Welcome to TV's second "Golden Age"

These days the dramas getting the most buzz, like "Downton Abbey," are character studies that require an investment from the audience.

Some stick it out week by week; others binge on a whole season all at once -- take Netflix's "House of Cards," starring Kevin Spacey.

"It's sort of almost treating a series in the way you would treat a novel," Spacey said. "You can pick it up and put it down when you want to, and I think audiences really dig that."

It takes commitment to delve into the complex underbelly of Don Draper's polished exterior on "Mad Men," or keep track of the plethora of Prohibition subplots of Nucky Thompson and his "Boardwalk Empire."

Terence Winter, the HBO show's executive producer, says there is more room now on TV to take risks. "Absolutely there's more room for risk. It's been proven. I think that audiences are really intelligent and engaged and actually want to be challenged."

Winter knows of what he speaks, because before shows like "The Wire," "Game of Thrones," and the murderous "Dexter" became audience and critical darlings, Winter wrote for the show that some say started it all: "The Sopranos." Critics say it changed scripted television forever.

"That is incredibly freeing to write those types of exchanges where you think, wow, this actually sounds like you're eavesdropping on a real conversation as opposed to 'point, counterpoint, point-counterpoint, punch line,' which is generally the type of dialogue that you'd get in a network show," said Winter.

But even network TV is changing. "The Good Wife," the now-cancelled "Friday Night Lights," and "Modern Family" all have won critical acclaim, too.

Not only has the writing gotten better; so has the production value. So much of TV doesn't look like TV anymore. It actually looks like a big-budget feature film.

Take AMC's "The Walking Dead," for example. Its depiction of a zombie apocalypse is no small undertaking. And the make-up is so realistic it scares the actors themselves. "It still freaks me out when I look in the mirror," said one actor.

An actor/zombie talks to Lee Cowan on the set of AMC's apocalyptic hit, "The Walking Dead." CBS News

For co-executive producer and special effects master Greg Nicotero, the small screen sure isn't small anymore.

"The fact that you can take 32 episodes and tell your story and draw these characters out. I mean, what filmmaker, what writer, what director, what producer doesn't want the opportunity to develop his character with that amount of depth?" said Nicotero.

"So where do you see things going from here?" Cowan asked. "Does it just keep getting better or ... ?"

"The fact there are networks out there who are looking for this kind of material, I think we're just seeing the beginning," Nicotero replied.

Certainly not everything on TV is "golden" in this new age.

The Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo may be pop culture darlings, but . . . well, let's just leave it at that.

Fact is, there's something for everyone in the vastness of TV these days -- and perhaps a little less waste. Present company, we hope, included.

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