It all started when a mob family guy began to have panic attacks after a flock of ducks flew away from his backyard leaving him with an irreparable sense of loss and despair. He started seeing a psychiatrist. We also noticed an uncanny resemblance between the way he conducted his mob activities and the way big companies operate in the real world. Was this possibly a metaphor of corporate America? Then there was the focus on his family – unusual in mafia movies (except for The Godfather). We had hardly ever seen a mob wife on the small screen before, with all the details of her lifestyle, including a sense of how her ambition blinds her to the criminal work of her husband. As long as she is able to afford the nice house in the suburbs of Newark and the espresso machine, she is not complaining. If you add to these ingredients the fact the the husband is played by the ultra charismatic late actor James Gandolfini and the wife by the remarkable Edie Falco, you begin to understand why TV is changing into a medium of great content and art work. Of course I’m talking about The Sopranos in this case, the show that basically changed the way cable TV producers, liberated from the pressure of sponsors, started to want to experiment with new formats. The revolution is continuing in streaming video now.
Almost ten years after the end of that seminal show, we have now an offer of excellent series and made-for-tv movies all over the place, competing in quality of content and presence of great actors in the cast. The bar is being raised continuously. Movie stars don’t think twice before crossing the bridge to the former lower land of television, when the invitation is tempting enough. Some of them, such as academy-award winner Kevin Spacey even bring their own projects to new media channels (which is the case of the successful House of Cards on Netflix.)
I’ve always been a lover of the movies, but I must confess these days I’d much rather watch an episode of Downton Abbey or Mad Men from the comfort of my couch than struggle to park at the nearest mall to watch a superhero blockbuster or a silly Brazilian comedy on the big screen. Besides, there is the new pleasure of binge watching on weekends, that is, covering sometimes a whole season or two in less than 48 hours. I’m aware of the perils of addiction, don’t worry. Look at the tragic end that befell most of the Candy Crush Saga players…
I forced myself to think why it is that TV is so much better now. Could I pinpoint some of the main differences between Charlie’s Angels in the seventies and The Shield? They are both cop shows. Therefore, they’re basically about catching the bad guys, right? So what’s new? Well, for starters, the protagonists in the new shows are not saints, but multifaceted human beings. They all have a dark side and are badly flawed somehow, like the heroes of Greek tragedies. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), one of the main characters in The Shield, for example, doesn’t think twice before partaking in the spoils of war the drug dealers he chases accumulate. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) of Mad Men has a compulsive infidelity drive, despite the nice and caring women who love him. He also hides a dark secret from his past. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from Breaking Bad or Dexter (Michael C. Hall) from the show of the same name are both hardcore criminals! Walter runs a meth lab and is the kingpin of an international drug operation. His family knows nothing about it at first, but then his wife gets coopted and starts working for her husband. Dexter carves his victims with sadistic pleasure: OK, they only get submitted to the horrific ritual if they’ve committed crimes themselves but then again… Nurse Jackie, also played beautifully by Edie Falco in the show of the same name, is a committed nurse, who loves and cares for her patients, always going the extra mile to help them. Only she has sex with a coworker, jeopardizing the stability of her nice family structure, to have access to the painkillers she is addicted to.
In addition to the flawed heroes, you will notice that most of these shows are about ensembles. There’s of course the main hero and his journey, but all the other subplots are as interesting or sometimes even more enticing than the main one. Supporting roles are usually played by very accomplished actors, so even a small scene played by a guest star can be a little gem.
Last but not least, there is the superb writing. If movies are the domain of directors and producers, as they have total control over their work, TV or streaming video is the realm of writers. They run the show there. And surely this is a very strong reason why plots, structure, dialogues, and subtext have gained a lot more prominence over their big screen counterparts. A lot is not said in these shows’s plots. The subtlety of the dialogues, the importance of silences and the facial expression of great actors add a lot to the the depth of a scene. Also, the fact that sometimes the storyline or specific scenes focus on very small things of everyday life, and yet highlight unusual details and reveal interesting motives of a character make for great entertainment: the theft of a bottle of wine by a gay footman (Downton Abbey) or the puberty troubles of a girl (Mad Men) add a lot to the attraction of a show, illuminating areas of the human experience that in the past were limited to literature or art movies.
If you have not watched any of the shows we discussed above, I strongly recommend you have a go at them. Let us know what you think by sharing your thoughts in this space.
In the meantime, check out my Pinterest board on BEST TV SHOWS (click on the picture below):