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!
Is this what some people feel like when they watch a Quentin Tarantino film? There I was, watching the penultimate episode of The Night Of, HBO’s 2016 prestige crime/prison/courtroom drama. (Beware spoilers for The Night Of, but also for The Man Who Wasn’t There.) In its final, expertly staged scenes, the is-he-or-isn’t-he-innocent protagonist Naz becomes a willing accessory to a swift, bloody jailhouse murder. As the scene begins, violins start playing a melancholy tune – one that I immediately knew: the makers of The Night Of had taken a page out of the Coen Brothers’ songbook, using a theme written by composer Carter Burwell for The Man Who Wasn’t There to colour a scene of ruthless brutality.
It’s September, and the world is coming to an end on this month’s episode. Join Mege and Matt as they talk about the post-apocalypse in pop culture, from Obsidian’s epic role-playing game Fallout: New Vegas via Mad Max: Fury Road to – bear with us on this one – the HBO series The Leftovers. We also discuss Spike Lee’s latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, and talk about Sarah Vowell’s book Assassination Vacation.
The Leftovers was already an odd beast in its first season. Here’s a series about a world where, on October 14 three years ago, 2% of the world’s population just vanished. Poof. You may have been sitting at breakfast with your family, you may have been getting in the car where you’ve just put your infant after shopping for groceries, you may have been in the middle of having a tryst with someone not your wife – and from one moment to the next, they’re gone. Your highschool sweetheart that you occasionally see at the store? Gone. The old man who touched you when you were a kid? Gone. What’s this? The Rapture?
I was hypnotized by The Night Of for five or six episodes, which isn’t bad at all considering that it’s an eight-part HBO miniseries. To me, it seemed to scratch the itch that season 2 of True Detective left me with. It’s on the dark side of things: it mostly takes place at night and/or indoors, but even the exterior daylight scenes look sort of gloomy. It’s about crime and punishment, and about the law, about justice and injustice, and about courts and prison. It’s set in New York, but is based on the British TV series Criminal Justice from 2008-09, starring Ben Whishaw. The Night Of, however, has no problem standing on its own. Continue reading
I consider myself lucky for discovering HBO’s series during their Golden Age. Starting with The Sopranos, then moving on in short order to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire and Rome, showed me the potential of ambitious TV: ambitious in terms of direction, acting, writing, structure and production values. Even a more flawed offering like Carnivàle seemed infinitely more daring than most regular series with their standalone episodes, 20+-episode seasons and heavy padding.
I still love HBO’s output during that time, but the problem of getting into something during such a strong period is that whatever follows is likely to disappoint. HBO still does strong programming, and I’d count miniseries like Generation Kill and The Pacific among their best, but then there are series whose premise wasn’t enough to keep them interesting for their entire run, like In Treatment, or guilty pleasures that increasingly become more guilty and lesspleasurable, like True Blood. I haven’t seen John from Cincinatti or Luck yet, but neither sounds like it measures up to the heydays of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, McNulty or the Fisher family.
Boardwalk Empire is probably a good example of latter-day HBO. There’s no doubt that it’s a handsome series, with gorgeous production values. It’s well written, the cast is pretty much impeccable, it looks and sounds the part: this is quality TV. However, by comparison, it’s also average TV. For all its qualities (and there are many of them), it doesn’t have the freshness or the audacity of The Sopranos. It looks cinematic enough, but it meanders, feeling like a movie stretched out to several seasons. The same material, the same cast and crew, might be served better by a shorter format with more focus; instead, Boardwalk Empire feels somewhat rote at best and flabby at worst. Compared to so much TV, it’s still great – but compared to the pioneers, the real greats, shows that had something to prove and proved it, it can’t help but disappoint. It’s a shame, because there are moments when it’s up there with its stronger predecessors: disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow going to the woods to kill himself, or Chalky White interrogating an increasingly frightened Klansman after a racist killing. There are scenes of wit and intelligence, there are surprising and thrilling moments, and there are those insanely intense eyes of Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden: we never know from one scene to the next if Michael Shannon’s Fed is a stony-faced straight man or a psychopath waiting to happen, or both.
Most of the time, though, Boardwalk Empire feels like HBO by the book: there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s quality TV, but in being handsome and exquisitely crafted, it lacks the scathing punk attitude of The Sopranos or the squishy, pulsating heart and mock-Shakespearean grandeur of Deadwood, nor does it have the Dickensian scope of The Wire. One could argue that it’s its own thing, but I’m not sure yet what it brings to the table that is unique and that could only be done by this particular series. Boardwalk Empire is enjoyable, but it’s also strangely forgettable from one episode to the next.
Yet, there is also Treme, which was broadcast around the same time. David Simon’s series of post-Katrina New Orleans suffers by a rash comparison to The Wire – it lacks the structural focus of Simon’s Baltimore saga, which had a main case and storyline each season to peg its themes onto. Admittedly, it took me a while to get into Treme, but I’m now almost through the second season and have fallen in love with its world and characters. It’s less showy than Boardwalk Empire, which aims at the burnished looks of a Once Upon a Time in America and tries to recall mobster drama from The Untouchables (the Prohibition setting) to The Godfather (the ghost of Fredo Corleone haunts various characters), but it has attitudes, heart and a righteous anger at what ails New Orleans, both from outside and from within.
What seems flabby in Boardwalk Empire I’ve come to see as an asset in Treme: its many characters and plot strands all contribute to a portrait of a city that has been dealt a near-fatal blow but that is struggling to survive. As he did with Baltimore, Simon has crafted a passionate ode to a place and its people that does not shy away from its own faults but that is an example of essential, loving humanism. It’s not in the series’ individual moments, though there are many strong ones, but in their accumulation: each scene, each character, each moment of growth constitutes a brushstroke in Simon’s grand portrait of a city in struggle. Where Boardwalk Empire suffers from the TV format and practically calls for a more focused narrative format, Treme needs its sprawl to unfold its full effect. Simon’s rhythms and structures may not lend themselves to lean, muscular storytelling, but the way he portrays a society and culture could not function in a medium that calls for discipline and brevity. Is Treme up there with HBO’s greatest? Well, I’m not even halfway through the entire series, but I will say with confidence that few TV series have made me care as much about a place I’ve never been to and people I’ll never meet.
Wow. Just wow. Breaking Bad season 4 (yes, as always we’re a year or so behind the US) has done the series proud. Is it better than the previous seasons? I admit, there were moments when I felt the plot was spinning its wheels somewhat – we had scenes that were variations on earlier scenes without adding anything new, usually telling us something about Walter White’s personality that we already knew – and the season didn’t always maintain its well honed balance of plot, theme and characterisation, but when it worked (and it often did), boy, did it work… and off the top of my head, and before my first coffee of the day, I could mention scenes and whole episodes that were stronger than anything that had gone before.
And “Face Off”, the final episode of the season? I would put it up there with the most tension-building denouements I’ve seen or read in any medium. The way Vince Gilligan and his team have put together the individual building blocks to arrive at this ending for one of their most memorable characters, and the way it all comes together in Tio Salamanca’s muffled bell-ringing. As I’ve said: wow.
At the same time, Walter White – who I once thought to be a man trying to do as best he could in an impossible situation – has become one of the greatest villains in any visual medium. It’s difficult to read his tone of voice when he says “I won” at the end of the episode (it’s been described as smug and triumphant, but to me Walt’s shaking voice sounded not a little scared by what he’d become), but Bryan Cranston is pretty much perfect in his depiction of the character. Almost every episode of this season could serve as a master-class for budding actors, and a depressing one too – very few people will reaching the dizzying heights of Cranston’s performance and the character he has brought to life.
Just coming off the high of Breaking Bad‘s penultimate season, it’s difficult to segue neatly into the other season we’ve just finished watching, namely season 1 of Treme. I started watching David Simon’s latest with unrealistic, unfair expectations: The Wire is still the best thing I’ve seen on TV in many ways, and since Treme shares some of the earlier series’ main actors (Wendell “Bunk” Pierce, Clarke “Cool Lester Smooth” Peters) it’s even more difficult to shake these expectations. During Treme‘s first 4-5 episodes I kept repeating the mantra, “It’s not The Wire, it’s not The Wire“, which is true but not entirely fair: some of the themes are the same, but Simon and his cast and crew go for a different feel here. The series is much more meandering; it has a few plots threaded throughout the series, but character always comes before plot in this series.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when it all clicked – there were probably different moments for different characters – but by the end of the season, as the last episode of S1 transitioned into the flashback of all the characters preparing for Katrina, it definitely had. The writers and actors of Treme are impressively astute at balancing the depressing realities of post-Katrina New Orleans, at least for these particular characters, and the flashes of hope and humanity. I’ve never understood the people accusing Simon of cynicism (being a pessimist doesn’t make you a cynic!), and his deep sense of empathy has never been stronger than in Treme.
Except perhaps with Sonny, the Dutch louse – but given time even he could turn out to be human. Simon has a history of doing that… and I’ll gladly give him time to do so.
On most message boards, forums and online communities that I’m a part of (all… let’s see… 3 1/2 of them) I probably post most frequently in threads relating to films, TV series, novels, plays, comics and other media that are largely dedicated to storytelling, characterisation and the like. One recent discussion I took part in was about the HBO series Game of Thrones, and while many of the topics were predictable (OMG sexposition! Just how much does Tyrion rule? Is there such a thing as posting that animated GIF of Joffrey being slapped too often?), one caught me by surprise: a poster criticised that there’s barely anyone in the series to root for.
The reason for my surprise was this: I realised that ‘rooting for someone’ has never been a measure of whether I enjoy a story or not. Of course I root for the Indiana Joneses and John McClanes, the Bastian Balthasar Buxes and… I’m actually finding it difficult to come up with more examples, which is quite telling. Some kinds of stories necessitate a ‘good guy’ to root for, but this isn’t anything I’m looking for in storytelling. On the other hand, what I am looking for is the potential to empathise with the characters whose lives I’m following. And that’s something I find quite easy – you could go so far as to say that I’m a bit of an ’empathy whore’. I’ve never really rooted for Tony Soprano, Richard III, even a Darth Vader – or, for that matter, a Cersei Lannister, not exactly one of the nicer characters in a series that isn’t exactly famous for its many loveable protagonists.
It’s one of the reasons why I’ve greatly enjoyed series whose protagonists do questionable, petty, selfish things all the time, from the characters in Six Feet Under (as the series goes on, Nate becomes more and more selfish in his actions, yet that never makes me care about him any less), to the shades-of-grey cast of any season of The Wire (yes, I even care about Rawls, while fully acknowledging what a dick he is) to the moral monsters of The Sopranos. Which is also why the flip-side of rooting for a fictional character is something I very rarely do – I often read about other forumites wanting this or that character to die horribly, to get knifed in the back or thrown off a cliff or get a bullet in his head, which I just don’t get. I don’t get the vehemence and sadism with which these things are often formulated (and yes, I do understand that wishing death on a fictional character is not the same as wanting a real person to die), but more than that, whether a character is morally reprehensible or not doesn’t have anything to do with whether I want to continue watching them. Al Swearengen is a Machiavellian monster, happy to kill, or have killed, anyone who stands in the way of his plans, yet I can think of few characters who are as enjoyable to watch as him. Tony Soprano made The Sopranos must-watch TV for six seasons, even in the worst episodes. Even generally likeable characters like The Wire‘s Bodie or Rome‘s Titus Pullo do horrible, heinous things. It’s not just that I don’t get why or how the moralities of their actions would influence my wanting to watch them: it’s that their flaws, their ambiguity, often make them more interesting characters for me. (Obviously my enjoyment of the characters also has a lot to do with how they’re written and acted – I want to watch an Al Swearengen at least as much because of Ian McShane’s performance as because he’s a fascinating, complex character, and the same’s definitely true for Breaking Bad‘s Walt White and the fantastic acting by Bryan Cranston.)
However, there are characters – very few, but they exist – that don’t evoke any empathy on my part. There are some that I dislike so much I wouldn’t mind something horrible happening to them. I’ll admit it right here and now: every time I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I hope that McMurphy will succeed in strangling Nurse Ratched to death this time round. I guess that while I’m a bleeding heart of the worst kind when it comes to fictional characters as well, there’s still a tiny little reactionary inside me wanting to get out and flip the switch.
It took me a while to warm to Breaking Bad – and the main reason for this is that it took me more than a season to understand what the series is doing. I’m fairly late to the game, only just having started watching season 3, and one of the main reasons for this is that I’d heard so much hyperbolic praise for the series: “Best thing currently on TV!” I’d heard that sort of thing before – but it rarely held up in any way. Seriously, Dexter? Heroes? Entertaining TV, perhaps, at least initially, but neither of those series was anywhere close to the Pantheon of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and their HBO brethren.
So anyway, Breaking Bad. The premise intrigued me – it’s one of those stories that appeals to my pinko liberal, borderline socialist self: only in America…! Healthcare, shmealthcare, right? If the healthcare system barely deserves that name, cooking meth is a perfectly sane alternative, isn’t it? To my mind, Walter White was a fundamentally decent human being driven to doing something downright insane because of The System, Man, and everything followed from that. Crime, murder, secrets and lies, matrimonial crisis.
Thing is: Walter White is not a fundamentally decent human being. Yes, life has screwed him over – lung cancer when he doesn’t even smoke? – and he doesn’t deserve the hand he’s been dealt. Yes, for much of the first season he doesn’t have time to stop and think about what he’s doing; he’s reacting to the fallout of his first, fateful decision. But once we see Walter make decisions that don’t happen under intense pressure, and we realise: it isn’t cruel fate that makes him do what he does. It’s his own self-pity, self-centredness, and his downright monstrous sense of pride. In fact, in the way he rationalises his increasingly dubious actions, he is a brother in spirit to that greatest of all TV villains believing themselves to be anti-heroes: Tony Soprano.
Note: If you haven’t seen the series at least to the end of the second season, this video won’t make much sense to you – but it will spoil a fairly big plot point. In other words, do not watch unless you know what I’m talking about!
Having said all this, the series does take roughly an entire season to become great. Much of the first season doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be: comedy, drama, bit of both? Are the characters realistic, caricatures or something else altogether? I’m also somewhat doubtful whether the series creators were right to have Walt commit a major crime (no, I’m not talking about some piddly meth cooking) within a couple of episodes of its beginning. Season 1 was entertaining and showed more promise already than, say, the Dexters and Heroes of TV Land, but it’s only in the series’ sophomore season that Breaking Bad fully comes into its own. And now I’m hooked, more so than on any current-gen HBO series – the series is my blue meth.
And as far as poor, decent, selfish, evil, monstrous Walter White is concerned, I’m sorry, Walt, you can’t blame the US healthcare system at this point. I believe Novalis said it best: Character is fate.
The casts the BBC gets for its dramas are amazing. Look at The Hour: Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West, Anna Chancellor, Juliet Stevenson. Look at Page Eight: Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz. It’s as if the good old British Broadcasting Company had some dirt on all of those people, saucy negatives from last year’s Christmas party when everyone got sloshed and made an ass of themselves.
The production values are equally great; especially in HD (yes, the city where we live finally seems to have updated its telecom cables to glass fibres!), these series look gorgeous and crisp. Perhaps not quite on par with the best that HBO has to offer, but that may be British understatement versus trans-American grandiosity. Also, look at the writers and directors: veterans of such quality drama as Cracker, State of Play, the guy who adapted The Hours and The Reader to the great pleasure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Let me stress that I greatly enjoyed watching both The Hour and Page Eight. They’re quality entertainment, and you could do a lot worse than to check these out. It’s a shame, though, that compared to everything else about recent BBC drama, the acting, directing and production values, the writing is decidedly weaker. There are a lot of nice exchanges in The Hour, and I’ve liked Page Eight‘s dialogues more than some of the David Hare I’ve seen on stage, but apart from the dialogues the writing in both of these is relatively lazy. They rely on clichés (of plotting as well as characterisation) without twisting them into something more interesting, and in striving for relevance both dramas go for facile analogy. Obviously, in some ways the Suez crisis and Anthony Eden’s stance may lend itself to parallels to more recent adventures in the Arab world that Britain, in an effort to be (or at least appear) Great again, got involved in, but the parallels evoked by The Hour are hamfisted and not a little smug – and most definitely not as clever as the writers seem to think… and that is ignoring some of the more tin-eared anachronisms in the writing. (I am by no means a stickler for 100% historical accuracy, but some effort should be put in maintaining the illusion of past times.)
Page Eight was perhaps not as guilty of clumsy allegorisation, but that’s only because it wasn’t set in the past. Its parallels to recent and current events weren’t subtextual (albeit in 96-point, bolded, underlined and italicised font, as in The Hour), but they were no more incisive or illuminating for that. As soon as Hare strayed from character drama into politics, his script felt like so many Guardian editorials mashed up into a one-and-a-half hour statement on Britain’s behaviour during and after the WMD affair. Do I think they had a point in their indictment of how Blair and his government behaved? Absolutely. Do I think they added anything worthwhile to the discussion? Not really. Other cribbing from recent events (such as Rachel Weisz’s brother, a clear Rachel Corrie stand-in) were as blunt but unproductive – and that’s not even getting started on the ill-advised Spring-Autumn romance that the script develops between Weisz’ and Nighy’s characters, that the film only barely pulls off without major embarrassment because of the acting of its two leads.
So, Auntie Beeb, in case you’re reading this (yeah, right…): next time round, keep the great actors – but put some money aside for better scripts. Don’t be too self-congratulatory, don’t be too clumsily eager to go for relevance, if you risk ending up trite and obvious. Don’t think you’re smarter than you are, because you risk yourself looking dumb and your audience feeling patronised. Check out other recent British TV drama, such as Low Winter Sun. Tell your authors not to write opinion pieces on modern politics thinly veiled as drama. You’re there 90% of the way – now make the effort and get the plots and writing right as well.
(… writes the guy who doesn’t even pay a licence fee in the UK.)