- Follow @TheAndrewBlog
- Black Panther Makes the MCU a Deeper, Richer Place
- Groundhog Day at 25: Bill Murray Finds Freedom While Trapped in a Nightmare
- Breaking Down the First Season of Star Trek: Discovery
- Gilmore Girls: “A Vineyard Valentine” Presages Mad Men in One of Season 6′s Best Episodes
- The Good Place Season 2 Gave Us Beautiful Lessons on Morality by Smashing the Status Quo
- Leon on 7 Big Questions About Battlestar Galactica’s Finale
- renz on 7 Big Questions About Battlestar Galactica’s Finale
- renz on 7 Big Questions About Battlestar Galactica’s Finale
- E>S. on 7 Big Questions About Battlestar Galactica’s Finale
- Andrew Bloom on Star Wars: The Last Jedi Embraces the Past, Instead of Discarding It
Category Archives: Other Prestige Dramas
Andrew teams up with Clint Worthington to look back at Star Trek: Discovery‘s first season and decide how it measured up.
It’s rare that Gilmore Girls feels like Mad Men, no matter what the overlapping talents of Alexis Bledel, Danny Strong, and (very briefly) Jon Hamm on both shows might suggest. The former is more explicitly comedic and bright, while the latter is more capital-S Serious and apt to explore the dark corners.
Despite that, the two series have a surprising amount in common. While their tones differ, both shows are intimately concerned with their characters’ emotional states and how a mood or a feeling can carry or direct them through a given day. Both examine their protagonists’ sense of who they are, what place they occupy in the world, and how that translates to their treatment of those around them. And despite its heavier vibe, Mad Men could be hilarious, and despite its whimsical bent, Gilmore Girls was often incisive and heartbreaking.
It’s all there. And none of it’s there.
As I talked about on the Pilot Study Podcast, the Breaking Bad pilot tells you everything you need to know to watch and understand the series. It gives you Walter White, the down-on-his-luck, spineless high school chemistry teacher who’s sleepwalking his way through life. It gives you the hint of an interest and a talent within him that goes unnoticed and unregarded by everyone around him. It gives you Skyler and Walt Jr., Hank and Marie, Jesse Pinkman and so many other figures who make up his world, with just enough color to get a sense for who they are. It gives you the cancer diagnosis that ignites something in Walt, that causes him to take control of his life. And it gives you the sense of the consequences of that change and that choice, the subtle transformation that sets him on a different trajectory.
But what isn’t present, what’s barely even hinted at in this first installment, is where that slow-burning transformation will take him. That’s the beauty of Breaking Bad, and it’s devotion to the idea of change embodied in Walt’s speech about chemistry. We see the first chemical reaction here, the catalyst that sends a lowly science teacher down a new path. We see brief sketches of his wife, his brother-in-law, and his new, less-than-reputable business partner. But we can’t see how much these individuals, and our view of them, will shift and flip over the ensuing five seasons of one of television’s all-time great dramas.
This pilot gives you everything you need to dip your toe into the world of Breaking Bad, but only gives the slightest hints as to how deep and how dark the water goes.
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.