Say what you will about the medium as a whole—the degenerative effect on our generation’s attention span, the cultivation of an unwillingness to do the work required to take in more active forms of art and entertainment, invasive and pervasive exposure to advertising—we’re currently living through a sort of Golden Era as far as television is concerned. It’s easy for a skeptic to get caught up in the trash located on one extreme– reality television, “stars” who are apparently unaware of their own self-absorption and earnest megalomania, half a dozen shows with the word “Cake” in the title, etc—as well as the monolithic mass of “meh” television located somewhere in the middle: the trite, unobservant sitcoms, formulaic crime dramas, whatever CBS has on nowadays. Once you sift through all that, there exists a realm in television that, while still bound by conventional corporate chokeholds(I won’t for one second try to argue that television is by any means a purely artistic medium), is populated by talented showrunners and writers, dedicated to story and character integrity. HBO’s early series are generally a safe starting point for the Golden Era I’m talking about. Shows like Oz and The Sopranos ushered in a trend towards mainstreaming longer form, serialized storylines, as opposed to the self-contained “44 minutes and out” philosophy prevalent in most television. The era of thumbing your nose at television in general is becoming incredibly passé, unless said nose-thumber is taking in 2 books a week on average. And I mean good books, not shit about whiny, solipsistic vampires[Requisite Twilight jab: COMPLETE] or memoirs about upper-crust white families. It’s reached the point where the crème de la crème of television is eclipsing if not handily surpassing its cinematic counterpart in terms of overall satisfaction. This year’s biggest, most talked about film was Inception. It was a visual behemoth with a tight script(that is when you consider half of it was dedicated to painstakingly explaining a potentially convoluted narrative conceit), good, performances and some amazing setpieces. I think I’ve logged 9 minutes, maybe, of Inception-based discussion. Comparing this with the hours I’ve spent discussing shows like Lost or Treme or Breaking Bad and many more suggests the television medium has experienced a qualitative growth spurt that only the people really into it have seemed to notice.
At the positive end of that television continuum, it’s been interesting watching how certain shows have managed to maintain or not maintain that level of quality. Pegging something as a “Golden Era” gives a sort of unassailable impression of excellence when that is not the case. Writing for television is rough, regimented, and requires both strict planning and a flexibility to deal with network curveballs, shooting delays/bumps, cast unpredictability, budget, advertising conflicts of interest and so on. This doesn’t even account for the backbone of the writing staff in general, which usually comes in the form of a dependable showrunner.
“Mad Men is so good. Why the fuck is it so popular?!?!?” — Me
Before AMC’s Mad Men, Matthew Weiner cut his teeth writing some of The Sopranos’ strongest episodes during the 5th and 6th seasons of the show. This is right around when your uncles and co-workers started complaining that not enough people were getting killed or something, but that’s neither here nor there. Putting aside the quality of Mad Men aside for a second, I was shocked and still am shocked the show took off the way it has. A 60’s period drama about advertising executives with no sort of easy “hook” to reel in audiences. It’s understated, observant, and generally more about character, mood, and human interaction than any sort of flashy plot related stuff. No smoke monsters, no serial killers playing house. So first getting into it was tricky for me. I adored the subtle writing, the cast, and the classy camerawork but I kept waiting for something that made it such an “it” show when it clicked for me: there were two audiences. There was the audience that loved the show for what it was and there was the People Magazine/E! people who were attracted to the show’s sexy aesthetic. The second one began to wreak of “Well damned if we can articulate why this show is good, but by god, Don Draper looks handsome in suits and that’s good enough for us!”. Once I was able to put that to rest, it became much easier to appreciate the show on its own, truly wonderful terms. But I was slightly concerned that the show was content to spin its wheels towards the end of season 2, resting on well-written but ultimately small scale stories and character turns. Weiner and company address this in Season 3 and, so far, into Season 4 by shaking things up considerably. By both displacing his characters, and by extension, the audience, from their comfort zones, and giving real consequences to character behavior, the dramatic stakes feel increasingly big. My mentality has gone from, “Okay, well how long can this remain fresh?” to “How long can this impressive run last?”.
Breaking Bad is like network-mate Mad Men’s caffeine overloaded cousin. Where Mad Men uses its introspective characters and subdued story to mirror contemporary America, Breaking Bad is concerned more with ripping your head off and playing soccer with it within the confines of its world. Real world allegory might seep in occasionally, but series creator Vincent Gilligan takes greater strides to establish the world of its story and play right by it. The result is something that feels real and authentic, even if when you step outside of its insularity you see that isn’t always quite the case. Breaking Bad has been dancing in “Best show on television” territory for some time. The first “season” came during the writer’s strike. With a scant six-episodes, the show proved to be engrossing and addictive in all of the right ways. The show’s pace was quick and frenetic but had an abundance of quieter character moments that made you want to see the characters through. Still, the shows one-line(“A high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer and resorts to cooking crystal meth to support his family before his death”) seems almost built to induce a “Yeah, but how do they sustain that?!” skepticism. The show’s second season answered with a, “Well, like this…” Season 2 had more unrelenting pacing and care for character and story design. But more than that, it became clear that the show was unafraid to explore the trenches-level consequences of its characters’ actions. If a character does a shitty thing to get something done in one show, odds are it’s forgotten by the end of the episode. In Breaking Bad, it usually comes back to bite them in the ass repeatedly either directly or through some sort of karmic irony. Gilligan and his writers have their protagonist at least proximately responsible for an event so devastating and huge that the end of Season 2, we were left with yet another, “Well how do they follow that up?”. Season 3 sticks to the show’s staples of not shying away from consequence or making you uncomfortable with and sometimes flat-out despising its main characters(an as good, if not better use of this tactic than The Shield). By Season 3, the show has handily earned whatever “Best show on television” acclaim it’s earned. Most of the Breaking Bad devout might venture to call it “’The Wire’-good”. Seeing that the show has at least one, possibly two more seasons ahead of it, the status is again a cautiously optimistic wait-and-see. Like anyone who’s been burned in the past, I’m anticipating the other shoe to drop, but I really don’t want it to.
Showtime’s Dexter is an odd duck for a few reasons. For starters, it’s been through several showrunners in its four seasons and that instability is very noticeable in the finished product. Second, it seems like people have become batshit insane over this show just in the past two seasons. Seasons 1 and 2 were successful, sure. But Seasons 3 and 4 have seem to brought a huge mainstream following after the show has taken a pretty noticeable nosedive in quality. You expect these things in rock music, not serialized television. In Dexter’s first season and to some degree its second, Dexter was by and large mentally ill. He was incapable of relating to anyone on any sort of human or emotional level. Still, he passed in society by his code. We related to him because we can identify. We’ve all felt isolated, alone, unable to connect with family and loved ones, even if just in our own heads, just for a little while. At some point, the true degree of his illness was scaled back and to some degree sugar coated. He was no longer Dexter- man with a serious disease who kills bad people so he doesn’t have to kill good people. At some point he became a neutered version of himself; a slightly darker Batman. His innate impulses seemed to have been forgotten or just discarded only to be brought up whenever it’s convenient to the plot. The character of Dexter has gone from something ugly and fascinating, but also strangely likable in its disturbing relatability—to a pretty okay guy who just murders bad people whenever he stumbles upon a case file for a guy who slipped through the cracks of the judicial system. And it’s not like this transition was even engaged directly or addressed with care. It’s like the writers tried to bait and switch us and one second we were rooting for a remarkably different character. I have to wonder how many housewives and guys who say “bro” at the end of every sentence would have stuck with the show if it hadn’t made this turn.
Michael C. Hall and the worst supporting cast on television.
Still, Dexter somehow remains a compelling character. I’m sure much of this is attributed to Michael C. Hall and the dead-eyed intensity mixed with the boyish, Oh-Golly! normalcy he brings to the character. The man is a fantastic actor and I’ll probably keep watching just to see him. Which, by the way, is pretty much the only reason to watch Dexter anymore. The season story arcs have felt increasingly repetitive, usually some form of “[Guest Actor] is a [new serial killer] whom Dexter must take down!” or “[Guest Actor] is investigating series of murders that leads him to Dexter! Will he get away!?” type of stuff. It manages to be engrossing in the moment, until you step away for a second and realize you’ve seen the same thing happen 2-3 times already. And this is the good stuff, mind you. Dexter’s fourth season ended with an admittedly shocking twist that both plays fair and promises to alter the fabric of the series as a whole. The Season 5 promos seem to support this, but Dexter trailers are always pretty well-done. So it remains to be seen. This show is in a dire need of a shot in the arm. I haven’t even touched on the supporting cast and their “subplots”, if you can call them that. Most of this usually involves romantic entanglements of people we don’t care about very much. It’s like anti-entertainment. Story A will have something like Dexter following a suspected murderer around only to find out…THE GUY GIVES DEXTER THE SLIP AND IS NOW FOLLOWING HIM! Fun, compelling stuff, right? Then Story B will be like…LaGuerta and Batista close the curtains of a conference room and muse on how naughty their inter-office romance is! Like, fuck you, seriously. That might fly with the CW crowd and the guys who only watch Entourage and SportsCenter, but it’s not enough to really be taken seriously in the upper echelon of television series.
Some other shows worth paying attention to that are still kind of young include Sons of Anarchy– coming off of a flawless second season, Treme– renewed by HBO for a second season after the airing of its pilot, Louie – renewed for a second season about halfway through its hilarious and unsettling first season.-