According to Peter Biskind, we have been living for the last two decades in the era of ‘peak TV’. From The Sopranos to Succession, television shows have become subtler and more intellectually and emotionally rich than ever before. Pandora’s Box is about this revolution in programme-making, begun by cable channels such as HBO and Showtime and completed by streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Freed from the constraints imposed by the US national networks, these platforms have been able to develop shows of enormous sweep and depth. For Biskind, this has ‘propelled TV into shouting distance of the great nineteenth-century novels’.
Whereas writers in Hollywood are treated appallingly, in the world of peak TV they are accorded their true worth. Most two-hour feature films feel psychologically thin when set against the intricacies of much TV drama. Contemporary movies, in the words of the filmmaker David Fincher, lean towards ‘physics porn’, being more concerned with video-game-style special effects than patiently building character. On TV, even in big-budget epics like Game of Thrones, spectacle gives way to emotional weight. When Martin Scorsese read Terence Winter’s scripts for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, he said, ‘This is great. You get to see what happens to the characters after the movie is over.’
Pandora’s Box opens in the 1950s and 1960s, the peak era of sponsored, network TV, a terminally bland world of sitcoms, film reruns and undemanding quiz shows. The downside of programming being paid for solely by advertising was that television became ‘a measureless tract of hard, cracked soil,