Nostalgia for 2004: TV's Golden Year
by Stephanie Earp, posted Oct 18th 2010 8:00PM
I actually remember the pilot season of 2004 -- that alone is saying something. When you write about TV, you're constantly bombarded by previews and they tend to run together. After all, half the time they star the same actors year after year (Matthew Perry, Amy Brenneman, etc.) and they often come in matched pairs with the same plot ('30 Rock' and 'Studio 60,' 'Ghost Whisperer' and 'Medium,' etc.). But 2004 stands out as a year when the pilots were unusually good, and the casts full of fresh faces. At least it all seemed fresh then. Not to be cruel, but it's starting to look a little haggard now.
A lot of shows that began in 2004 are still lingering on the air -- 'Desperate Housewives,' 'House,' and 'The Apprentice' are probably the biggest -- but even those that aren't running anymore still exercise a big influence over our thoughts about TV. 'Lost' changed how networks and viewers think about supernatural dramas on TV, and while the results have been mixed, thanks to 'Lost', we viewers have seen some bizarre stuff make it into series over the last while. 'Veronica Mars,' though it didn't last, was another 2004 show that tested the waters of what you could do in certain genres on TV. The normative violence of rape and sexual assault that girls face in high school and college had never been shown that way before -- and no tougher, smarter, cooler heroine had faced it.
2004 was the year that 'CSI' became a franchise, introducing us to Horatio Caine and his sunglasses of justice. [Ed. Note: Thanks to our wonderful readers, we now know that it's not 'CSI: Miami' that debuted this year, but 'CSI: NY.'] It's hard to remember a TV landscape that didn't include 8 - 10 hours of 'Law &Order', 'CSI' and 'NCIS,' and it's easy to see now that splitting off does reduce the potency of a show. Each one has been taken less and less seriously by viewers and academies since they doubled (and tripled) up.
2004 was also the year the long reign of comedy ended. 'Frasier,' 'Friends,' and 'Sex and the City' left the airwaves, (and all but one had the sense to stay gone; remember 'Joey'?) It was the year of drama, and the year of the ABC network, which stormed the gates with 'Lost' and 'Desperate Housewives' and added 'Grey's Anatomy' to the list in the mid-season.
In short, 2004 was a big, big year for TV. And I want to know how we can go about creating another 2004, because as much as I've wearied of the shows that have lasted, we haven't seen such a burst of creativity from the studios since.
There was a lot going on in the world then. A quick glance at Wikipedia reminded me that in 2004, Facebook was founded. A whale exploded in China. The CIA admitted there were no weapons of mass destruction. Suicide bombings were rampant. The Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. It was a leap year that started on a Thursday and ended with one of the worst natural disasters in history: the South Asian tsunami that killed over 180, 000 people.
Did the momentous events of the times inspire the momentous shows? There's no question that the themes of terrorism and disaster were major influences on 'Lost,' 'Rescue Me,' and later shows like 'Battlestar Galactica.' But we're still living in tenuous times -- the financial meltdown, the earthquake in Haiti, and the BP disaster are stark reminders of that.
But writers in Hollywood tell me it's the financial burnout that's really affecting what we see on TV and in the movies. Studios are terrified to make an expensive mistake and are turning to established brands in the form of sequels and remakes. Writers approaching studios with original ideas are instead being tasked to work on things like a 'Smurfs' movie. No joke -- Katy Perry voices Smurfette. We're not going to get another 'Lost' when another 'L&O' is bound to get a few viewers, and guaranteed some life in syndication.
The bad news? We don't get another leap year until 2012. The good news? NBC is in much the same position ABC was back in 2003 -- last place and showing no signs of climbing out of the hole. As much as we all love to rag on NBC for making wildly stupid choices (like losing Conan O'Brien), ABC was just as lost -- no pun intended. In order to change their fortunes, they must be willing to think creatively and try new ideas. Although it's hard to be optimistic when their big debut this year was another 'Law & Order' spin off.
If all else fails, I may have to become a baseball fan and start rooting for the Sox.