Bad Lessons Learned From Great Television, pt. 1

In his new book, The Revolution Was Televised, critic Alan Sepinwall chronicles the twelve drama series that defined TV’s “Golden Age.” Shows like The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, and The Sopranos took advantage of (among other factors) loosened censorship and decreased network interference to produce adventurous programming unlike anything seen in the medium before. Aside from Disney’s One Saturday Morning, which turned me into a TV fanatic at the ripe old age of eight, these shows were the most concentrated visions of quality yet made for the boob tube.

But most of the shows assembled as members of Sepinwall’s Revolution have expired — only AMC’s Breaking Bad Mad Men remain, and with only 2 1/2 seasons of string to play out between them. Far from slouching toward its own inevitable iron age, television in the wake of these groundbreaking shows has produced a new crop of acclaimed dramas — but if Smash Mouth taught us anything, it was all that glitters ain’t gold. 

By breaking new ground, the era-defining series unwittingly created a template for what constitutes “quality television,” which has hindered some promising shows from forming their own distinct identity. The current batch of showrunners (many of whom had major creative roles on those great shows) would do well to consider the following lessons they seemingly learned from TV’s golden age, and whether they might be better off forgotten.

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A MAN… WITH A SECRET

Let’s talk about Showtime. Outside HBO (which, as they’ll remind you isn’t television, it’s… I forget what comes next, pretentious?), the network has received the highest accolades for its quality programming. Yet surprisingly, Sepinwall singles out zero Showtime original series in his book (which you can totally imagine annoys their network brass — I mean even UPN got a shout-out).

The reason for this disparity lies in Showtime’s weirdly rigid adherence to a little something they learned from The Sopranos. When asked to describe the Sopranos pilot, your first sentence might be something like, “Tony Soprano is a mob boss who goes to therapy.” You’d probably wait until at least the second or third sentence to get into the ducks. Showtime execs, who must have audibly gasped “A-ha!” after hearing that initial Sopranos logline, keep going back to dredge up shows from that proverbial well:

“He/she’s a [common unassuming profession], but behind closed doors, [secret incriminating twist on your perception of said profession].” How provocative!

  • Jackie Peyton is an emergency room nurse… who harbors a secret drug addiction! (Nurse Jackie)
  • Dexter Morgan is a police forensics expert… who moonlights as a serial killer! (Dexter) 
  • Nancy Botwin is a suburban mother… who deals marijuana! (Weeds)
  • Cathy Jamison is another suburban mother… who secretly develops cancer! (The Big C, a show you forgot existed)
  • Hank Moody is a best-selling author… who also has a sex addiction! (Californication… though I may be getting some wires crossed on that one)

Despite all being praised in some circles as members of the “quality drama” club (okay, a few are those weird brand of comedies without many jokes), each has been marred by inconsistent characterization and plotting. The most praised of the bunch, Dexter Weeds, both notoriously saw their stocks plummet in later seasons once the charm of their original premise had worn off.

The problem with these premises is twofold: we’ve gotten used to the template, and it’s usually not sustainable. A great show can turn that to an advantage — the primary example being Breaking Bad, which turned Walter’s waning existence into a motor to accelerate its plotting. All the aforementioned series lack the cohesive creative vision to craft a fully-realized world around their punchy premises. As a result, they’re all watchable shows, but feel distinctly less than great.

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HERE’S A COOL IDEA… AND THAT’S ALL, FOLKS!

The greatest of golden age series may have sported a snappy logline — gotta convince those network chiefs somehow — but their secret to prolonged success was in using their premise as a vessel for deeper ideas and thematic concerns. Two immediate examples:

  1. David Chase, having cut his teeth on The Rockford Files, wanted to tackle a more personal project to deal primarily with his troubled relationship with his mother. Knowing he’d need an appealing pitch to sell the show, he decided to set his script in the mob world, and The Sopranos was born.
  2. David Milch conceived a show set in ancient Rome, to deal with the perils of law in relation to an evolving community. He pitched the show to HBO, who proved interested in working with Milch, but already had Rome in development. So he simply took the central thematic premise and transported it to the town of Deadwood.

Homeland‘s execution of an intriguing premise put it atop the watchlist for the “next great TV drama,” but its brand of storytelling has caused it to sputter in its second season. They’ve certainly created two engaging characters in Carrie and Brody, but too often the show has seemed like a pattern of things that happen to progress the story without any subtext or thematic resonance. In that way it’s like a character-driven 24, which makes sense given that they share a showrunner. It lacks the sense you get with Mad Men, where every episode is about something, tangible or not. (Side note: am I the only one bugged by Jessica referring to her husband by his last name? Gets me every time.)

Boardwalk Empire has made great strides in this regard, and has slowly become what I’d qualify as a great show. Its early pitfalls were in assuming a well-crafted sense of style and its unique setting would maintain audience interest. Since refocusing the series on the connective themes running through the (at times disparate) characters, the show has gained import. Boardwalk is still more concerned with plot mechanics than The Sopranos ever was, but the writers have found a proper balance that makes the show something its contemporaries are floundering to become: unique.

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KILL. THEM. ALL.

A byproduct of the fact that every golden age show (except Buffy) was male-centric, many had a more liberal depiction of violence that TV had ever seen. 24 found themselves as a major cultural touchstone in the national debate about torture. Deadwood featured a scene where a character rips out another’s eyeball. The Shield is a show I resisted initially due to its aggressively macho marketing: RAWK guitars chugging along on the soundtrack, grainy washed-out camerawork, and an angry bald man literally barreling through fences to catch the hordes of drug-dealing street thugs.

As millions of moms have sternly pointed out with regard to their kids and video games, violence can tend to desensitize us. So once the golden age shows had such brazen displays of misery and mayhem, what else could the next generation do but try to up the ante? Main offender on this front is Sons of Anarchy (created by Kurt Sutter, a former Shield writer prone to bragging about his totally “fucked up” story ideas), which takes a sickening sort of glee in portraying its acts of violence. When you’re showing castrations on-screen, its not a boldly novel move — it’s just some gratuitous shit.

Shows like Dexter do a bit classier treatment of violence (as least going so far as to integrate it sensibly into the plot). Boardwalk Empire can be bloody and brutal, but the stylization of its violence (for which it’s indebted to pilot director Martin Scorsese) makes it easier to justify and to stomach. Violence is unavoidable to the central premise of The Walking Dead, but at times they seem to include a random zombie-slaughter scene purely for the sake of raising heart-rates. That tactic can only work for so long, as the audience needs a deeper connection to the events onscreen in order to remain engaged.

[This is the first entry of a two-part series. The remaining lessons are here.]

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One response to “Bad Lessons Learned From Great Television, pt. 1

  1. Agree vehemently with everything my man Bryan’s saying here, other than the part where he delegates the great Buffy to the show that was lucky enough to get a shout-out for UPN. Everybody with me- BOOOOOOOO! Season 6 was underrated!!!!!

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