full ramifications, both for what we watch and how we watch it. It’s much easier, in the meantime, to look at what’s being lost.
Collectively, 2019’s graduating class represents some of the most exciting fruits of the fertile valley between two distinct periods. On one side lies TV’s loosely defined Golden Age (or Third Golden Age, depending on the historical framing), the imperfect yet sticky term for the stretch from the late 1990s to the early 2010s that saw an explosion in noteworthy, resonant series, many of them on subscription cable networks. On the other lies the Streaming Wars, the imperfect yet sticky term for the time when the entertainment conglomerates and tech giants started to join in on the resulting gold rush with owned-and-operated services of their own. Not that the mid-2010s were exactly free of corporate influence; it takes a tremendous amount of capital to run a TV network, meaning the dynamic between major ones will never be as simple as scrappy indies versus bloated behemoths. Still, there’s a notable gear shift between HBO and HBO Max, FX and the Disney+-Hulu-ESPN+ bundle, Netflix as vanguard and Netflix as incumbent.
Into the narrow gap between these points rushed a flood of shows that retained the ambition of the Golden Age while widening its scope, often bolstered with an infusion of capital courtesy of Jeff Bezos or Reed Hastings. With certain notable exceptions—Sex and the City on premium cable, Buffy the Vampire Slayer on broadcast—the Golden Age was defined by the white, straight men afforded the opportunity, and autonomy, in the entertainment industry to start flouting its norms. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad may have interrogated masculinity and its preferred genres, but they also invited questions about what would fill the vacuum left behind by the idols they tore down.
The answer could partly be found on nascent streaming services, which wedged their way into the zeitgeist with series that combined the novelty of new voices and formats with the more orthodox idea of awards-friendly prestige. Orange Is the New Black and Transparent established Netflix and Amazon, respectively, as players of the same game as HBO, Showtime, and AMC, but with incarcerated, trans, nonwhite, and/or non-Christian women in the narrative driver’s seat. Transparent’s Jill Soloway even augmented this story innovation with a stylistic one, presenting the Pfeffermans in an intimate, loose, auteurist style more common to microbudget features than Emmy-winning shows. Meanwhile, to bolster its still-nascent catalog, Amazon licensed British series like Catastrophe and Fleabag, introducing American audiences to comedies more caustic and compact than many stateside offerings. Together, these early streaming shows could inspire an easy, naive kind of optimism: What if Big Tech could use its reach to amplify great art? Sure, the alliance was one of convenience, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t last. We forgot to think a few steps ahead to when, buzz acquired and shareholders impatient, the profit motive would stop incentivizing experiments and start incentivizing “the next Game of Thrones.”
Yet the mid-2010s were also a moment when streaming, while ascendant, could still coexist with traditional networks that were prompted into more risk-taking, at least for a few more years. Both Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are unmistakably CW shows, hewing to the network’s pastel color palette and young, female demographic. They’re just smart, thoughtful, unusually well-executed examples of the house style. Similarly, Broad City’s stoner humor and profane high jinks felt right at home on Comedy Central, even if the female focus and specificity of millennial Brooklyn was new. And perhaps most importantly, critics and audiences alike were newly primed to the possibilities of scripted television without being overwhelmed by options to the point of writing off recommendations based on outlet alone. These days, it’s hard to resist the urge to simply let Netflix hand-deliver your weekend viewing.
Mr. Robot represented more of an outright pivot: blue skies, procedural-happy USA sending smoke signals with a direct homage to David Fincher, himself a convert to television with Netflix series House of Cards and Mindhunter. But even as new power centers established themselves online and smaller players found purchase by perfecting or changing their lanes, the Golden Age still lingered in spirit. The Deuce, in particular, felt like a welcome holdover: a sprawling yet unflashy drama from David Simon, dissecting an institution through flawed, compelling individuals. Then again, The Deuce itself is about a group of people who don’t realize their livelihoods are about to be swallowed up by the inexorable creep of capital and the lure of home entertainment. It’s hard not to impose a meta angle. Less than two months after its finale, The Deuce already feels like a relic of a bygone time—before television’s balance of power had fully shifted, and exciting variety gave way to overwhelming volume.
Television has no central governing body, and the moment when a show ends has as much to do with the collaborators involved as the trends they operate within. But it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that so many series indicative of a given moment ended in 2019, because that moment has finally passed. In a medium especially resistant to periodization, 2019 marks an unusually tidy passing of the torch. The wide-open potential of a post–Orange Is the New Black world has given way to Netflix’s swift cancellation of Tuca and Bertie; The Deuce, Game of Thrones, and Veep have all concluded as HBO enters a new chapter of high-volume production instead of a slower flow from a carefully curated pipeline. Nostalgia is a tempting trap. Just for a moment, though, we can let ourselves succumb to it, before plunging even further into TV’s brave new world.