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Sexual Abusers Are the Asterisk, Not the End, of TV’s Golden Age — Opinion

With two of the most prestigious comedy and drama series of television’s golden age tarnished by Louis C.K. and Matthew Weiner, the medium’s brightest era has gone dark.

Louis C.K. 2017 Netflix Special

Cara Howe/Netflix

Nothing gold can stay.

Despite the persistent prominence of Robert Frost’s words, it’s doubtful anyone expected the golden age of television to turn out like this. Sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment allegations are roaring through Hollywood, and Thursday saw two more of TV’s titans charged as feminist forgeries.

In an expose in The New York Times, five women said Louis C.K. committed sexual misconduct by masturbating in front of them. He has since corroborated these claims with a statement of his own. In the original story, one of the women said that when C.K. contacted her to apologize, he regretted ”shoving her in a bathroom,” instead of what he’d actually done. The implication of this mistaken memory is as frightening, if not more so, than the allegations that have come out so far. Further acts of sexual misconduct were not addressed in C.K.’s statement.

Only a few hours after the C.K. story hit, The Information ran a story where former “Mad Men” writer and Emmy winner Kater Gordon said series creator Matthew Weiner asked to see her naked. She was later let go from the show, just over a year later. In her termination phone call, Gordon said her former boss denied she did anything right, despite her gold trophy.

Prior to Thursday’s stories, another Emmy winner was run out of the business, for multiple allegations that, if true, are entirely of his own doing. Anthony Rapp’s accusations that Kevin Spacey sexually assaulted him as a 14-year-old boy led to the termination of production on “House of Cards,” the announcement that Season 6 would be its final (which representatives claimed had always been the plan), and ultimately an investigation by Netflix that led to Spacey’s ousting from the series and the streaming giant overall.

Matthew Weiner Mad Men

These men, in one way or another, represented the very best of television. C.K. won five Emmys between 2012 and 2015, two for “Louie.” He helped turn artistic independence into a successful and desired business model. Valuable talents from Zack Galifianakis to Pamela Adlon to Tig Notaro ascended the industrial ladder with C.K.’s assistance. His contract with FX Networks was unprecedented in the leeway given to when, how, and with whom C.K. created programs. Over the years, he was artistically and financially rewarded for his work, as many networks scrambled to find the next “Louie” and the next Louis C.K. This show defined the best of comedy between 2010 to now.

“Mad Men” was even more widely heralded. Weiner’s series is tied for the most Outstanding Drama Series wins of any show in the history of the Emmys. It won four in a row between 2008 and 2011, while Weiner won seven trophies himself (and two more for his time on “The Sopranos.”) The AMC series is widely regarded as one of the best of all time.

“House of Cards,” for its part, helped make Netflix into the behemoth it is today. FX, AMC, and Netflix were the renegade cable networks that challenged HBO at awards shows and helped usher in the golden age’s best qualitative years, and without “House of Cards,” there’s no telling where Netflix originals would be today. It made people take streaming content seriously. Spacey was the face of the show — much like “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor, another groundbreaking actor now facing harassment allegations— as Louis C.K. was his, and Weiner a known representative of “Mad Men’s” vision.

Though Wiener’s alleged sexual harassment is not as ugly as C.K.’s and Spacey’s (by definition, C.K. committed sexual misconduct and Spacey sexual assault, which are worse than harassment), his follow-up actions are equally appalling. Using his power and influence to run someone out of the industry, either by purposefully bad-mouthing the writer or denying her the credit (i.e. recommendation) she’s due, is simply wrong. Wiener, C.K., Spacey, and Tambor represent various levels of the same problem, but — should the allegations prove true — they are all part of Hollywood’s abusive patriarchy.

Now, these four may impact the legacy of Peak TV. When critics, creatives, and audiences look back on the Top 10 lists, Emmy winners, and the era in general, so many names and titles no longer evoke nostalgic pangs for yesteryear. They will bring memories of this; of the abuse of power despite creating shows looking to tear down that very belief. Fans won’t wish for another “Mad Men,” “Louie,” “House of Cards,” or even “Transparent,” without a qualifier attached.

House of Cards Season 5 Kevin Spacey Netflix

Such a breach of trust isn’t unprecedented in the entertainment world. Baseball, known as America’s pastime and heralded for its purity, went through a scandal of its own between the late ’80s and early 2000s. Millions of fans felt betrayed by their hometown heroes and by the sport as a whole when it was discovered their favorite players were doping. The country was so angry congressional hearings were held, all because a shocking number of athletes were accused of cheating at a game.

Now, everyone from baseball historians to casual fans look back at the steroid era and assign their own personal asterisks next to players. Who holds the record for the most home runs in baseball? Barry Bonds? Hank Aaron? Do names like Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa even belong on the list?

Television, like baseball, will not fall. More programs are being made than ever, and there’s no reason to believe the scandals within the industry will damper audience enthusiasm for content. But this, nonetheless, permanently changes the new golden age of television. In reality, one hopes it marks the end of a disgusting patriarchal regime, and its exposure and elimination will stimulate a brighter future for the medium thanks to safer work environments and a more diverse landscape of producers, executives, and people in power.

What of the art itself? One would hope existing fans of the series, as well as future generations of viewers, will be able to separate the art from their artists. After all, they do not define one’s interpretation of their work, they merely present it. Did these men not understand the point, the purpose, of what they made, or did they simply not care? C.K.’s statement is an earnest and eloquent, if much too late, step in the right direction. He did not live up to the ideals of his work and admits as much. But no matter if viewers accept his apology or not, the art is not his to take from viewers. The ideals of his show and others are something to strive for, and those unimpeachable onscreen models will persevere.

Television is a collaborative medium, and when remembering these shows, it’s as important to remember all the incredible writers, directors, cast, and crew who contributed to those shows’ legacy. One asterisk cannot cover hundreds of names. Those who made programs about absolute power corrupting absolutely, the feminist icons who broke down barriers in the business world, and modern dating with an eye toward humility, self-respect, and women who are always, always right, those messages remain largely intact.

What we’ve referred to as the golden age is forever changed. So dawn goes down to day. But this day is better than the last.

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