Television GenerationsI know this seems like a gross oversimplification (and it is, but bear with me), but it does seem that there is a rhythm to the way in which cable dramas are introduced. For lack of a better word, I'm calling it a "generation" - a cohort of shows that are developed, introduced, and ultimately ended relatively concurrently. The Sopranos is, of course, the granddaddy of cable dramas - without it, there likely would not have been anything that followed it, nor would there have been the various networks that now push serious serialized dramas, and we might still have a television world in which the four major networks (I refuse to include The CW) determine the nature and flow of television drama.
The Sopranos preceded the first generation by a couple of years, as it laid the ground work for this model to take place. The first generation was dominated by The Sopranos and its immediate predecessors that started in 2001-2002: most notably Six Feet Under, The Wire, and The Shield. They started to fade as early as 2006, which made way for the second generation, which is just now ending. Popularly, the first two generations are referred to collectively as the "Golden Age" of TV, and I don't think that title is wrong.
The second generation has been headed by Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter, True Blood, and Sons of Anarchy (among others), which mostly came between 2007-2008. (Dexter started in September 2006, but it didn't really get noticed until 2007). These shows are all ending within a year of one another (or two, thanks to AMC's recent extension of Mad Men into 2015), and they are making way for the next generation, which is actually the fourth generation of cable dramas (their "grandchildren", so to speak). The timeline sped up as more networks joined the fray after AMC's smash success in 2007, and there is now less time between generations.
The third generation started in early 2010 with Justified and the Walking Dead, and within a year,
Treme, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Downton Abbey all premiered, with Homeland a few months later. There were some other shows in this generation - Luck, The Killing and Hell on Wheels most notably - but none that really got much cultural traction. In the past three years, these last two generations have defined television, but now there's a bit of a gap as the next generation comes in
The fourth generationThe networks have understood this process, particularly as it takes 3 to 4 years to develop a new cable drama from idea to pilot to marketing and airing. The kind of creative intensity and authority that is required is demanding, and it takes a while for the right actors to line up. Right now, there are five major cable networks that are involved in the drama process: HBO, FX, AMC, Showtime, and, as of this year, Netflix. (I refuse to include Starz in that list until they have either a critical or commerical hit, and I do not think that the other cable networks like USA, TNT, or SyFy are much more than pulp/genre appeal at this point. I suppose I could be argued into including USA - kind of like The CW is now considered "network programming". But I digress.) These five networks are now defining cable dramas for this generation - and they are also responsible for the majority of Emmy nominations in dramatic categories (save for outlier Downton Abbey).
In the past eight months, several series have debuted to varying levels of commercial and critical success on the big five cable networks, including: The Americans and The Bridge (FX); Ray Donovan (Showtime); Low Winter Sun (AMC); and Hemlock Grove, House of Cards, and Orange Is The New Black (Netflix). (HBO's schedule is full for now and the next few years with third generation projects.) Interestingly, there is one more on the way for the fall - Masters of Sex (Showtime); perhaps the cable networks are more aware now that it is easier to have a show get attention when there are not 25 other new shows competing for media coverage and audience time. Several of these shows have already been renewed for second seasons, and it is likely that almost all eventually will be, as cable networks tend to be more generous with their renewals. These shows have, after all, been subject to significant financial development already, and it makes sense for cable networks to try to give them the airtime they need to earn an audience (which often only happens after a couple of seasons).
Of course, it is too early to tell which of these shows will survive and which will become a footnote in the annals of television criticism, but it is pretty much guaranteed that not all of these shows will last six or seven years. My early bets for continued success are House of Cards (nine Emmy nominations!), Orange is the New Black (significant commercial/media attention), and The Americans (due to be listed on numerous year-end best-of lists and the default "best show you're not watching" now that Justified is more popular). It is probably a good bet that some of the shows that will premiere early next year will become some of the more notable entries of this fourth generation, but we probably will not really know which ones really stand out until the third generation starts to peter out in two or three years. And at that point, we will be speculating on the next generation - or perhaps the next next generation, if it moves that quickly.
The personal connectionSince I really started rewatching TV in the fall of 2006, I have at any time had two or three shows at a time that I could watch on my own. I get maybe an hour or two a week to watch TV that my wife won't watch, which is most of these shows. (Granted, I have more time when I'm casually working, as I am now, but I cannot always count on this benefit. At least I hope not to.) In the past two years, I've made it work because of a staggered schedule: Justified in the spring, Breaking Bad in the summer, Homeland and Dexter in the fall. In addition to Justified and Homeland, I am watching through The Newsroom with my wife, so it kind of counts here (we just started Season 2), and I have been binge-watching House of Cards on my days off (I feel like it only half counts itself because it's on Netflix and I can watch it anytime. But with Breaking Bad and Dexter (almost) out of the way, I'm looking to add to my roster.
Of the current generation (aside from House of Cards), only The Americans and The Bridge are really of any interest to me. I started The Americans, and I think it will emerge as one of my shows; I'll have to check out The Bridge. But the real question that faces any new show I want to look at is whether it would be better to watch it as it happens rather than going back to my two most shameful omissions from the first two generations (The Wire and Mad Men) or rewatching my favourites (namely Breaking Bad or Justified). There's really nothing else from the third generation that will catch me.; after all, if I haven't already taken the time to watch The Walking Dead, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, or Treme, I'm not going to start now.
So here's my thoughts about this fall. I'll finish off House of Cards this week, and The Newsroom in the near future. I'm planning to follow Homeland (hoping that it chooses a more consistent narrative path and redeems itself from its current almost-jumping-the-shark-iness), which will keep me busy until Justified returns in January. My main goal of watching for the next few months is to watch Season 1 of The Americans so I can follow along as of Season 2. My secondary goal will be to catch up on Mad Men so I can enjoy the last two half-seasons as they are aired over the next two years; but even if I end up waiting for a year to watch it, I can still watch the last half of Season 7 in 2015 when it airs. I'll probably end up filling up the extra time with some British shows like The Hour, Luther, and Broadchurch. They should keep me busy until Season 3 of Sherlock premieres in 2014.