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Category Archives: Other Prestige Dramas
Risk is our business. That famous line from Captain Kirk lays out the essential ethos of Star Trek — that the wild and wooly galaxy that our heroes explore is full of pitfalls and dangers, but also of unfathomable possibilities, there to be discovered. As I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, the premiere of the aptly-titled Star Trek Discovery embraces that franchise philosophy, giving it form in the sort of distillation and debate and that once fueled its 1960s counterpart.
The Sopranos is credited with ushering in a new “Golden Age of Television”. Its complex family dynamics, black-and-gray morality, and introspective bent were trademarks that set the show apart from its contemporaries. In its wake, a number of other shows emerged that embraced that approach and focused on antiheroes who, to one degree or another, were attempting to balance a double life. Two of these shows, Mad Men and Dexter, can draw a straight line from The Sopranos to their place in the television pantheon. In “College”, an episode from the groundbreaking drama’s first season, The Sopranos planted seeds that those two spiritual successors would have a hand in harvesting.
Mad Men has never shied away from exploring double standards. It traced the challenges Peggy Olson faced while rising up the ranks in the advertising industry, obstacles that men in her position never even considered, let alone encountered. It contrasted the cult of domesticity that Betty Draper was expected to maintain with the casual womanizing that had become the norm for her husband. It showed how Joan Harris had become an expert at navigating the intricate rules for a woman in the workplace in the 1960s and how the men in the office could drift along without any of the same concerns.
But the final season of Mad Men sketched the contours of one of the most persistent double standards that American society still struggles with today — the different expectations of men and women in their role as parents. Mad Men’s Season 7 presents five mothers who have each, in one sense or another, left their children behind. These women struggle with the choices that they’ve made and deal with a level of societal scorn and personal guilt that their male counterparts never have to face.
Salon’s Matthew Brandon Wolfson recently criticized Mad Men for its commercial appeal. He accused the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, of “selling…an image of a glowing past — a prettier, simpler time when people knew their social roles and played them perfectly.” And he insinuated both that the show’s commercial-friendly nature sits uneasily with its art and that Weiner wants the viewer to “find [the show] twisted and layered and dark, but [he] also wants you to buy it.” But in describing Mad Men as an “exquisite empty shell,” Wolfson mistakes the packaging for the package, and misses the subtly brilliant way the series has its cake and eats it too.
I started watching The West Wing as part of a trade. I agreed to watch the show, one of my wife’s favorites, as long as we would alternate with episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of mine. And while the pairing seems odd on the surface, the shows have a surprising amount in common. Both center around a clear leader, supported by a cadre of his most trusted advisors, each with their own relevant backgrounds and specialized roles. In both series, a typical episode features the team facing what amounts to a crisis of the week, buoyed by loose arcs and character development, using these stories to comment on politics and society.
I grew to truly enjoy The West Wing, but it also hit some of the same speed bumps that its space-bound counterpart did. While I suspect that I will always be more partial to Star Trek: The Next Generation, as it’s buoyed by the affection and nostalgia of youth, the show is not beyond criticism. One of the series’s most glaring flaws was mandated by the father of Star Trek himself, Gene Roddenberry. In Next Generation’s early years, Roddenberry forbid the show’s writers from having the main characters meaningfully disagree or genuinely argue with each other. Sure, there could be the occasional spirited debate, but it was all conducted with an undercurrent of collegiality and mutual respect. All real conflicts and threats were required to be external. That dictate was part of Roddenberry’s central vision for his “wagon train to the stars” universe. He wanted to present an optimistic view of the future, where mankind had evolved beyond such trivialities as money or prejudice or petty disagreements.
Every series starts out with a basic premise – a storytelling engine that is supposed to power the show. Some shows ride that engine until, and sometimes long after, it breaks down. Others make tweaks along the way that keep things from sputtering out. Some shows will even swap their initial premise out for something totally new in the hopes that it will give the series new life going forward. The best series, however, take that initial premise and let it evolve naturally. At heart, I believe the producers of Dexter have tried to make it that sort of show.
The first season of Dexter used its original premise to great effect. That initial season was a golden time on the show where everything was still a mystery, or a possibility, or a hint of a future storyline which all stemmed from the show’s central idea. Yet, as the seasons have gone by, Dexter has faced several challenges that largely seemed organic to his two-fold identity as a secret serial killer working for the police. He’s handled a large-scale investigation into his activities. He’s tested whether he can have real relationships with others, both romantic and platonic. He’s had to balance his need to kill with his need to be a brother, husband, and father. In this way, Dexter has let its story and its protagonist grow and change in ways that feel natural to that original idea, if a bit shoehorned into season-long arcs.
But despite that evolution, Dexter has held tightly to a few pieces of its initial premise, saving them for a rainy day. Some of the biggest questions the show had asked in its very first episode have been left waiting to be answered. What if the people close to Dexter found out what he really is? What if Dexter got caught? What if his secret identity was out in the open? Season 7 of Dexter pulled the trigger on exploring the first question and thoroughly teased the second and third. And it made it a season brimming with possibilities.
Would You Recommend Battlestar Galactica to a Friend? Reflecting on the Series Through the Lens of its Finale
That depends. Would you encourage them to cheer for a sports team who you knew would succeed all season long, only to suffer a heartbreaking loss in the championship game? Would you tell them to eat a restaurant where most of the meal will be great, but the last course will be practically inedible? Would you have them vote for a candidate who’ll prove a dedicated public servant for most of their years in office, only to tarnish all of their past accomplishments at the very end of their term?
Such is the dilemma of the Battlestar Galactica fan. Rarely has a series produced such a strong, complex, and compelling body of work that results in such an ill-conceived, poorly thought out, and above all unsatisfying ending. How do you encourage someone to start a journey that will feature tremendous highs, exhilarating adventures, and gripping emotional moments, but that you know will end in severe disappointment?
The answer is – with serious reservations.
“Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”
- Rorschach, in Alan Moore’s Watchmen
One of my theater teachers gave me some advice before I performed a particularly bizarre piece on stage. He said, “Make the character’s reactions real. No matter how wild the situation or how crazy the setting, you have to make the audience believe that this is how someone would react.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the fantastical world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sure, creator Joss Whedon lays down some important ground rules for his universe, but at its heart, it’s still a fantasy world where the chosen few do battle with demons and monsters and bloodsuckers in a quiet California suburb. Through five seasons of Buffy, Whedon & Co. populated this world. They gave it life as a place where the mystical reigns above the everyday. Then, in Season 6 they decided to turn it completely on its head.
They changed course and put their focus on how the folks battling supernatural threats handle the fallout of that fight in their everyday lives. The mythic elements of Buffy–the monsters, the spells, the magic–were all still there, but they took a backseat to giving the audience one, big, season-long reminder — that the story of Buffy Summers is supposed to take place in the real world.
The “reimagined” version of Battlestar Galactica is easily the best Science Fiction show of the past decade. At its peak, it was one of the best shows on all of television. It combined the excitement of space adventure with the human drama of the day-to-day coping of a people without a home, as well as social commentary about religion, politics, and society writ large. After this tremendous build over four seasons, the creators of Battlestar Galactica had a tall order to properly wrap up the series. With so many mysteries and plot twists and burning issues to settle, the final episode of BSG tried not only to reach a satisfying conclusion, but to provide answers. Unfortunately, it left me with the following seven rather significant questions.
Note: This should go without saying, but this article contains boatloads of spoilers for the entire run of Battlestar Galactica. If you have not seen the show, do yourself a favor and watch it rather than letting me spoil things for you.
Season Six of House M.D. was assuredly a step up. The season opening mini-movie and the final two episodes alone boosted the sixth season ahead of other recent offerings. Moreover, throughout the season, the show’s producers demonstrated a willingness to play around with or even completely abandon the usual format. These departures resulted in some of the most interesting episodes in recent years, if not the series as a whole. The episode “Wilson” shined a spotlight on House’s constant companion in oncologist Dr. James Wilson, giving us an entire self-contained story from his perspective. The episode not only showed additional depth in an already well-explored personality, but proved that the Wilson character might have been able to carry a series on his own. Similarly, the episode “5 to 9” gave us a day in the life of Lisa Cuddy, from her struggles to renegotiate the hospital’s insurance contract to her frustrating run-ins with House, to the difficulty of balancing her personal and professional responsibilities. Again, this opportunity to take an in-depth look at a character whose day-to-day life the audience has only seen brief glimpses of in the pastwas a welcome change of pace. Finally, the episode “Lockdown” broke the format by forgoing a medical mystery in favor of seeing the characters separated and thrown back together in random pairs. The episode gave the audience closure to what was an otherwise abrupt departure for Dr. Cameron, and the pairings showed us some interesting new dynamics between characters we had rarely seen interacting.