Illustration by Adeline Pericart
Long gone are the days when you used to rush home from the circus to watch Dempsey & Makepeace on a Thursday night at 8 o’clock on television. Nowadays rather than follow weekly installments on the box, most of us indulge ourselves with lavish boxsets that we can watch whenever we choose – even if that means an all-night, whole season feast of vampires, mobsters, meth-dealers or serial killers. In conjunction with the recent article ‘BIG DRAMA – little screen’ in Film Ireland‘s Autumn issue, Steven Galvin gave up his sleep-filled nights and was couchridden under a crisp-strewn duvet in order to take a look at what’s out there in the boxset-land of TV drama. Here he takes a look at 3 contemporary dramas (Mad Men, Dexter, and Breaking Bad), 3 classic dramas (Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, and The Wire) and 3 dramas that you may have missed (The Prisoner, The Singing Detective, and Deadwood).
Mad Men – Season I
‘I hate to break it to you but there is no big lie, there is no system. The universe is indifferent’
Oozing style, capturing a moment of social American history on the cusp of change and populated by characters of dubious values, Mad Men is the stylish soap opera that lives off the lives it seeks to exploit. It is a world of superficial beauty, of vacuous dialogue, of empty vessels and guff that perfectly captures the depressing reality of an advertising industry populated by characters as hollow as the products they sell. Its unflinching realism refuses to renegotiate the past in terms of the present and in doing so exposes a world of undesirable creatures wallowing in their own self-congratulatory existence. What’s not to love? Its snail-like pace unfolds with a subtle and skilful dramatic plot seducing the viewer into its luscious narrative that is lit from all angles with exquisite production design and bang-on attention to detail. Has there ever been anything on television so fascinatingly ugly that looks so beautiful?
Dexter – Season I
‘I’ve lived in darkness a long time. Over the years my eyes adjusted, until the dark became my world and I could see’
Despite being a bit of a one-trick pony, Dexter is a delicious slice of depraved humour. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is the charming sociopathic serial killer with a conscience, who works for forensics for the Miami Metro Police Department while also expertly disposing of the ‘scum’ that society has failed to punish – he kills killers. The series has no qualms fetishising violence and its many gruesome scenes are lovingly shot with cameras lingering over blood-splattered canvases. The deep red blood of the visual is always matched by the black humour of the dialogue, which energises each episode with a verve and style that drives things forward at a rapid pace. The tightly scripted episodes develop well over the first season as the overarching narrative develops into an intriguing story that brings the moral ambiguity at the heart of the series to an intriguing culmination.
Breaking Bad – Season 1
‘Fulminated mercury. A little tweak of chemistry’
Breaking Bad is a blow to the guts of television drama. What begins as a dark comedy unfolds and reveals itself as tragic drama. It follows the descent of a run-of-the-mill Joe Soap into the murky world of crime and drugs. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a middle-aged chemistry teacher who, after learning he has terminal cancer, hooks up with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) who’s now a low-level drug dealer. White uses his chemistry skills to make the purest form of crystal meth there is in an effort to make money for his family and pay for his treatment. There are some heart-breaking scenes throughout the series as both Walter and Jesse struggle with what they have become and how it has affected their relationships with those that care about them. Often cinematic in scope, Breaking Bad is never less than riveting stuff. With its pitch-perfect central performance, tightly woven narrative strands and fervent imaginative storyline, Breaking Bad is an unpredictable, edgy series and of all the current dramas it’ll be the most fascinating to see where it goes.
‘Damn fine coffee! And hot!’
David Lynch’s foray into television was like walking down the yellow brick road of a Brothers’ Grimm story accompanied by angels & demons. It’s difficult to comprehend now what a breakthrough Twin Peaks was in popular television. It reinvented American TV drama and encouraged, even demanded, that from then on such stuff could do much more than provide an hour’s diverting entertainment. Lynch’s camera brought a cinematic style to television screens and the lush colours and production design were matched by Angelo Badalamenti’s seductive score that sweeps majestically through the series. Twin Peaks delved deep into the undergrowth of the America of white-picket fences, revealing Lynch’s obsession with the opposites at work in life – the ugliness behind the beauty; the dark behind the light; the tears behind the joy; and the evil behind the good. All of this was exquisitely wrapped in an offbeat surreal sense of humour that was proud to be ‘odd’. It is still a marvel to behold as well as still being essential viewing, having influenced so much of what came after it. It might be a while before we see the likes of it again.
‘A wrong decision is better than indecision’
Taking the brutality and humour of Goodfellas and the drama and scope of The Godfather, David Chase’s excellently written television series The Sopranos is a remarkable achievement. It is based around the life of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mafia captain, who starts to attend therapy after suffering panic attacks. The series explores his troubled relationship with the two families in his life – his own and the mob. The show is an extraordinary concoction of violence and humour that springs from the richly energetic writing and excellent performances. The cast of mobsters and extended families are a wonderfully imagined array of morally ambiguous characters, each of whom in their own way struggle to reconcile their public and private personas, which of course is doomed to tragic failure. Tony Soprano is a classic tragic hero dealing with ‘blind fate’. The plot constantly functions as a test through which he must work out his destiny, but ultimately he undergoes a tragic ‘fall’ that transpires through events which his own actions has set in motion – actions stemming from his own flaws and inability to reconcile his private and public roles. The Sopranos is a lethal hit. And, to quote the series once more, ‘A hit is a hit’.
‘All in the game yo, all in the game’
The Wire is superior storytelling that intelligently and honestly explores its socio-political landscape with a fine-tooth comb and populates its world with an array of fascinating and complex characters. Each series is a thoroughly rewarding dramatic experience and is organised around a central theme: season I – the illegal drug trade; season II – the port system; season III – the city government and bureaucracy; season IV – the school system; and season V – the print news media. Its structure resembles that of a novel in that each episode resembles a chapter and makes sense as a whole, achieving an organic unity through its perfect management of plot and composition of episodes that richly fulfil its ambitious dramatic objectives. The show’s realistic portrayal of Baltimore scales lofty heights exposing the structures of power at play in everyday life and is never afraid to take a close look at the maggots it finds under the stones it turns over. With its gritty realism and refusal to offer pithy resolutions The Wire proudly charts, in the words of its creator, ‘the death of America’. A must-see experience.
ONES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED:
‘I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign’
Right from its terrific opening sequence, you know The Prisoner isn’t your average television drama. Made in the late ’60s, the series follows ‘Number Six’ (Patrick McGoohan), who, after resigning his job as a secret agent, is captured from his home and mysteriously finds himself trapped on an island known as ‘The Village’ populated by unquestioning inhabitants going about their lives as numbers under the watchful gaze of the island’s Orwellian type authorities. Charting Six’s efforts to escape, the series takes on the structure of a puzzle, but one that raises more questions than it answers; cleverly leaving itself open to a myriad of interpretations ranging from the social to the individual and its intriguing use of symbols feeds into the show’s allegorical readings. Its air of mystery is intensified by the often surreal atmosphere that infuses episodes and the sharp dialogue, beautifully designed sets, intense performances and swinging ’60s soundtrack ensure its addictive watchability. The Prisoner is truly a bold, original and inventive piece of television.
The Singing Detective
‘Can I go back to the ward now? I lead an exciting and vibrant life there’
Dennis Potter’s 1986 Tv show is a masterpiece of dramatic writing. It tells the tale of the physical and mental decay of a writer of detective fiction, who suffers from psoriatic arthropathy (a severe form of inflammatory arthritis) and is bedridden in a hospital. He fantasises his latest novel in an effort to deal with his illness, while at the same time dealing with his traumatic childhood memories. The Singing Detective has a skilfully crafted, multi-temporal narrative that constantly shifts between three layers: A burns victim hospital bed in the 1980s (reality); a childhood traumatic incident in London in the 1930s (memory); and a film-noir detective in the 1940s (fantasy). With a wonderful central performance by Michael Gambon underpinned by Potter’s brilliant, literary writing and mastery of form, The Singing Detective is a towering achievement in television drama.
‘The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back’
Deadwood, South Dakota is a grubby hell-like illegal settlement in the 1870s in a wild West truly wild, populated by every manner of oddball, misfit and bandit, all out to fill their pockets after a huge gold strike. The series traces how a civilisation is formed evolving from the vacuum of chaos into a structured organisation. Playing with fact and fiction, the series introduces historical figures into the narrative and sets up its own narrative world – a world of law searching for order. Written by Ian Milch, Deadwood is a rich tapestry of tension and rivalry that exists to torment the building of a community. Its multi-layered themes are expertly juggled. Often brutal, the series is blessed with fearless writing and boasts an outstanding ensemble cast. The sharp dialogue provides some sparkling moments and bullets of wicked humour, and in Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen has provided television with one of its most memorable monsters. Deadwood is a compelling piece of drama that often feels like a foul-mouthed Shakespeare drinking whisky while writing a Western.
Read Film Ireland‘s recent article ‘BIG DRAMA – little screen’, in which Amanda Spencer talks to directors Dearbhla Walsh, Daniel O’Hara, Ciaran Donnelly, and Robert Quinn and sees who’s taking sides in TV versus film.
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