There is an air of uncritical enthusiasm about American television drama these days. It is time for a reality checkby Richard Beck / September 26, 2013 / Leave a comment
Difficult men: Do shows as Mad Men, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad display an “aggressive and resentful masculinity”?
Earlier this year, the novelist Teju Cole logged into his Twitter account and decided to carry out a small experiment. He had been thinking about Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, in which the great novelist laid out many of the French Empire’s most common clichés for ridicule (of the waltz, he wrote, “Wax indignant about. A lascivious, impure dance that should only be danced by old ladies.”) Cole decided to update Flaubert’s dictionary for the present day. “JAPAN,” he wrote: “Mysterious. Always ‘the Japanese.’ Mention Murakami.” Virginity was defined as “an obsession in Iran and in the olive oil industry.” There were about 70 of these tweets, and as his experiment began to wind down, Cole wrote, “TELEVISION. Much improved. Better than novels. If someone says ‘The Wire,’ say ‘The Sopranos,’ or vice versa.”
There are many other television dramas to mention, if that pair leaves you unmoved. Cole’s tweets followed the release of an advert for the final episodes of Breaking Bad that made use of the poem “Ozymandias,” putting industry reporters in the unfamiliar position of explaining Shelley on media blogs. It speaks to the truth of Cole’s tweet that the show’s publicists looked to 19th-century poetry to promote what is currently television’s most beloved show.
Over the last 15 years, many people have adopted the view that television has entered a “Golden Age.” This view first emerged in 1999, when The Sopranos made its darkly comedic debut on the subscription cable station HBO, and it gathered strength as The Wire enjoyed its five-series run on the same station. These shows became possible because of dramatic changes in the structure of the television industry, shifts in the character of white-collar work, and the increasing homogenisation of Hollywood films, which opened up exciting new space for artistic ambition on the small screen. On police dramas like The Wire and The Shield, the depiction of violence and moral ambiguity suggested that uncompromising realism had finally made a place for itself on TV, while violent fantasies like Dexter seemed to provide the medium with unprecedented psychological surrealism and depth. These fictional worlds, fleshed out in meticulous detail, populated by minor characters who proved to be as memorable as the protagonists, were immersive…