Photography by Prudence Upton

How TV Culture Got Big: Breaking Down The Golden Age Of TV With Christopher Borelli

Going into Sydney’s inaugural Bingefest, Christopher Borelli wasn’t exactly the fan-favorite. He’s not attached to a hugely-popular TV series, podcast or website.

“My thing is to not have a thing. I’ve never really had a beat,” he says.

Still, a lot of people came out of his talk, “When TV Got High“, pretty excited.

While Borelli isn’t the only TV critic presenting at Bingefest, he admits, “I don’t come at in that standard TV critic of way.”

He actually started his career as a film critic.

“I worked at Premiere Magazine, which was like The Rolling Stone of film magazines. Then I was a film critic at the Toledo Blade, which sounds sort of small but was actually this big mid-western newspaper with deep pockets so I’d cover Sundance and Cannes every year.”

“I did that for ten years and then I wanted to write about lots of things so I came to the Chicago Tribune ’cause they’d let me do that”

I ask about the timing of his jump. After all, 2008 was a year where shows like Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica and 30 Rock dominated the discourse around TV. Some might say it was the start of the era oft-called “The Golden Age of TV.

“2008 was maybe around the time people began to recognize it,” he says.

Borelli goes on to elaborate that while picking out a specific start-date for the golden age is a tricky thing, he’d likely go even earlier.

“Probably The Sopranos [in] 99,” he says before adding, that “there were things before that. I mean Buffy was very important. The Larry Sanders Show was very important.”

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“Some would even say Oz because without the success of Oz, HBO wouldn’t have been around to film The Sopranos in the first place”

Talk of mapping out the modern history of the medium leads us onto the string of books that are being written and published about the phenomenon.

“There’s actually a whole bunch of books that released in the states that are taking [on] the history of TV,” Borelli says.

He compares it to the so-called Golden Age of Film, saying “it had this sort of ecosystem of film critics that in a way encouraged it. They were serious about it and people got excited about critics. TV doesn’t really have that.”

“The Golden Age [of TV] comes at a time where people aren’t really reading that. You just go to Rotten Tomatoes and look at a score and that’s criticism somehow.”

“I guess what I’m saying is that that same kind of ecosystem doesn’t really exist for TV critics,” Borelli says.

He adds that there are definitely writers contributing to the discussion in significant ways

Emily Nuasbaum, David Thompson, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz each earn a mention from Borelli.

“There’s some attempt of creating a critical discourse” around the medium, he says.

I ask Borelli what show defined 2016 for him.

“I really like Atlanta, a lot. That’s a show with a point of view but the funny thing is that Donald Glover, at some point, is going to have to recognize that the show is not about him. It’s about Paperboi.”

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“He’s by far the best actor on the show and the strongest character and Donald Glover should take on more of a supporting role, in a way. It shouldn’t be his show. I wonder if they recognize that at some point, because It felt like it was recognizing that”

He highlights how the show kept things short and often experimented with the form and structure of a TV show.

“It’s a little like Louie in that way, it kinda had sense that a TV show can be whatever it wants to be. There’s a sense of possibilities in Atlanta,” he says.

I ask if the diminished power of paywalls attached to cable TV has played a role in how big TV culture has grown in recent years.

“Of course it’s helped. Absolutely. I mean you don’t have to own a TV to be part of this,” Borelli says.

“2015 was the first year that the percentage of home that own at least one television set didn’t increase. It’s always steadily increased over fifty, sixty years and it didn’t this year because people don’t have to have TV to watch TV”

Borelli says this disconnect between TV – then medium – and TV – the technology – has freed the former up in some ways but also raises the question of what is TV?

“Does it matter? I don’t know. I wonder if that’s even a useful question. I mean, who gives a shit if its good?” he says.

Given his role as a critic of culture, I ask Borelli if he worries about Netflix’s dominance.

“I’m not sure they are dominating,” he says, “I mean they’re super-powerful but they don’t release their numbers so you don’t know how many people watch a show. The assumption is that if they keep a show, it’s been doing really well and if you hear nothing from them then probably its not doing so good.”

Borelli says he doesn’t think we should be concerned right now due to the lack of a true monopoly.

There are too many other channels, he says.

Though one issue with Netflix does emerge when it comes to finding new TV.

“So many people have Netflix that if it’s not on Netflix, it doesn’t exist.”

“Which is kinda sad,” he adds.

According to Borelli, “the way that Netflix just drops an entire season in just one day is really disruptive in the way you watch television.”

Borelli says it’s closer to the experience of reading a book.

“It’s like you watch three hours of it and then you come back and watch another three hours of it. I don’t know if I like that. I kind of like the waiting,” he confesses.

On the topic of good books, I ask Borelli whether he thinks the enormous success of Game of Thrones is one that can ever really be replicated or replaced by another fantasy drama.

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“I don’t know. That’s a business question in a lot of ways. I would argue that it already exists in Westworld. Westworld is very popular and it ended big.”

“The people who really like Westworld really like Westworld. It seems like the people at HBO are banking on being its next big show, you know.

“There’s lots of good science fiction in the world that could be adapted,” he says before adding that “I would like to see fewer genres in a way.”

He says “there aren’t studios that are making big epics pitched at adults anymore.”

Borelli notes that a similar hole has opened up in mainstream Hollywood.

“I would like to see them do a little more of a Mad Men, Breaking Bad or Sopranos”

“My issue is that there isn’t a lot of personality on TV. Often even when a few is very good it doesn’t have the same mark that a film has.”

“There’s nobody out there like [Martin] Scorsese, where you know it’s a show by him”

Borelli laments the absence of David Chase in today’s TV landscape. With The Sopranos, he says, you could tell “that it was more personal and you could kind of tell it came from a point of view.”

That’s not to say everything has to be super-serious all the time.

Borelli says that, as well as fare like Atlanta and The Sopranos, “I really like kinda cheesy superhero shows. They feel like old TV to me in some ways.”

He highlights Supergirl as a show he really enjoyed.

“As far as DC goes, they’re much better than the films,” Borelli says.

“The film are ponderous and they weigh like a brick on your head and I think the TV shows have exactly the right kind of tone.”

Christopher Borelli is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. His talk, “When TV Got High”, took place at this year’s BingeFest weekend in Sydney over the 17th & 18th of December. 

Photography by Prudence Upton