(I’m still catching up.)
If you think about for any amount of time at all, you’ll notice something about TV’s evolution since we GenX types were kids: the broad market has gotten worse (Honey Boo Boo anyone?), and shows in general define success with vastly smaller chunks of a larger market, but there are at any given moment a few shows on the air (now there’s an anachronistic phrase) that push the boundaries of the medium and eschew trite 42-minute stories that return all the pieces, unchanged, to their starting positions before the credits roll.
Look at it this way: In 1978, the Emmy winner for best drama was The Rockford Files, which was a completely legitimate choice. However, Rockford was pretty simplistic, and employed the usual tropes — chief among them was that Jim and his pals were always more or less in exactly the same position at the end of the hour that they were at the start. Continuity was for soap operas, not so-called “serious” TV.
Then something interesting happened: Hill Street Blues. it was the vanguard for a whole new kind of TV show for adults, one that featured solid acting, good writing, real direction, and tossed out the whole idea of the continuity-free world. Episodic TV could — and should! — exploit the sheer expanse of the form; after all, every season had 22 hours to fill. Why not try some longer stories?
Hill Street and St Elsewhere and LA Law and Wiseguy and other shows in the 1980s pushed these boundaries probably as far as they could go on network TV, and then 1990s shows like NYPD Blue pushed them a bit more. . . and then HBO noticed, and let David Chase to The Sopranos, and then the change was mainstream.
Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, which is compulsively readable if distinctly flawed by a somewhat limited vision, is a study of these changes in quality TV. It takes the form of a chapter-by-chapter analysis of several key programs in the evolution of the modern TV drama, including Hill Street, but with a decided emphasis on the more recent examples. If you find media criticism and analysis at all interesting, this is a great book to pick up. I was disappointed that he didn’t go farther with the idea — Sepinwall mostly ignores broad trends in the medium, one of which is the implied subject of the recently published Difficult Men (why ARE so many of these elite shows centered on horrible people, like Tony Soprano or Walter White or Don Draper or Vic Mackey?). But what’s here is good, and is worth your time.