We are in a golden age of television! TVEnthusiast will be celebrating this era of exceptional content through the holiday season with 10 feature articles, each focusing on 1 year of television in our current golden age.
1997: A New Generation of Television Showrunners
1997 is the first year we are covering as part of our 2 weeks of features about the golden age of television. Series that debuted in 1997 include animated comedies King of the Hill, Daria, and South Park, HBO prison drama Oz, Science Fiction staple Stargate SG1, and site favorite series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Many of those shows should be familiar to readers of our site, and we will be discussing those shows, and other significant television events of 1997 in this article.
1997 was a year in which ideas thought to be science fiction suddenly became our present. Though birthed in 1996, 1997 saw the reveal of Dolly to the world. Dolly was the first cloned sheep, and her reveal set-off panic and wonder across the globe. US President Bill Clinton banned federal funding of human cloning as ethical debates sounded around the world. In the same year, Deep Blue, a computer designed to play chess, became the the first computer to beat a chess world champion in a match, raising concerns about artificial intelligence as well. On the lighter side of technology, Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, returned to the company he built. Though Apple struggled in the early days of his return, his presence would eventually lead to the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, as well as the iTunes music service. These products would make Apple the largest and wealthiest company in the world. Meanwhile, Toyota began production on the Toyota Prius, the first mass production hybrid vehicle.
While the production of the Toyota Prius represented a step towards better environmental care, it was the adoption of the Kyoto protocol by the UN that really pushed the world’s focus towards environmental protection in 1997. Movements were also made in feminism and gay acceptance. Openly gay Comedian Ellen DeGeneres used the platform of her hit sitcom Ellen to make a statement by having her character come out of the closet on national television. Madeleine Albright raised the bar for women in power, by becoming the first female Secretary of State in the United States of America, while Ireland elected their second female President.
Other prominent cultural events of the year included the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult, and the return of Revolutionary Che Guevara’s remains to Cuba. After west coast rapper Tupac Shakur’s death in 1996, prominent east coast rapper The Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in 1997, bringing the rap feud between east coast and west coast, which had been intentionally played up for hype, to a head. Comedian Chris Farley, who had always been heavily compared to Jim Belushi, drew further comparison, when he died of a heroin and cocaine overdose. Mother Teresa, seen by many as the last living saint, passed away in 1997 as well. The most prominent death, however, was that of Princess Diana of England, whose tragic passing was the fault of England’s rampant paparazzi. The word, paparazzi, was at the time, mostly unknown in North America, though our cultural knowledge of the profession exploded after Diana’s death. Now we live in a world in which privacy is an illusion, especially for the famous, but it was Diana’s death that heralded this change for those outside of the UK, where the paparazzi plague had yet to fully solidify.
All of these events had a significant impact on our culture, and as such, our fiction. Elements of cloning, and artificial intelligence were quickly explored, while equal representation of minority groups in fiction rose to the forefront of our attention. The tragic deaths of key figures like B.I.G. and Princess Diana taught us lessons that permeated our cultural voice.
Harry Potter made its debut in the United Kingdom in 1997 with the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (re-titled Sorcerer’s Stone in North America). Harry Potter, of course, had a huge impact on the direction of fiction, even to this day. Not only by introducing so many people to reading as hobby, which was thought to be a dying interest, but also in the spread of serialized fantasy storytelling as a norm amongst books, movies, and television. On the silver screen, Titanic changed the perception of the blockbuster movie with a largely female fanbase overtaking all previous records. The blockbuster fanbase was no longer a boys club.
South Park – Redefining the Cartoon Sitcom
1997 saw the debut of South Park, a little cable network stop motion cartoon series that subverted the conventions of the recently popular cartoon sitcom genre. By slipping under the radar as a crass show that came with a new wave of adult oriented underground animation, South Park cemented its position with great writing and intelligent insight. Initially seen as a one of many short lived crass comedies, South Park differentiated itself as a socially aware comedy. While The Simpsons dwindled into mediocrity, South Park blossomed into greatness.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Changing the Face of Genre Television
While 1997’s Harry Potter greatly spread the role of genre fiction, Television audiences had their own iconic series to change the way its medium and genre were approached, handled, and received by others. Though predated by similar efforts, such as Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a defining moment of television through 7 seasons that started in 1997. From, now legendary, Showrunner, Writer, and Director Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer took Whedon’s movie (of the same name) to television, where it retained the off-beat sense of humor, but advanced its storytelling by making the most of TV’s long form advantage over movies.
In Buffy, the titular character Buffy Summers, the once in a generation Slayer, moves with her mother to Sunnydale, a small California town that, unknown to Buffy and her mom, is home to a hellmouth that attracts all manner of evil. Together with her new Watcher (the school Librarian) Giles, her new friends Xander and Willow, and a mysterious man named Angel, Buffy sets out to protect her fellow students and citizens of Sunnydale from the varied evil forces at play.
Joss’ influence on TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer was monumental. The Wire Creator/Showrunner David Simon has referred to Buffy as the best television in years, including his own iconic series amongst the lessers. LOST Writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach has referred to the medium of television using the descriptors pre-Buffy, and post-Buffy. While Buffy didn’t set the ratings charts on fire, its influence on TV writing and the auteur like role of Showrunners was far reaching and vastly influential. It can be argued that The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, LOST, and many more would have never been thought of as possible on TV if not for Joss’ work on Buffy. To fans, Buffy heralded the proliferation of quality genre television. To the industry, Joss Whedon heralded the rise of the Showrunner.
1997 was perhaps the first truly influential year in the current golden age of television. Stay with us throughout the holidays as we explore more years of our current golden age. Participate in the discussion in our comments, and stay tuned to TVEnthusiast for more coverage of all of your favorite shows.