Usually a "golden age" is something to look back on with a wry smile. In Pandora's Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV, Peter Biskind (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; The Sky Is Falling) writes of "a second golden age of TV that we are lucky enough to be more or less living in today, courtesy of the deluge of streaming services." His invigorating and, at times, eviscerating book tells the origin story of what one industry insider has dubbed "Peak TV."
In the 1980s, premium cable arrived as an antidote to network TV, long considered an artistic dead zone for its creative limitations and insufferable ads. What Biskind calls HBO's "revolution" began with 1992's landmark comedy The Larry Sanders Show; follow-up HBO gold such as Oz (1997), Sex and the City (1998), and The Sopranos (1999) threw down the gauntlet, and other cable companies and freshly hatched streaming services rushed in to compete. A-listers (actors, writers, directors) signed on, reveling in the long-form-story format and appreciating the warm welcome to shows centered on network-TV-verboten antiheroes.
Pandora's Box reports on a dizzying number of hirings and firings, mergers and acquisitions. Biskind gathers firsthand insights from key players, many off the record, probably with good reason. In Biskind's telling, the contests for survival recall a sporting event, with seconds-remaining saves: Mad Men rescued a dying AMC. Ted Lasso resuscitated a moribund Apple TV+. All the behind-the-scenes maneuvering presents as a power-madness that someone should capture in a series, although surely it's already in production. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer