The first half-dozen years or so of the 21st century saw some of the strongest arguments that a Golden Age of Television had arrived. Many of those were produced by HBO, from the New Jersey mobscapades of The Sopranos to the sprawling social canvas of The Wire. While it was cancelled after three season, the Western series Deadwood stands tall among the standouts of that time. Even thirteen years after its cancellation, it’s difficult to find a series as accomplished, with an ensemble cast as strong, and with writing as distinct.Continue reading
In this month’s podcast, we look back at TV series before the so-called Golden Age of Television and what has happened since – what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in times of HBO, prestige television and binge watching. Are series the novels of the 21st century or is it all sexposition, soap operatics and narratives dragged out way past their sell-by date? Featuring our theme tune, “Mystery Street Jazz” by Håkan Eriksson (make sure to listen to the very end of the podcast)… and a very special appearance by Trillian the Cat!
Last week we went to see the latest of the new Star Trek films, the one whose title is certain to trigger a Pavlovian response in any fan of the English ska band Madness. I’d greatly enjoyed the first of the reboot movies back in 2009, though Star Trek Into Darkness hadn’t done much for me, but I hadn’t given up on the franchise yet. Star Trek Beyond, though… It’s a competent enough film in some ways, the main cast is still the best reason to watch the reboot – but I simply didn’t feel it. Most of the time it wasn’t the plot that kept me engaged; instead I found myself distracted, not least by remembering the recent death of Anton Yelchin and thinking, wistfully, that he should have had his final appearance as Pavel Chekov in a better film.
Let’s say I was given a choice: either I give up all the movies in my collection or I say goodbye to all the box sets I’ve got. Which do I let go of? The Criterion disks I’ve amassed since I first discovered the Collection would make this a difficult choice, but in the end I think I would want to hang on to the series I’ve got. The thought of not having constant and (nearly) instant access to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos, as well as some of the later additions such as Treme or Hannibal is arguably worse than suddenly being bereft of the many, many films filling the shelves of the many, many Billy bookcases that we have accrued.
I understand that the following might get me defenestrated, decapitated, poisoned, disembowelled and/or otherwise treated harshly – but I think that Game of Thrones is overrated. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great series with a cast that well night perfect, characters that are engaging, production values that are amazing, complex storylines that are riveting and setpieces that are stunning. It’s head (not Ned’s, obviously) and shoulders above a lot of TV. Nevertheless, on a list of favourite series it wouldn’t make it into my Top 5: I’d take The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and The Wire over it any day, to name just a few.
Thing is, for all its strengths the series is pretty much entirely about itself. It has little to say about our world. I’m not denying the series all relevance, but for all the cruelty and political intrigue of the world it depicts it is still escapism. Does it need to be anything more? Most emphatically not – but it makes the superlative praise the series gets ring somewhat hollow.
My impression is that because the series is brutal, because it kills our darlings, people implicitly see it as something more than escapist entertainment. “This is what the world is really like – cruel, amoral and swift to kick you in the privates, steal your silver and stab you in the spleen!” Except I doubt that most of its fans live in a world in any real sense that is like Westeros. Does Game of Thrones have anything much to say about power, responsibility, pragmatism and honour in a world of shifting alliances and uncertain motives? It probably does, although not all that much beyond what makes an intriguing story. Then again, it doesn’t need to – but its fans sometimes behave as if the series is completely new and does things that haven’t been tried before.
What puzzles me most is how Game of Thrones is almost universally hailed, yet HBO’s earlier series Rome barely made it to the end of season 2. In so many ways, Rome is an amazingly close precursor to the sprawling Westerosiad. Sex and violence? Check. Political intrigue? Check. Exotic locales? Check. Moral ambiguity? Check. Ciarán Hinds, Indira Varma, Tobias Menzies? Check, check and check again. (We’re still waiting for Ray Stevenson to make it to Westeros and for Kevin McKidd to be saved from his Seattle day job by a crazed, bomb-wielding, suicidal plane crash-cum-zombie apocalypse.) In terms of format, tone, characters, visual identity and, obviously, Nipple Count (and no, that’s not a character on the X-rated Sesame Street spin-off), the two series are very similar. Certainly, there are no ice zombies and dragons in Rome, but is that what makes Game of Thrones a success whereas the earlier series floundered? When people praise the series’ complexity, its characters and the world it evokes, are they actually saying that dragons, ice wights and boobs are cool? Or was the world not yet ready for a series of this kind when Rome was first aired?
There’s something about about the way the internet has embraced Game of Thrones that recalls self-perpetuating feedback loops. People don’t just get excited about the latest episode, they get excited about the latest round of YouTube videos depicting fan reactions. Watch total strangers scream at their TVs as Prince Fringfrang of House Shmoodle gets his arms torn clean off! Controversial scenes? Check out the clickbait: Why women like The Walking Dead better than Game of Thrones! (Not a joke, that one…). There’s something performative to the fan hype, as if people think they’ll become more interesting if they’ve got a video of themselves shrieking at Ned Stark’s decapitation or if they’ve got a blog post about what people on the internet say about-
Okay, gotcha. I’m feeding on, and into, the hype machine as much as everyone else. And who am I to tell the internet that it’s overrating its latest darling, especially if I then go and wax gastronomical about Hannibal after posting my own clickbait? So, to close this meandering post: if any fans of Game of Thrones are still reading this, I’m not telling you to stop enjoying the show or talk about it. But if you get bored waiting nine months for season 5, do check out Rome, especially season 1. You might enjoy it. And you won’t have to worry about book readers spoiling next episode… just pesky historians. Just don’t enter “does caesar” into the Google search window, lest the auto-complete function ruins it for you.
First of all, let me be absolutely clear: I like Breaking Bad a lot. I consider it one of the best TV series of the millennium to date. It’s ambitious, smart, exceedingly well acted (with some exceptions in the minor parts), and it has a grasp of complex characterisation like few other series.
I also think that in some ways Breaking Bad is overrated. It’s not quite the perfect series it’s sometimes made out to be, and while it exceeds in many respects, there is room for improvement in others. Granted, I may be talking out of turn, as I haven’t yet finished the series; we’re five episodes away from seeing the last of Mr. White. However, as I’m currently rewatching the first four seasons in parallel to finishing season 5, I think I can safely address what I consider the series’ main flaw.
More than many of my favourite series, from The Sopranos via Six Feet Under to Deadwood, Breaking Bad is heavy on plot. It uses plot to talk about its characters, but it still puts a considerable focus on What Happens Next. This in itself isn’t a flaw; what is, in my opinion, is that while the characters develop in an interesting five-season arc, the season-to-season plotting undermines these arcs to some extent.
To a large extent, Breaking Bad is about Walter White oscillating between pathetic, disempowered male, anti-hero and outright villain, and the discrepancy between how he sees and presents himself and how the audience sees him. The tension between these different positions is always interesting, but the series spends a lot of its dramatic ammunition too early, moving Walt into villainous territory only to retcon him – or, more accurately, our view of him – in the following season to some extent (Warning: the following will spoil events up to and including season 5.)
One of Walter’s main crimes in the final season is the way he glibly accepts the murder of an innocent child as something that couldn’t be avoided and that, he thinks, wasn’t really his fault. We watch the scene and its aftermath and we see him as the monster he has become. However, is this act more monstrous than his watching as Jesse’s girlfriend Jane suffocates on her own vomit while she’s in a drug-induced stupor? Especially if we consider what Jane’s death leads to, namely an air crash that kills hundreds. No, Walt doesn’t pull any triggers – but then he rarely does when he’s at his worst, does he? – but his actions lead to those deaths, both the more abstract hundreds of victims of the crash and the more immediate death of Jane. As in season 5, his reaction is to rationalise his actions and his involvement, coming to the conclusion that he is not to blame. Is this more villainous in season 5 because we see the victim, a young boy on his BMX bike? Or is the series suggesting that people may not remember season 2 and the beginning of season 3 (if indeed they were watching Breaking Bad at the time) and the point needed to be reinforced?
There are other points in the overall narrative that hit similar points – Walt getting Jesse to kill Gale, a defenseless and relatively innocent man, for instance – that in the context of their seasons and the surrounding episodes make perfect sense, but when you look at the overall narrative beats they feel like we’re revisiting ground that has previously been covered. It makes some sense if you consider that audiences watching the series on TV would have several month-long breaks between seasons, so there’s a purpose to treading old ground – but in hindsight several mini-arcs feel redundant in terms of how they develop the characters. They feel like the makers of Breaking Bad either didn’t know where they were taking the series, or they didn’t know how many seasons they had left to tell their story. Especially Walter White’s overall arc almost depends on the viewers forgetting or ignoring where the series had previously taken its characters and how far they’d progressed into full-on villain country.
The fact that Breaking Bad still works eminently well is largely due to its stars; even when revisiting old ground, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s performances feel fresh and immediate. The same is true for Anna Gunn’s Skylar, although arguably the series and its writing have been less generous to her at times; rewatching the previous seasons, I was struck by how similar her arc in the first half of season 5 is to how she developed in season 3, yet Gunn delivers a great performance. Nonetheless, if it were possible to go back and redo Breaking Bad, it’s the overall plotting that would require attention. If my suspicion is correct and vince Gilligan didn’t always know from one season to the next if the series would be renewed plotting accordingly, it’s understandable that he would have aimed for arcs that hit certain character beats, not knowing whether he’d get another chance later to do so – but it did leave him with characters whose overall arcs have built-in redundancies. While this makes for clever design, it makes for slightly frustrating storytelling. More so because there are so many things Breaking Bad does not just well but better than almost any other TV series.
And that’s before we even mention The Awkward Case Of The Ricin Cigarette – so let’s leave it at that.
P.S.: Another thing that I’ve realised while rewatching especially season 1: Marie Schrader may just be the character that benefitted most from the series’ evolution over the course of its five seasons. In season 1, she is a two-dimensional character at best, slipping at times into flat caricature; by the final season, she is as rounded, complex and capable of tragedy as any of the main characters. While I may see this as something of a flaw of early Breaking Bad, in this case I prefer to look at it the other way around: the series definitely got better over time. This is also clearly seen in its villains: there’s no comparison between psychotic Tuco “Loony Tunes” Salamanca and the much more nuanced Gustavo Fring.
We managed to finish two long works recently – first Don Quixote (I’m convinced that most people didn’t read past page 150, since almost every single reference you read or hear is to what happens in the first fifth of the novel), and then Oz, the HBO prison (melo)drama.
The series is a prototype for so many later HBO gems, The Sopranos and The Wire just two of them. It pioneered the network’s trademark adult style, with lashings of violence and sex. Its characters were often nuanced, always ambiguous, its cast of characters portrayed by actors who give it their all. I don’t regret watching the whole series, and there were very strong moments throughout.
All of which is building up to faint praise, to be quite honest. The series’ grasp exceeded its reach – which in itself isn’t that much of a problem, but what really rankles is how Oz seems to think itself more astute, more perceptive on the evils of the American penal system than it really is. It is too infatuated with its own running commentary and social critique, and it displays the tendency towards hysteria in its storylines and presentation that Spike Lee is prone to. It’s easy enough to forgive this in Lee’s films of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but to find the same tricks used over and over in a series in the late ’90s and early 21st century… well, it makes the series look hokey.
More than that, though, Oz could have been much stronger and held up much better to its successors if it had been two or three seasons rather than the full six seasons it lasted. Its social critique started off as hit-and-miss, often facile rather than perceptive, and this only increased as the series went on. By the time we got to the last couple of seasons, many storylines were thin and fraying at the edges; what kept us watching wasn’t the commentary on prison and how it often achieves an effect that is the opposite of what is intended, but the soap opera. Would Beecher find happiness in his relationship with charming sociopath Keller? Would McManus finally manage to have an adult relationship and not turn into a dick towards a woman he clearly likes? Would Schillinger finally accept that no one knows how to pronounce his name correctly? And as with daytime soaps, the episodic plots were sordid, tacky, maudlin: Rebadow takes up playing the lottery because his son is dying of leucaemia! Alvarez’ wife is divorcing him and fucking his brother! Did I care? Yes – but in a distanced, not particularly involved way.
The final season was a mess of barely begun, half finished ideas and storylines. Dead characters from past seasons were brought back to add their voice to Augustus Hill’s – and then that idea was dropped. New characters were introduced for no apparent reason, almost as if the producers were pretending that Oz wasn’t coming to an end. There were powerful moments – Cyril’s almost-execution – but others were as silly as the series’ worst excesses. (Kirk and Hoyt believing they’re possessed by the devil – WTF?!) The prison production of Macbeth (and the running gag of replacing the actors because they keep dying off) was forgotten for most of the season, even if it was used effectively to stage one character’s death.
All things considered, though, this is one Oz I’m unlikely to revisit. I’ve seen Six Feet Under three times (and am gearing up for a fourth). Same with The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood – even Carnivale and Rome. I’m unlikely to go back to Oz Penitentiary any time soon, though. I guess what we had here was a failure to communicate, eh?
My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.
Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!
Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?
I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.
Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.
Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.
I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I been straight up. But what come back? Hmm? You’d think if I get jammed up on some shit they’d be like, “A’ight, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on a chessboard.
Poor Bodie. Poor loyal, misguided, tragic Bodie. Like so many on The Wire, we’ve seen him do terrible things ever since he and Poot shot Wallace back in season 1 – yet he wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t evil. He was just one of those little bitches on a chessboard, just like another tragic player who decided that enough was enough and ended up hanging from a prison doorknob with a belt around his neck.
Poor Randy. Screwed over by the stupidity of a cop who doesn’t get that he’s betraying this kid – but screwed over even more by a society where talking to a cop is much worse a crime than putting a bullet in someone’s head, it seems, and by a system that at best can keep an account of the people it’s failing – but actually helping them? Sorry, no. Not enough money, not enough people to do the work, not enough of an incentive to cut through the red tape.
Poor Carver, trying so hard to do right by those under his care. Poor Dukie, for whom a day in high school is more frightening than a life on the corners. Poor Michael, killing his soul to protect his little brother. Poor Bubbles, saddest of all. You all broke my heart… and I know I’ll be back for more.
I’d thought that season 2 of The Wire was as tragic as it would get. Frank Sobotka going to his death, thinking that he had even the tiniest chance of patching things up for himself, his nephew, his union, for the men he felt responsible for. But the slow, drawn out death of the working stiffs’ union doesn’t hold a candle to the perpetual, systemic sickness which The Wire, season by season, evokes for us, and the way it infects the youngest already.
With “Final Grades”, the season 4 finale, The Wire may just have topped Six Feet Under as my favourite series. The care and intricacy with which the characters are developed, the interconnecting themes play out – has there ever been a series as perfectly constructed yet feeling so right and so true? I could point to episodes, plot strands and even characters in Six Feet Under that didn’t add anything much to the overall series. The Wire? Everything adds to the whole, coming together with dizzying precision, affecting me to an extent that I never would have expected from what looks like a naturalistic cop series about drugs and crime.
All of this might sound like The Wire is too complex, too constructed for its own good, but the scenes and the characters breathe with a lightness of touch that has to be seen over a number of seasons to be appreciated. It’s only when you take a step back that you can see just how perfectly wrought the series is.
Okay, enough of this clumsy attempt to put into words the effect that “Final Grades” had on me. Unless you’re scared of spoilers, you may want to check out this page (http://www.theguywiththeglasses.com/2008/03/wire-top-scenes.html) as it deftly picks some of the best scenes of the series up to the end of season 4.
And, apart from anything else, it’s good to see a quality series that actually makes it to the end without being cancelled prematurely. (There is something cruelly ironic about releasing a DVD set called Deadwood – Complete Collection. Be honest, cocksucker, and call it what it is: Deadwood – Dead Before Its Time or Deadwood – We Killed It Because We Had To Pay For This Weirdo Surfer Dude Series or Deadwood – Because A Good Novel With The Final Chapter Ripped Out Is Still A Good Novel, Right?)
Anyway, it’s really two deaths I’ll be writing about. And the whole notion of family… well, let’s put it this way. It’s complicated.
I’m currently rewatching The Sopranos and I just finished season 3 (“… In which an old friend’s son is shot in the back of the head and Meadow interrupts a sentimental song with thrown chunks of bread and a rendition of a Britney Spears classic”). While the series dealt in ambiguities from the very beginning, season 3 is perhaps the first one where the audience’s complicity is brought to the fore. We root for Tony Soprano, paterfamilias to two families, but for all his charm and for all our sympathy for him (when he’s not being an asshole to the people around him) he is evil – if he is defined by who he is and what he does, he’s evil. Less so than the outright psychos in his entourage (I’m mainly looking at you, Paulie and Ralphie) and more self-aware, but he enables them and depends on them and their actions for his own success.
Up to the end of season 3, we’ve never seen him quite this manipulative and hypocritical, and now it’s seeping into his children more and more. Knowing quite well on one level that her idiot ex was killed because of the system her father upholds, she now defends it – to the face of idiot ex’s sister and with a degree of self-righteousness that is nauseating.
The problem I have with rewatching The Sopranos, though, is that differently from, say, Deadwood, Six Feet Under or (most of all) The Wire the episodes and seasons are pretty much exchangeable. There’s very little character development – which may be the point, but if you could watch the episodes in pretty much any order and the only thing you can determine by whether it’s season 1, 3 or 6 is how old the kids are and whether Pussy Bompensiero is around? In my books that diminishes the lasting appeal and success of the series.
Talking of deaths in series: since Switzerland is a couple of months behind the States with respect to TV, we only got to see the House season 4 finale now… and what a downer that one was. Even though season 4 was the shortest season of the series ever, most of the episodes after House had chosen his new team felt like retreads (or, in fact, re-re-retreads), but the two finale episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart”, were among the best and definitely the emotionally strongest episodes. I remember pretty much hating Robert Sean Leonard in Much Ado About Nothing, but together with Hugh Laurie he carries the series even in its most generic episodes. Give him material such as this and he absolutely shines. (And I don’t know what it is, but give me a well-acted man crying his eyes out in a series and I get a big lump in my throad…)
I still don’t think that Kate Beckinsale is talented or particularly beautiful, though, so there.