This is not, and never will be, the place where description is reduced to such vacuous terms as ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’, and it would be ironic if such intelligent and excellent series such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, The Wire, Damages and Ray Donovan were reduced to being lauded in such playground language (and whenever anything is described to me by anyone as ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’ I immediately know full well that it isn’t at all anything of the kind). But anyone who has been watching television in the past 43 and has taken in such standards as Kojak, Hawaii Five O, Columbo, Dynasty (which I never saw), Dallas (which I also didn’t see) and the rest and then progressed to The Sopranos and the rest will realise (of I hope has realised) that much of TV has undergone a seachange in terms of quality writing, acting, story and direction.
Ironically, it was the development of cable TV and other forms of subscription TV which allowed the change to happen. Without the need, because of the all-powerful advertiser’s demands, to play it safe, to follow a formula and write to schedule with a mini cliffhanger every five minutes just before the ad break (of which there were and are only four and hour here in Britain on commercial TV, but of which there are far, far more in the good ole’ US of A and elsewhere) quality could at last take over. The cable and subscriber channels made their money from subscribers, and although they, too, were and are ultimately subject to viewing figures, they and the various creators of the series they produced had much more freedom simply to try to be excellent. They could reflect life far more truthfully by allowing their characters to cuss and swear and say fuck and call others a cunt. They could show people who were having sex as actually doing so in the altogether. But that was and is trivial in comparison to the real artistic freedoms working for an ad-less cable and subscriber channel gave them.
They were no longer constrained to the 60-minute format, which because of the ad breaks meant, in fact, just 40 minutes of drama. But there was more. Granted that their audiences were smaller, counted in their one and one and half millions as compared to the tens of millions a mainstream network attracted, that audience was by and large – ahem – a little more intelligent and artistically receptive. That new audience didn’t necessarily want everything to be spelled out, to follow a formula and to be neatly wrapped up in 60 – i.e. 40 – minutes of predictable drama. They were prepared to take on trust – when initially presented with quality writing, acting and direction – that what came next would be up to scratch and thus did not mind there not being a formula.
This new freedom attracted the talent. And the talent which made its way to such series attracted even more talent – actors, directors and writers certainly, but also the backroom folk without whom actors, directors and writers could not function. A ‘story’ could be expounded, at the very least, over 13 hours of broadcast time (that is 13 one-hour episodes per series. The Sopranos ran to six/seven series, The Wire to five, of which the last was not a patch on the first four, Deadwood to three – and then inexplicably cancelled – and Damages to five).
This allowed the writers far, far greater freedom to develop character, to allow plot to evolve from character, to do the kind of thing they must surely always have wanted to do but which the constraints of the 60/40-minute format simply didn’t allow them to do. There are many such series, quite apart from Six Foot Under, I didn’t see. Everyone raved about The West Wing, but I found it a tad irritating. For one thing all the characters were so bloody hip and cool I often, in the few episodes I did see, didn’t have a bloody clue as to what they were talking about. And I also got rather pissed off with a kind of mannered direction where characters would talk to each other briefly while walking past each other in a corridor.
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I started with The Sopranos, although, ironically, I didn’t get it until series two, and only saw series one in retrospect. Here in Britain it had been initially trailed, rather unfortunately, as a ‘comedy drama’. Well, it was at times very, very funny (in one episode, directed my Steve Buscemi, who also had a part later on as a cousin of Tony Soprano, a Russian gangster who proves to be very difficult to kill is described as a having been a former member of Russia’s Interior Ministry (i.e. I should imagine a member of Russia domestic secret service). This eventually becomes convoluted in a phone call to a character who is none too bright as having been an ‘interior decorator’ which strikes his oppo as odd as ‘his apartment was shit’), but it wasn’t by a long chalk primarily a comedy. I got round the problem of occasionally not understanding both the argot and the New Jersey accents by videoing – this was, after all the end of the 20th century – each episode and simply re-running a part I didn’t catch.
Notwithstanding the series I didn’t see, to which I must now add NYPD Blues, which I also understand was very good and predated The Sopranos (and one of whose writers, David Milch, went on to create Deadwood) I generally accept until someone emails to inform me otherwise that The Sopranos set the standard and set the bar very high.
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The most recent complete series I have watched was Damages, and I have to say I was blown away. I must at this point come clean and admit that as I, a little earlier, castigated Seventies and Eighties television series as being formulaic, it is only fair to admit that the essential schtick of Damages and the device which allowed the tension and expectations to be ratcheted up ever higher becomes pretty damn obvious pretty damn soon.
Damages ran to five series (and was taken over by a second cable/subscription channel for series four and five). Central to its success and sheer enjoyment are surely Glenn Close as Patty Hewes and Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, but having said that Glenn Close is astounding. I would particularly single out as evidence of her talent the scene in series five where she confronts her father, who is on his deathbed, and resolutely refuses to do what the rest of us wimps might regard as the right thing, which would be to forgive him. All I can do here is to urge you to try to catch that scene. I cannot describe just how good Close is. The scene lasted for around five minutes and was done in one take and was not (as far as I can tell, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t) edited. Watch it. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating.
The Kessler brothers and Daniel Zelman first managed to get Damages accepted for a first series, but at that point they really cannot have known for how many series it might run. In the event it ran for five. Each series is distinct in as far as there is a distinct ‘story’ (i.e. legal case) in each. And each series could well be seen in isolation and not just thoroughly entertain, but also succeed. So it is really quite remarkable how, over the five series, they have managed to make a whole of the thing.
You don’t really need to know the back story to appreciate any of them, although it would help. What is so satisfying about the whole five series in toto is who it rounds of the story of two woman, Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons, who are very alike, yet individual, and which portrays and conveys their relationship as well as their peculiar personal character traits in extraordinary fashion. I stress that the talent and vision of the Kesslers and Zelman is such that they could not have know how many series Damages would run to. Yet when series five concludes, it rounds of the story in an extraordinarily honest way. There is no pat conclusion, no happy ending. Each – by which I should say both characters, Hewes and Parsons – are true to themselves. Hewes, a complex, ruthless, yet vulnerable woman carries on as only she could and would carry one. Parsons, also complex, does something similar, but she is not Hewes and does, we assume, find happiness.
A measure of how good the series is – and how it is so adept at manipulating the views (and it is my dying contention that in all its forms ‘art’ is nothing, and I mean nothing, more than successful manipulation of the viewer, reader and listener. The more successful the manipulation, the better the art. Basta. An unfashionable description, perhaps, but true) was one of the – or possibly the - final scenes in the last episode of the last series. We are first given the acceptable, accessible, wished-for conclusion, a happy ending in which Hewes and Parsons are reconciled after all their difficulties. Ahhhh. But this is then shown to have been nothing more than Hewes’s wish fulfilment, showing just how deep into herself she has sunk.
We then get the real, the true ending, the kind of thing which happens in real life (or, I am bound to say, usually happens in real life. Perhaps the Tooth Fairy does exist, who am I to say it doesn’t). No reconciliation. None. That would not have been Patty Hewes. Patty Hewes will die alone, unmourned and in obscurity.
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I have spent the past few weeks watching one episode a night. Then it ended, and, dear reader, I felt an emptiness. I needed something to fill the gap. And that’s when, almost by chance I came across Ray Donovan. I first heard of it when proof-reading the TV pages of the paper I work for. So, looking for something else to watch, I looked it up. And it is good. Different to Damages, and different to The Sopranos, although it has be called a Sopranos lookalike. Bollocks. It is its own series and very good it is, too. I look forward to watching the rest of series one and series two, which, I’m assured has been commissioned.
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Finally, doesn’t young Bridget Donovan (Kerris Dorsey) look uncannily, and unfortunately, like that arch fraud Quentin Taratino?
Sorry Kerris, but that's life. I'm not picture book either (any more).