In 2013, US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich asked Australians to stop pirating Game of Thrones. A single episode of HBO’s gritty fantasy drama had been illegally downloaded over four million times, equalling the legitimate viewership of the program. ‘As the Ambassador here in Australia,’ Mr Bleich wrote, ‘it was especially troubling to find out that Australian fans were some of the worst offenders with among the highest piracy rates of Game of Thrones in the world.’
Sniggers about our penal heritage aside, this illustrates a wider cultural phenomenon: the rise of US television drama. Over the past decade and a half – since HBO’s The Sopranos débuted in 1999 – America has produced cable shows that elevated television to an art. Television moved from ‘fast-food entertainment’, ‘mind candy’ (in producer Aaron Spelling’s words) to a medium reviewed in highbrow literary journals and discussed with a passion and currency that literary fiction can only envy.
American and British critics have lauded this period as ‘the golden age of television’, a ‘revolution’, citing slow-burning, serialised storytelling, dark, complex characters, exceptional production values, and the sheer addictive quality of it all. US television’s engagement with twenty-first-century social and political issues has seen it described by Andrew O’Hagan of the London Review of Books as becoming a ‘National Theatre of America’, and by Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper as claiming the cultural prominence once held by British drama: ‘HBO,’ he said, ‘is presently fulfilling this role of public service broadcasting.’
Prominent creatives – who once would have disdained the form – have begun working in television. Baz Luhrmann is to direct and produce a show for Netflix, and Woody Allen will write and direct one for its competitor, Amazon. They follow Martin Scorsese, who directed and produced HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Major film festivals – Sundance, Tribeca, South by Southwest – have begun showing television and online series. Sundance founder Robert Redford said: ‘My impression is television is advancing faster than major filmmaking.’ Novelists have moved to television as well: Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon, and Neil Gaiman are developing shows. And, as piracy statistics show, viewers watch US television drama. A lot. All over the world.
Some critics have rightly queried television’s coronation, arguing that previous eras had shows of great cultural and popular success, that television today still puts on dross watched by far greater numbers than the oft-lauded cable dramas, and that contemporary television – with audience fragmentation resulting from increasing numbers of channels – has lost the communality that defined it in earlier generations.
Clearly, it is not the case that there was a lack of good television before The Sopranos: shows like Brideshead Revisited, Pride and Prejudice, and the BBC’s House of Cards quash that notion. Nor do I deny that there is rubbish on today – we live in an era of Keeping up with the Kardashians. But I think the debate requires definition. Using ‘television’ as an unqualified critical term is as unhelpful as using ‘books’ when discussing literature – bundling car repair manuals and airport thrillers alongside Shakespeare. Rather, there is a specific type of television – US HBO-style cable drama (the literary fiction of television) that, as a result of major changes to the ways we make and consume television, has yielded a new and heightened form of the medium.
I want to consider the circumstances that generated this new television, examine some of the era’s iconic shows, and evaluate the cultural impact of the shift. My argument has necessary parameters. I begin with The Sopranos not because it came from nowhere. ‘Other shows had made the revolution possible,’ Alan Sepinwall writes in The Revolution Was Televised (2012), ‘but The Sopranos is the one that made the world realize something special was happening on television.’ I focus on cable shows because cable facilitated the artistic freedom needed for this new television drama. This is not to deny network television’s good work – shows like The West Wing and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were iconic; Suits and The Good Wife are very strong. But they come from a different production model and, regardless of merit, largely do not demonstrate the qualities of the shows examined here. I don’t look at comedy. As Brett Martin writes in Difficult Men (2013), there wasn’t the same disparity between network and cable comedy as there was in drama. I focus on the United States not because it’s the only country making good television but because, with a highly developed cable market, it provided the nexus for economic, technological, and artistic forces that aligned to change the trajectory of the medium.
The Cultural Conditions of Production
Twentieth-century television was considered the poor cousin of film and the novel – a medium typified by populism, low-production values, industry prejudice, and critical disdain. In our glittering age of drama, this is, Martin writes, ‘easy to forget … for the overwhelming majority of its existence, the idea that television was an artistic dead zone would have been self-evident’.
The main reason was commercial. Twentieth-century American television was dominated by networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), which, broadcasting free to the public, relied on advertising to survive. The bigger the audience, the bigger the advertising revenues. Consequently, television demanded inoffensive content that appealed to the widest spectrum and didn’t annoy advertisers. Outside theatre, the place for thinking persons’ drama was film. This changed in the late 1990s, as studios defunded ‘the $40 to 50 million good drama’ movie; as screenwriter Shawn Ryan said, television ‘really grabbed that mantle’.
HBO began as a small but innovative cable channel supplying movies, stand-up comedy shows, and live televised boxing. Towards the end of the twentieth century, cable channels increased in number, audiences fragmented, and HBO needed something new.
Cable differs from network television most practically in the method of transmission. Rather than broadcasting free to television antennae, cable transmits directly to subscribers via coaxial or fibre optic cables. Premium cable channels (such as HBO) don’t rely on advertising revenues but on viewers paying a monthly subscription to cable operators – who own the physical cable infrastructure and collate packages of cable channels for viewers to choose. The cable operator pays a percentage of the viewer’s subscription to the cable channel, and that, broadly, is how the channel makes money. Basic cable channels (such as AMC, maker of Mad Men and Breaking Bad) have some advertising content, but typically charge a smaller subscription fee.
The higher the demand for a cable show, the more likely the channel producing it is to be bundled by cable operators into packages, thus generating the channel fees. Consequently, cable’s business model works on appealing to vocal groups of affluent viewers who will stump up cash for entertainment. It doesn’t prize country-wide ratings, as network television does. It relies, as AMC CEO Josh Sapan reportedly said, on ‘a critically acclaimed and audience-craved show that would make us undroppable to cable operators’.
‘As well as artistic freedom, cable gave HBO another advantage: blood, sex, and profanity.’
In 1999, cable companies’ presence in original drama was minimal. HBO entered the market with quality as its distinctive product. Backed by its wealthy parent, Time Warner, they had little to lose. Carolyn Strauss, a founding drama executive and later president at HBO, recalls that ‘It was loose. It was fun. We were still very much in the shadows. The fear doesn’t creep in until you start winning Emmys.’ Network executives are famously conservative and interventionist. HBO’s risk-taking commissioning model has been called the ‘HBO shrug’ – or, more bluntly, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it’, as Chris Albrecht, Strauss’s former boss, said about agreeing to proceed with The Wire’s latter seasons. HBO gave creatives enormous freedom, allegedly delivering only two notes to The Sopranos. Ed Burns, co-creator of The Wire, said: ‘There’s nobody blowing the whistle on the sidelines saying “you can’t do that”.’ The founding creatives had a devil-may-care attitude. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, didn’t want to work in television – he disliked the medium (still does) and meant to leave it if The Sopranos failed: ‘I didn’t give a fuck about failing,’ he said. ‘I had nothing to lose.’ David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, was a journalist and author with a similar approach. ‘My attitude … was, “If this doesn’t work, fuck it, [I] won’t stay in TV.”’ Happily for HBO, their risk and the creatives’ lack of inhibitions paid off.
As well as artistic freedom, cable gave HBO another advantage: blood, sex, and profanity. US networks are constrained by content regulations. Cable is not. Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss told me by email that ‘a friend of ours who works on a network show reported that Standards & Practices had recently banned the word “crazy”. How crazy is that?’ On cable it was a different story. In episode four of The Wire, as Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland investigate a murder scene their dialogue is almost composed entirely of the word ‘fuck’ and its variants. Similarly, in Deadwood ’s pilot, Ellsworth remarks: ‘I may have fucked up my life flatter’n hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.’ Sex was present on cable too, in the girls of Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing strip club and basically any episode of Game of Thrones – a show that inspired the term ‘sexposition’ for delivering exposition via sex scenes. Violence was embraced in shows that killed off major characters, bloodily, and with breathless regularity.
Although this content has been criticised for prurience (Game of Thrones in particular), it heightened realism and allowed shows to delve into darker and more sophisticated material. ‘The censorship at the broadcast networks,’ Weiss and Benioff wrote, ‘stifles innovation, experimentation, and subversive behavior.’ Vitally, cable’s grittier content enabled something never fully permissible on networks – the villain-as-protagonist: Tony Soprano, the ‘fat fuckin crook from New Jersey’; Al Swearengen, the profane whoremonger of Deadwood; The Wire’s broken, boozy detectives; Don Draper, Mad Men’s adulterous ad man; Walter White, Breaking Bad’s chemistry teacher turned drug baron; and the cut-throat would-be sovereigns in Game of Thrones.
These characters were capable of more detailed investigation due to the rise of complex, serialised narrative on cable. Twentieth-century network television shows favoured complete storylines within each episode to cater for viewers who might not catch the show every week. The advance of cable (which repeated episodes) and the advent of DVD box sets in the early 2000s prompted serialisation, where each episode is a piece of a continuing story. In HBO’s excellent True Detective, for example, an episode ends with detectives opening a door and begins with them walking through it in the next. Serialised storytelling demanded audience engagement in a way network television hadn’t, making it difficult for a casual viewer to tune in. But with DVD box sets, viewers could watch and re-watch as they pleased, and ‘binge’ on a whole series, like reading a book – an attribute which has drawn contrasts to nineteenth-century serialised novels. Distinguished writers confess to neglecting the same in favour of a ‘viewing frenzy’, as David Carr described it. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd admitted to ‘hoping to get the flu’ so she could watch television uninterrupted. Online streaming services, like Netflix, have intensified this trend by releasing whole seasons at once.
Narrative complexity was aided by changing season structures. A network television hour yields approximately forty-four minutes of screen time – the rest is advertising. HBO’s episodes ran uninterrupted for an hour. As Dean J. DeFino says in The HBO Effect (2014), ‘the typical 44-minute broadcast drama is broken into four “acts” by commercial breaks, and each act requires a climax, resolution and cliffhanger to bridge the breaks. So much energy is spent on maximizing dramatic impact around commercials that little is left to deepen the plot … But without the commercial intrusions imposing act breaks, HBO episodes allow for a full, unbroken hour to weave narrative threads together into a cohesive whole.’ The number of episodes per season changed too. Network television typically broadcasts twenty-two, requiring writers and crew to deliver material at a feverish pace. HBO cut this down to twelve or thirteen, allowing, as DeFino says, higher production values, as crews had more time to compose shots, and giving writers time to focus on complex narratives.
At university in the early 2000s, I watched VHS tapes of Joss Whedon’s terrific Buffy the Vampire Slayer on a boxy television. The screen was fuzzy, the sound muted. I remember the first time I saw a DVD – Braveheart – and being staggered by its picture quality. Advances in viewing technologies – flat screen digital televisions, Blu-ray Discs – meant that television, historically a dialogue-heavy medium, could adopt the sophisticated visual storytelling of cinema: long shots of the desert in Breaking Bad, the shadows of The Wire, CGI-enhanced battles in Game of Thrones. In essence, there was no point enlisting, as Vince Gilligan did for Breaking Bad, an Oscar-winning cinematographer to shoot your pilot without the equipment to display that level of craft. But now, one of cinema’s main advantages was challenged. It relocated to the couch.
Jack Warner, co-founder of Warner Bros, famously dismissed screenwriters as ‘schmucks with Underwoods’. In the director-centric movie industry, the writer was and remains something of a hired hand: ‘In the movies the writer is just the servant, the employee,’ Salman Rushdie said. ‘In television … the writer is the primary creative artist.’ In twentieth-century television, writers were in charge, but of a commercial product with a stigma. As cable championed quality, television writers’ autonomy was joined with the means to produce art. As all-powerful showrunners (head writers and executive producers), television show creators have an authority akin to film directors’, ‘responsible’, as Weiss and Benioff told me, ‘not only for writing the show but also for overseeing all the other departments. That means constantly reviewing VFX, score, edits, sound mix, etc. That means flying to London for casting sessions and driving around Northern Ireland looking at locations and meeting prospective directors in Los Angeles.’ Enabled by the experimental climate of cable companies’ foray into original programming, showrunners took artistic and commercial risks. Their success established television as a serious writer’s medium, drawing those who might otherwise have stayed in novels, the theatre, and feature film.
‘Jack Warner, co-founder of Warner Bros, famously dismissed screenwriters as ‘schmucks with Underwoods’’
So, a series of economic, technological, and artistic developments changed the television landscape dramatically in the past fifteen years. We moved from episodic network shows to serialisation on cable, from viewing at prescribed times to bingeing on DVDs and online. Heroes became villains in worlds grittier than anything we had seen on networks, and new technologies allowed television to embrace the visual splendor of cinema. Aided by the increasing presence of heavyweight writers, the darker tone of the era’s aesthetic generated biting social commentary. And it all began with a sweaty mob boss in northern New Jersey.
In 1999, television audiences were used to heroes. Certainly, some were ‘crusty … a hero could have the faintest hint of an edge,’ Sepinwall writes, ‘but only if we were reminded early and often that he was ultimately pure at heart.’ The Sopranos changed that. Strauss recalls the discussion at HBO: ‘Could we have a show with a criminal as a protagonist? It seems like a quaint little argument now, but at the time it was huge.’ Porcine, heavy-breathing, Tony is a violent, depressive mafia don. He is also a family man with a suburban mansion, a wife, Carmela, and children, Meadow and AJ. And he is suffering an existential crisis, in therapy for panic attacks that feel ‘like ginger ale in my skull’.
The Sopranos was a reaction against network television: ‘pandering, cheerleading, family entertainment shit’, creator David Chase called it. ‘I don’t know if you can tell from looking at The Sopranos, but I had just had it up to here with all the niceties.’ Chase sought to unsettle audiences, and The Sopranos pilot foreshadows how he did that. We first see Tony vulnerable in his therapist Dr Jennifer Melfi’s waiting room. Then we meet his family in the Sopranos’ kitchen. They watch Tony step into the pool, delighted that a family of ducks have returned. Later, Tony drives to work with his nephew, Christopher. Suddenly, he yanks the car off the street into a park and roars after a fleeing man. Tony grins. There is a boyish sense of rule-breaking. He guns the engine – and runs the man over. Tony stands over his target: ‘You all right?’ The man whimpers: ‘My leg is broken, the bone’s coming through!’ Tony says, ‘Let me see, let me see’, then smashes his fist into the wound: ‘I’LL GIVE YOU A FUCKIN BONE YOU PRICK. WHERE’S MY FUCKIN MONEY?’
So far, so controversial. But in episode five, ‘College’, television was transformed. While driving daughter Meadow to tour university campuses, Tony sees a former mob ‘soldier’, Fabian Petrulio, who ‘ratted’ on his ‘crew’ and sent mafia men to prison (one of whom, Jimmy, died there). Between father–daughter dinners and Meadow’s interviews, Tony drives to Petrulio’s office. It is surrounded by woods. Birds sing. A deer steps between the trees. Then Tony puts a garrotte around Petrulio’s neck and strangles him. It isn’t quick. Petrulio cries and begs. Tony spits ‘Jimmy says hello from hell, you fuck’ and pulls harder. We have extreme close-ups of the victim’s face, of Tony’s face, spittle flying, the clear exertion, the garrotte cutting into Tony’s hands, and then a corpse point-of-view shot as Tony lies, exhausted, by the body. Then he picks up his daughter from Colby College: ‘You ready? Don’t wanna be late for Bowdoin.’
As Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner commented, ‘They just broke every rule in TV.’ During The Sopranos, our protagonist kills his best friend Pussy, his cousin Tony Blundetto, orders the murder of Christopher’s fiancée, Adriana, and ultimately kills Christopher too. ‘The Sopranos was,’ Emily Nussbaum wrote in New York Magazine, ‘the first series that truly dared us to slam the door, to reject it.’ But we didn’t. Like Dr Melfi’s response to Tony, we were fascinated, even as we were repelled.
‘As Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner commented, ‘They just broke every rule in TV.’’
Throughout the series the threads of violence, family, and therapy intertwine, providing a complexity and empathy for Tony that straight mob drama wouldn’t have achieved. James Gandolfini, who played Soprano, commented: ‘you cared about Tony because David [Chase] was smart enough to write the Greek chorus through Dr Melfi. So you … got to see his motives, what he was thinking, what he was trying to do, what he was trying to fix, what he was trying to become. And then you saw it didn’t really work out the way he wanted it to.’
Via Tony’s existential crisis, Chase communicates a bleak view of the United States. Christopher Bigsby writes in Viewing America (2013) that Tony ‘is as much in search of meaning as Willy Loman had been, and with the same sense that he may have missed the point of his life’. He is ‘the middle manager of a failing company, a citizen of a country whose rhetoric is increasingly at odds with its reality’. ‘The kernel of the joke,’ Chase said, ‘was that life in America had gotten so savage … basically selfish, that even a mob guy couldn’t take it anymore.’ As well as ‘psychobabble’, ‘I think [The Sopranos] describes American materialism,’ Chase commented. ‘America has really big serious problems that are continually papered over with boosterism and escapism and money. It’s all “OK” as long as you’re making money.’ The mafia – which provides Tony with a comfortable middle-class life – perversely extrapolates a faded American dream. ‘Lately,’ Tony tells Dr Melfi, ‘I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end.’ ‘Many Americans feel that way,’ she replies.
HBO’s next series, The Wire, departed as radically from network television as The Sopranos, not least because David Simon didn’t envisage it as TV: ‘I wanted the show to be a visual equivalent of literature.’
While a journalist, Simon spent a year embedded with the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide squad and, with former detective Ed Burns, a year observing the drug trade in the projects. Simon came to believe that the war on drugs and ‘untethered capitalism run amok’ had devastated inner cities: it ‘marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighbourhoods is the drug trade’.
Simon shared Chase’s view of network television: ‘I pitched The Wire to HBO as the anti-cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit police procedurals.’ Network TV, he said, with its ‘foolish, lumpy husbands’, ‘doctors and lawyers, and super-powered heroes’, is ‘a reflection of who it is we actually wish ourselves to be’. In The Wire, Simon embraced hyper realism to portray ‘the shadowland of the ghetto, in the America that we have discarded politically, economically, and emotionally’, to ‘effectively argue [its residents’] relevance and existence to ordinary Americans’.
The Wire begins with an investigation into Avon Barksdale’s drug business (inspired by a real-life case of Burns’s). When Avon’s nephew, D’Angelo, is acquitted of murder after witness intimidation, Detective McNulty (based on Burns) tells a judge that Baltimore’s unsolved murders all trace back to Avon and his lieutenant, Stringer Bell. Following judicial pressure, senior police – angry to have a chunk of new murders now weighing down their statistics – assemble a token detail of departmental dregs. Some take the opportunity to do serious police work, and begin surveillance on Barksdale’s world.
Through police cameras, Simon confronts us with the crack dens, drug trade, and projects of Baltimore – filmed on location, often at real crime scenes. The actors were largely unknowns and sometimes criminals (Avon’s real-life inspiration, Melvin Williams, played The Deacon; Felicia Pearson, a murderer, played Snoop). The dialogue is difficult, the slang unexplained, and the scene relentlessly bleak – not just the blood-soaked projects, but the cheap police offices, the railway tracks where McNulty and Bunk drink heavily and smash bottles. The narrative is slow and complex, establishing empathy for dealers as much as detectives, which challenges traditional distinctions between good and evil. It was, as Simon says, ‘a show that confounded and abused casual viewers’.
‘Through police cameras, Simon confronts us with the crack dens, drug trade, and projects of Baltimore – filmed on location, often at real crime scenes’
The Wire continually denies ‘the simple gratification of hearing handcuffs click’. At the end of season one, the investigation gets close to political leaders’ murky campaign financing and is shut down prematurely by senior brass. As a result, Barksdale and Bell escape largely untouched, but three lead detectives – Greggs, McNulty, and Daniels – are respectively shot and have their careers ruined. In the projects, drugs keep flowing.
Inspired by Balzac’s Paris, Dickens’s London, and Tolstoy’s Moscow, Simon made Baltimore The Wire’s main character. From this, he drew wider claims ‘about the national condition, using the streets and stories of one city as a microcosm’. ‘The grand theme here,’ he said, ‘is nothing less than a national existentialism’, ‘an argument about why America can no longer even recognize its own problems … much less solve any of them.’ The next four seasons focus on the institutions stifling different parts of Baltimore – political indifference ruining the stevedores in season two, mayoral politics quashing solutions to the drug problem in season three, education’s failure in season four, and the press’s deteriorating values in season five. In this portrait of a city, The Wire reaches for ‘Greek tragedy’, arguing that America’s ‘post-modern institutions are the Olympian forces’ that crush individuals who challenge them. It reminds us, Simon said, that ‘we’re still fated by indifferent gods’.
The Sopranos had subverted and re-imagined the gangster genre, and The Wire the police procedural. With Deadwood, HBO took on the western. Its creator, David Milch, had a reputation. After being expelled from Yale Law School (he cites police, guns, and drugs), Milch taught literature at Yale before moving to television. His working methods on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue were legendary. Periodically reliant on alcohol, gambling, and heroin, Milch dictated lines to actors on set before shooting. Milch’s unorthodox working methods continued on Deadwood. HBO, after the first four episodes, apparently never saw a script.
Based on the true story of a lawless 1870s gold-mining town on Native American soil, Deadwood subverts the frontier myth of American manifest destiny. There is no tumbleweed, no strong-jawed cowboy. Milch’s show is blood-soaked and profane. Its characters are filthy, covered in muck and animal shit, coats ripped, neck-lines grimy – you can nearly smell them from the screen. Slight provocations end in sudden executions. Bodies are fed to pigs.
‘HBO, after the first four episodes, apparently never saw a script‘
The series begins with Seth Bullock fulfilling his last commission as a Montana marshall. A baying, drunken crowd wants to lynch a horse thief whom Bullock has imprisoned, awaiting execution at dawn. Outnumbered, Bullock decides to hang the man now – lawfully – on a noose flung over the beams of his veranda. As the body twitches, Bullock hands over his badge, climbs onto his wagon, and leaves with his friend, Sol Starr, to start a store in Deadwood.
In the traditional western, as Martin notes, Bullock would be the protagonist: ‘Yet in keeping with the rules of the new TV‘, he wasn’t. Rather, in a town without law, saloon- and brothel-keeper Al Swearengen wields power and drives the dramatic action. He is not your average western hero. In the initial episodes, Al beats a woman, abuses his disabled servant, and either murders or orders the deaths of three characters. One of his intended victims is a small girl, who witnessed a massacre that might incriminate Al. Al isn’t the only character who kills. Bullock and famed sharp-shooter, Wild Bill Hickok, kill a man suspected of committing the massacre. In episode four, Jack McCall kills Wild Bill, a lead character, for a gambling table slight.
Aesthetically, Deadwood is as gritty as The Wire, with a death-toll like The Sopranos. Its dialogue elevates cussing to a foul poetry not seen again until The Thick of It. And yet, Sepinwall argues, while ‘Deadwood takes place in the darkest, dirtiest, most frightening setting of the three classic HBO dramas of the period; it is also by far the most optimistic of the three. The Sopranos comes across as deeply cynical about humanity, while The Wire believes that any innate goodness within people eventually gets ground down by the institutions that they serve. They are shows about the end of the American dream. Deadwood is about the birth of it, about selfish loners existing on society’s fringes finding ways to come together in service of something greater than themselves.’
As the show continues, a form of law comes to Deadwood. Bullock reluctantly becomes sheriff and Al an unlikely civic leader – making strategic decisions about trying Wild Bill’s murderer and later leading the town’s response to plague. Eventually, Al assembles a government of sorts to press Deadwood’s agenda with the United States. Through Deadwood’s shift towards regulation and legitimacy – via gold, corruption, and murder – Milch offers a pungent study of early capitalist democracy and the foundations of the American dream.
In 1960 the American dream was alive and well and beginning to stale. AMC’s Mad Men centres on Donald Draper, the suave, powerful creative director of Sterling Cooper, a fictional New York advertising agency. In a world of sharp suits, cigarettes, and lunchtime Old Fashioneds, Don and his executives seem uniformly unhappy. But their job, ‘[a]dvertising,’ as Don says, ‘is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.’
Via Don and his colleagues, Weiner shows the hollow core of gleaming, consumerist America. In his professional life, Don sells Lucky Strike cigarettes, knowing they cause cancer, with the phrase ‘It’s Toasted’ – a slogan conjuring warmth, family, wholesome breakfasts. Later, he moves his audience to tears in a pitch to sell Kodak’s revolving slide-tray as ‘Carousel’. Showing pictures of his own family, Don says ‘It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.’ Don’s family life seems perfect – a stately home, beautiful wife, rosy-cheeked children, bundles of cash. ‘You have everything,’ his employee, Peggy Olson says. ‘And so much of it.’ But these are symbols, externalities. Don likes the idea of family but tires of the reality, often disappearing into booze, drugs, and compulsive affairs. Eventually, this breaks the family apart.
‘Via Don and his colleagues, Weiner shows the hollow core of gleaming, consumerist America.’
Don embodies Mad Men’s ironic distance between appearances and reality. As season one reveals, he is not really Donald Draper – a decorated former army officer – but Dick Whitman, the cowardly son of a prostitute from rural Pennsylvania who took his commanding officer’s identity after he was killed in Korea. Don is as much a construct as the idealised America he sells: literally a self-made man. He is suffering as much of an existential crisis as Tony Soprano: ‘there is no big lie,’ he says, ‘there is no system, the universe is indifferent.’
Creator Matthew Weiner said that Don is ‘someone like me. Someone who was thirty-five years old and who had everything and who was miserable.’ Jon Hamm, who plays Don, notes that the 1960s typified this feeling: ‘If you look at the literature … like Cheever and Updike, it’s existentialist. People sitting around smoking, thinking “what am I doing with my life?” … Postwar America was riding as high as it’s ever ridden … Americans had money, ability to travel and see the world. And at the core of it was: “I’m still not happy.” What Don Draper is doing is trying to sell happiness because he can’t buy it himself.’
Weiner’s painstaking recreation of the 1960s offers us life-as-lived in the era. Most apparent in the mise en scène and outdated attitudes, it is also conveyed in the treatment of women. The arc of Peggy – a bright, ambitious secretary who makes brutal sacrifices to become a copywriter – is juxtaposed against the childish former model, Betty Draper, who represents the idealised housewife: ‘a housecat’, as her father describes it in a dream, ‘you’re very important and you have little to do’. Between them is Joan Holloway, a sexually confident office manager who attempts a stereotypical life as a wife but becomes a partner in the agency after agreeing to Pete Campbell’s despicable suggestion. Mad Men’s realism is augmented by historical moments that pepper the show. At times these events draw the characters’ focus, but usually they are peripheral, present only on background televisions. As Weiner said, ‘If you’re in the middle of a divorce, and there is the Cuban Missile Crisis, your problem is bigger.’
Mad Men has been criticised, notably by Mark Greif in the London Review of Books and Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books, for being ‘an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better’ and using ‘visual allure to blind rather than enlighten’. Despite those well-argued positions, it remains a subtle study of consumer culture and a period of change in American history. More broadly, as Chase said, Mad Men is ‘about the real problems that regular everyday adults face. That is, money, marriage, bringing up children, power struggles in the office, career. To me, it’s very much about American adulthood.’
Breaking Bad’s Walter White has a particularly American problem: serious disease in the world’s most expensive healthcare system. Diagnosed with incurable lung cancer, Walt – a struggling high school chemistry teacher – is too proud to take charity and unwilling to leave his pregnant wife and disabled son with vast debts. So he contacts Jesse Pinkman, a drug-peddling former student, and combines his scientific knowledge with Jesse’s street smarts to produce crystal meth.
Walt’s first motivation is duty: he needs $737,000 before he dies to support his family. But Walt starts to enjoy the success of his flawless blue drug; it plays to his vanity and sense of lost genius (previously a researcher, he sold his share in a tech company that later made his partners billionaires). Walt doesn’t stop cooking meth when he reaches $737,000. As his cancer goes into remission, his relish for his work increases. We realise that this man – who once sported a weak moustache and suffered his students’ humiliations – has become his authentic self: the vicious, hyper-masculine drug baron, ‘Heisenberg’. As James Meek writes in the London Review of Books, Walt is‘the Nietzschean superfluous man, who believed himself to be good’ only ‘because his claws were blunt’.
Vince Gilligan describes Breaking Bad as ‘a guy transforming from a good, law-abiding citizen to drug kingpin. It is the story of metamorphosis, and metamorphosis in real life is slow.’ Gilligan utilised the structural advantages of serialised television to convey ‘a story about the in-between moments. I think we’ve all seen the big moments in any crime story. You can’t top a movie like The Godfather. So what can I do as a filmmaker? At least I can show the stuff that nobody else bothers to show.’ Carefully, incrementally, Breaking Bad positions the audience as an ordinary person learning to distribute drugs, rationalise murder, and dismember a corpse, and shows the resulting erosion of Walt’s familial and romantic relationships.
And it does so in visual splendor, with cinematography that set a new bar for television. Gilligan, Martin writes, took advantage of better televisions and higher budgets to move way from ‘restrictions imposed by the old grainy square box – establishing shot, close-up, close-up, establishing shot, close-up, close-up, camera always on whoever was speaking, everything flooded with light’. Breaking Bad has non-traditional camera angles and shots from the point-of-view of objects, time-lapse, over-cranking, under-cranking, jump cuts, and symbolic use of extreme close-ups – notably, on a charred stuffed toy in Walt’s pool, representing a mid-air collision precipitated by Walt’s actions. Most glorious are the long shots of Walt and Jesse’s RV drug lab against the New Mexican desert – an ironic call-back to pioneer wagons and the promise of manifest destiny. Michael Slovis, director of photography on twenty episodes, said: ‘I have been given an extraordinary amount of freedom, never before seen by me in television, and very rarely given to anybody.’ It was well used.
‘Most glorious are the long shots of Walt and Jesse’s RV drug lab against the New Mexican desert – an ironic call-back to pioneer wagons and the promise of manifest destiny’
Although focused on crime’s interstices, Breaking Bad is far from dull. That Walt’s adversary is his own (essentially likeable) brother-in-law, DEA Agent Hank Schrader, adds nuance. Episode after episode, Gilligan pressurises his scenes, putting Walt and Jesse into seemingly inescapable corners, often on the cusp of death or discovery by Hank. He leaves the audience eyes wide, on the edge of the proverbial seat. As Bryan Cranston, who played Walt, said of Gilligan’s pilot script: ‘I picked it up and read, “A guy in tighty-whitey underwear, he’s got a respirator on, he’s driving a Winnebago. Two dead bodies are sliding back and forth,” and I’m like, “What the fuck? What? What?” And I had to catch up! … And that was his lure … before you know it, you’re engrossed.’
Game of Thrones
Unlike crime, fantasy is a polarising genre with an undeserved reputation, as novelist Lisa Tuttle describes it, for ‘twee escapism involving fairies’. Game of Thrones – lewd, muddy, and staggeringly violent – rips the throat out of that prejudice and brings fantasy to a mainstream TV audience. ‘We wanted the show to appeal to people who don’t consider themselves fantasy fans,’ Weiss and Benioff told me, ‘For instance, our wives.’
Based on George R.R. Martin’s novels, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s HBO adaptation charts the political machinations of the great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms in the imagined medieval land of Westeros. It is ‘gritty fantasy’, a supposedly realist world privileging political strategy and human conflict over dragons and wizards. The series kicks off with Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, receiving his best friend and former comrade-in-arms, King Robert Baratheon, at the Starks’ ‘holdfast’. The King’s Hand (a prime minister of sorts) is dead, and Robert wants Ned to fill the role.
During the king’s visit, Ned’s ten-year-old son Bran, an avid climber, scales a tower. Reaching a high window, he sees Robert’s bodyguard, Ser Jaime Lannister, having sex with Cersei. Cersei is Robert’s queen – and Jaime’s sister. Seeing Bran, Jaime turns to the window and with the dry aside – ‘The things I do for love’ – pushes Bran to his apparent death.
That combination of sex, violence, and brutal means to political ends (preserving House Lannister from scandal) typifies Game of Thrones. Jaime’s unsuccessful murder attempt on Bran sparks a conflict that fires a civil war when Cersei arranges Robert’s assassination and puts her teenage son, Prince Joffrey, on the throne. Joffrey is not Robert’s son, but Jaime and Cersei’s. When Ned discovers and reveals this knowledge – giving Cersei a chance to leave the capital with Joffrey – Cersei locks Ned up. Then, in the ninth episode, Joffrey lops off his head.
‘That combination of sex, violence, and brutal means to political ends (preserving House Lannister from scandal) typifies Game of Thrones’
The death of Ned – previously the show’s lead character – marked Game of Thrones as more ruthless still than HBO’s other series. ‘Once Ned dies,’ Weiss said, ‘it completely changes the landscape of the world.’ It means that ‘when [a character]’s in jeopardy, the jeopardy becomes real’. As main characters continue to die, Game of Thrones delivers a thrill of realism, something aided by the show’s moral ambiguity and essentially human struggles. ‘The audience reaction to Ned’s death or [the deaths of multiple leads at] the Red Wedding was not dependent on magic or monsters,’ Weiss and Benioff emailed. ‘The truth is, regardless of genre, a show only succeeds if people care about the characters.’ Here there is no ‘epic conflict of good and evil’, Benioff said. There are multiple protagonists with complex and opposing objectives, and ‘the audience roots for certain characters on either side’. Although we notionally align with the Starks, we empathise with their enemies, the Lannisters: Jaime later shows an essential nobility; his younger brother, Tyrion – a droll, politically savvy booze-hound – becomes a focal point. And all characters are driven not by abstract concepts of good and evil, but by the messy motivations of love, revenge, ambition, and hate.
Authentic character motivations fuel the show’s political realism, something augmented by the detail of Martin’s world and its basis in the War of the Roses. Although Weiss and Benioff expressly disclaim political allegory, the Seven Kingdoms’ focus on internecine power struggles in the face of impending catastrophe – the rise of the ‘White Walkers’, reanimated dead from across the ‘Wall’ dividing the Kingdom from its icy north, and the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen, the would-be queen of the Seven Kingdoms – is widely noted as a nod to climate change. Westeros’s lack of political stability and moral pluralism strikes a chord with the darker turn of international politics post-9/11 and global financial crisis.
Game of Thrones could only exist on cable. ‘A network,’ Weiss and Benioff told me, ‘never would have allowed us to adapt Game of Thrones with the pronounced sexuality and violence that define the books. They never would have allowed us to kill the leading man in the first season.’ It is, also, a distinctly HBO product. When Benioff and Weiss pitched it, they said: ‘“This is what you guys do. Whether it’s taking the cop show with The Wire or gangster shows with The Sopranos and making them dirty and reinventing them.” But no one had really done fantasy in that way.’ HBO was the sole cable channel with ‘the resources to do it on this scale’, Benioff added. Despite Game of Thrones’ dramatic focus on discretely human issues, it is a massive production. Shooting on multiple international locations, and choreographing the sort of CGI-augmented land and sea battles traditionally reserved for the big screen, television moved to the scale of epic cinema.
In Game of Thrones, the trends of this era cohere. The anti-hero became anti-heroes and anti-heroines; there was more sex and violence than ever; the complexity of serialised storytelling reached new levels, as writers managed the interlocking stories of multiple protagonists; morality was defined only by ambiguity; production values reached heights of cinematic spectacle; and a disregarded genre was pushed into a textured human drama that was critically acclaimed, commercially successful, and delivered wider social comment.
These shows are not the only excellent television dramas, but they exemplify the radical shifts in the medium since 1999. In making them, showrunners and executives harnessed economic, technological, and artistic changes to turn television into an art. The shows they produced are lauded as among the best television ever made, and recognised as modern classics that stand alongside great films and literature. That success drew Academy Award-winning feature film-makers, and Pulitzer and Booker Prize-winning playwrights and novelists towards television. ‘From The Sopranos to Deadwood, from The Wire to Breaking Bad, the most memorable characters created on screen in the last fifteen years or so have been on the small screen. Which movie character during that time span,’ Weiss and Benioff asked me, ‘has become a part of the cultural imagination in the manner of Tony Soprano or Walter White?’
‘The shows they produced are lauded as among the best television ever made, and recognised as modern classics that stand alongside great films and literature’
This, then, is a golden age of television. But what does that mean for Western culture more broadly? Is the ‘open-ended, twelve- or thirteen episode serialized drama’, as Martin argues, ‘the dominant art form of the era’? The ‘equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth, and Mailer had been to the 1960s’?
Measuring a form’s dominance is tricky and subjective. There are no concrete matrices – viewing figures and commercial returns are not dispositive of cultural impact. ‘Certainly in terms of numbers,’ Weiss and Benioff emailed, ‘far more people are playing the Call of Duty or World of Warcraft than are watching’ television.
‘Dominance’ is not, I think, the most helpful critical term – art isn’t a competition. HBO-style television enjoys a prominence today because it unites critical acclaim, artistic excellence, and broad popular appeal in a way that films and literary fiction currently don’t. It reminds us that entertainment can be art and art can entertain. And this is, I think, the measure of greatness. Art can survive on the fumes of critics alone, but the greatest works resonate with the public too: Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, Beowulf.
‘Literary fiction often disdains story as the province of ‘plot-driven’ commercial novels. Television doesn’t – it can’t afford to’
In the narrative arts, that resonance comes down to story driven by character. Beginnings, middles, and ends; catharsis and empathy; the dramatic foundations of Aristotle’s Poetics. Humans consume stories with vigorous need – they define us, teach us, and communicate our inner experience. In the main, HBO-style television is delivering better, tighter storytelling than other forms, because of the nature of its medium. Television producers need a returning audience to make money – so television has to be addictive. Also, television is expensive (Game of Thrones averages $6 million an episode). When a show costs $100,000 a minute, each new scene, location, or actor on set has to be justified. These factors lead to rigorous application of story principles. As well as visual, thematic, and verbal artistry, showrunners deliver honed, economic storytelling – character arcs that generate empathy, tight plots that causally escalate obstacles and stakes. Film – subject to similar pressures – is challenged by the longer narrative space of television (although movies like The Theory of Everything reinforce how reductive it is to write off contemporary film as superhero escapism). Literary fiction often disdains story as the province of ‘plot-driven’ commercial novels. Television doesn’t – it can’t afford to.
The great television dramas of this era were reviewed alongside novels in senior literary publications and, as David Carr wrote, shifted the cultural conversation at New York Times dinner tables ‘from books and movies to television’. But they also generated obsessive online recaps, amateur reviews, and fan websites. That critical legitimacy and popular reach enabled cable drama to observe this darker era of America with more impact than other forms, echoing nineteenth-century fiction’s comment on industry, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s picture of the dark beneath the sheen of the roaring twenties.
The twenty-first century began with a disputed presidential election and an appalling attack on New York. The West invaded Iraq on shaky evidence, and warfare changed as we fought an irrational, non-governmental enemy in Afghanistan. Lawyers split hairs over appropriate forms of torture. Financial institutions fell. Those that survived no longer seemed secure or trustworthy. Whole economies turned out to be based on nothing. Taxpayers suffered because loosely regulated banks grew too big to fail. Ideas of justice, security, economic opportunity, and democratic franchise were destabilised.
The cable dramas of this era are bleak, defying easy resolution or interpretation, and resisting the restorative narratives of authority figures correcting social aberrations. They articulate fear, cynicism, and a feeling that aspirants to the American dream have been shortchanged. Theatre excludes many ($85 for two hours at the theatre buys you more than twenty hours of HBO), literary fiction’s readership declines, and movies increasingly favour big-budget franchises. But television – addictive, more consumable than ever on tablets and smart phones, uniquely suited to explore nuanced social issues via long-form serialised narratives – best communicates our lost bearings, our gloomier world.
So what next for television? As multi-screen viewing proliferates (watching on one, live-Tweeting on another) and online providers increase their presence, television drama’s traditional parameters (one screen, one hour, non-interactive) may change. But the next step has to be more female protagonists. Save for the multi-protagonist Game of Thrones, the absence of leading women in these shows – all created by male showrunners and about ‘difficult men’, as Martin writes – means that this could only be a golden age, not the golden age. Certainly, there are textured female characters: Carmela Soprano, Kima Griggs, Alma Garrett, Peggy Olson, Skyler White. Netflix’s House of Cards has Claire Underwood, Lady Macbeth to her husband Francis. But these are all supporting leads. Showtime’s political thriller, Homeland, has a female protagonist, CIA operative Carrie Mathison, but bipolar disorder and love are used to generate moments of perceived weakness in a way unhelpful both to a study of female authority and to bipolar sufferers. Alan Ball’s vampire dramedy, True Blood, centres on Sookie Stackhouse, a part-fairy Louisiana waitress. It started well but turned increasingly bizarre. Even though it runs for nearly an hour, Orange Is the New Black – the excellent female-centred prison story – was classified as a comedy by the TV Academy until February. Lena Dunham’s patchily brilliant Girls is structured as a half-hour comedy, but crosses humour with darkness in a way The Sopranos did. It could have been classified drama, with the sixty-minute time-slot that affords, but it wasn’t.
Lili Loofbourow, writing in the New York Times, argued recently that female protagonists will define television’s next era. When that gender imbalance is redressed, I’ll say we’re in the golden age.
I am deeply grateful to The Ian Potter Foundation, AFTRS, Peter Rose, Amy Baillieu, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Ian Collie, Andy Ryan, Matthew Dabner, Nell Greenwood, Mike Jones, Steve Vidler, Chris Phillips, Matthew Campora, Rebecca McNamara, Ken McNamara, and Randall Fields.