Bad Lessons Learned From Great Television, pt. 2

[This is the second half in a two-part series. The first entry can be read here.]

In his new book, The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall chronicles the 12 drama series that defined television’s golden age. In the wake of their breakthrough, even the most acclaimed dramas seem to struggle in becoming great. In this feature, we examine which of the lessons learned from the “revolution” would be better off forgotten. 

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WHAT THE [BEEP]ING [BEEP]?

Unlike even a PG-13 movie, which is allotted a single strategic F-bomb, network television has never permitted profanity — even when it leaves viewers to wonder, “what’s all this about a stranger in the Alps?” Setting so many drama series in the often foul-mouthed professions of policing and law enforcement only made the disjunction from reality more irksome. Unbound from advertising-supported programming, cable writers finally trotted out the fullest filthy extent of their vocab for all to hear.

What’s the artistic value of saying fuck (ain’t that the eternal question)? If you’re David Simon, it’s a form of elemental communication between like-minded professionals. If you’re David Milch, it’s a thematic tool used to bond and familiarize a budding community. In those capable hands, the huge influx of profanity seems warranted and effective — I could run down a whole list of Wire and Deadwood related usages, but I’ll spare you. Not everyone earns that privilege, however. Despite my love for Six Feet Under, I can admit that Alan Ball and his stable of writers had a knack for going overboard with their swearing (when they should’ve worked in more “double chubbies.”) You can click that, I swear.

To some degree you can forgive Ball’s flagrant profanity in context — it serves as an emphasis of the oft-frayed bonds of family in times of turmoil and grief. He’s shown the same penchant, though, on his new series, True Blood, which uses its curses as just one element of its glorified trashiness. Dexter has also bothered in this regard, often loading up on its “motherfuckers” to the degree that it loses its punch. Shows would do well to remember that a well-timed expletive is just another tool in the box, and not needed in every single scene.

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MYTHOLOGIZE ME, CAP’N

While HBO marketed to a more mature audience (or at least one that enjoyed thinking themselves mature), shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica devoted themselves to a different type of long con. Both capitalized on the evolving internet-based fervor for puzzling out ornate mysteries by framing their narratives around a series of unanswered questions. What was the island? Who is secretly a cylon?

Though Twin Peaks and The X-Files had employed similar storytelling devices, both had faced backlash for the by-turns unresolved or unsatisfying nature of their “answers.” The difference with Lost and Battlestar was their unyielding momentum in developing their central mythologies. On The X-Files, there was typically a clear distinction between case-of-the-week stories and those that advanced the ongoing plot. Both golden age shows cranked their serialization up to eleven, causing thousands of passionate fans to make screen-grabs in search of the latest clue, or craft elaborate theories about the shows’ ultimate destinations.

Lost, against all odds, was a ratings hit, and for a while the imitators came fast and frequent — Heroes, V, FlashForward, The Nine — but as you can glean from the caliber of that list, none of them could recapture the magic. It’s because for all the intrigue generated by Lost and Battlestar‘s respective world-building, they remained firmly rooted in great casts of characters. Though both shows found their mythological resolutions widely criticized, even their loudest detractors typically concede the strength of the character work done throughout. The Dharma Initiative, the smoke monster, and the cylons would never have been as interesting as they were without being tethered to so much continually engaging drama.

The hasty cancellations for many of the imitators has encouraged the networks to learn this lesson to some degree. HBO once cut short Carnivale for its over-obfuscation, but now finds the more character-driven Game of Thrones thriving. The fact that the “answers” which fans so demand from a show are already provided in that series’s source material is probably for the best. Similarly, The Walking Dead began as a show with fundamental mythology-based questions — what caused the outbreak, what makes people turn, what factions of civilization remain — but it has strategically steered away from them. Rick and co. have determined enough about the bleakness of their situation that those questions have become secondary to sheer survival.

Ironically, the head writers of both Lost and Battlestar have separately confirmed that they were, to large degree, making up their mythology as the series progressed. If they had been upfront with that information at the outset, people would’ve either called for their heads, or simply not tuned in. But there’s clearly something to be said for emphasizing character first, and inserting bits of intrigue as you go — for all their faults, the two series remain the finest examples of the long-form tease.

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HEY, IT’S THAT GUY

That’s Glenn Close, thinking about the pile of Emmys she’s about to win. The allure for big-time movie actors to step down and grace the plebeian hordes of (deep breath, maintain composure), television actors, has gone way up in the last decade. Many, when interviewed, will cite the dramatic rise in quality roles. In other words, these big actors saw the artistic leaps of the golden age, and decided to come down to see what all the fuss was about. But if you take a gander at the definitively great shows, you’d be hard pressed to pick out movie stars among the casts. Kiefer Sutherland? His exodus to the small screen was preservation — he wasn’t getting movie roles. Jon Hamm? It was his work on Mad Men that got him recognized for the film work he’s done since.

But a big-name movie-star signals a surefire way for networks to market a new series, so they’ve chomped at the bit. Whether it’s Glenn Close in Damages, Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom, Dustin Hoffman in Luck, Don Cheadle in House of Lies, or William H. Macy in Shameless (about whose title… come on, they really just walked right into that one), the unspoken agreement seems to be that at the very least, an Emmy nomination is in the offing. Safer yet, a Golden Globe (the Hollywood Foreign Press loves ’em some celebrities).

Aside from Luck, which was the one series overseen by a golden-age showrunner in David Milch, none of these series have reached a level of quality to match their lead actor’s pedigree. That’s because, logistically, many of them originate with said actor agreeing to take part, for the show to be built around them. The golden age prided itself on strong central characters, sure, but through expansive world-building they granted agency to each member of their ensemble, something many of these new one-dimensional series can’t muster.

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YOUR FATHER AND I NEED TO TELL YOU SOMETHING

The aforementioned male-dominance of the golden age didn’t only resound in its depiction of violence. With those complex and conflicted men came infidelity and strained-marriages, pretty much across the board. Shows could be more graphic in depicting their unfaithfulness, and affairs fueled drama on any number of the great shows. But even by the time Don Draper came home after sleeping with Rosemarie DeWitt to (gasp!) his wife and kids at the end of the Mad Men pilot, this frequent device had begun to lose its legs. Nurse Jackie (which I only recently discovered is run by the woman who wouldn’t serve Elaine the “big salad” on Seinfeld), pulled the exact same stunt in their pilot episode, and the mere fact that the gender roles are reversed doesn’t make it taste any less stale.

While I can forgive Mad Men due to its creative vibrancy amid a tired plot device, other shows seem to use their characters’ stepping out as a warped kind of wish-fulfillment. Nowhere was that more evident than on FX’s Rescue Me, where Denis Leary played alcoholic fireman Tommy Gavin. Despite Tommy’s many glaring faults and undesirable qualities, he still found his way into bed with many a sexy costar. Who conceived and wrote those pairings that were more-than-occasionally a bit of a stretch? Glad you should ask, it was Leary himself. Breaking Bad earns points for progressing the concept further than other shows are willing — they showed a marriage fall apart, and then watch the hopeless floundering of trying to piece it back together. Unfortunately, it seems many shows are uninterested in that level of investment, and would rather have a risque excuse to show some skin.

THE UNTEACHABLE

For all the creative types who tried to take a page from the revolution of “quality television,” there are a select few who still fly in the face of convention (for better or worse). Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story… yes, he really created all those shows) isn’t my cup of tea. In fact, he’s like that brand of tea from another country that everyone tells you will do a number on your taste buds, but you quietly believe you can handle it until you actually visit that country and then try it to find eeeeeeewwwwwww. I apologize for everything about that sentence and analogy, but that’s basically the one-line written equivalent of what you can expect from a Ryan Murphy show. But I credit him for committing to his gonzo creative vision because it stands out in the modern TV landscape.

A NEW HOPE

What critics (and some viewers) love is for a show to take risks, and provide something they’ve never seen before. It’s hard to read a review of Louie without coming across a sentence in praise of its originality. Similarly, HBO’s Girls may not be for everyone (including yours truly), but it operates in a way that’s unlike its contemporaries. “Those are comedies,” you might say, pointing out their half-hour run-time. Though technically true, the emergence of both shows suggests a potential way forward.

Throw out the 30/60 minute structure and let every show operate on its own terms and timelines. It would never work on the networks that pinch pennies throughout every commercial break, but what’s stopping HBO from allowing creatives to choose their format? Louie and Girls both carry strong dramatic elements, and could easily work in a longer format (Louie CK has asked FX on a few occasions for longer episodes, and been granted them). Sherlock, the BBC’s great modern repurposing of the Sherlock Holmes character airs three episodes a year that clock in at an hour and a half each. Perhaps writers are failing to break out of the golden age’s shadow because they’re working only within the templates set before them.

Whatever the reason, viewers and critics alike are rooting for them to figure it out. With the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Treme ending in the next couple of years, and Game of Thrones ever-closer to the end of available story yet published in book form (that’s my way of saying “get a move on,” George R.R. Martin), television could use the emergence of some original voices. Until then, I’ve got some DVDs to dig out.

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One response to “Bad Lessons Learned From Great Television, pt. 2

  1. Battlestar Galactica? To say that was “made up as it went on” is a bit much. Instead picture a flexible mind, with a willingness to make the plot fit the pieces. Bring up a “but what about” and the entire plotline changes.
    Which is awesome. Niven was going to deconstruct his ringworld series and make it all an elaborate con.

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