The New Golden Age of TV Drama: How HBO and AMC Became the New NBC and CBS
By Mark R. Leffler
Call me Captain Video.
Because I love television. Always have. Born the year Kennedy was elected President I grew up bathed in the intoxicating glow of cathode ray tubes. Philo T. Farnsworth, who invented TV as we know it, is my patron saint.
My dear parents learned early on that I could best be kept in line by threatening the loss of my TV privileges. Even at six, addicted to "Batman", "The Green Hornet", "Lost in Space" and my Saturday morning cartoons, I couldnít bear to be deprived of my drug of choice.
And today, on the sweet side of fifty, I still cherish my time in front of the TV, although these days Iím usually viewing my favorite shows on DVD or via my laptop, having shunned cable for more than a decade.
Donít get me wrong, thereís plenty to dislike and despise cluttering up what we once quaintly referred to as "the airwaves". I loathe reality TV with a passion that would rival that of a devout Muslim stumbling into a strip bar.
And most broadcast television bores me, with the notable exception of such outstanding shows as "LOST", "24", "The Office" and "The Simpsons".
Still the ascendance of cable dramas has been a joy to behold. It began with the critical and commercial success of "The Sopranos" on HBO, which was followed by such fine dramatic fare as "Six Feet Under", "The Wire", "Carnivale", "Big Love" and "Deadwood".
Recently AMC, once known as the home of old black and white classics rarely watched by viewers without an AARP card, had emerged as another cable powerhouse with the award winning dramas "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."
Not to be outdone, HBO came up with "In Treatment", a series starring the charismatic and roguishly handsome Gabriel Byrne (when I mentioned him to a female co-worker, she almost literally purred). The program is adapted from an Israeli series, "BeTipul".
Amazingly, the series is not just faithful to the original show; almost all of the first season was adapted almost line by line. It has proved a hit among the critics, garnered solid ratings for a half hour five night a week drama, and collected a bucket load of awards for acting and writing.
The Fifties are often referred to as televisionís Golden Age. Writers like Paddy Chayevsky, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling churned out glorious scripts, some produced as live TV dramas more from necessity than aesthetic considerations, videotape and electronic editing being in its infancy.
Since those glory days there have been many fine dramas such as "Hill Street Blues", "St. Elsewhere", "L.A. Law", and even the wonderfully exotic "Kung Fu" starring the late great David Carradine. More recently "NYPD Blue" did itís best to push the network boundaries in terms of language, violence and sexuality.
But even the talented work of writer/producers like Stephen Bochco and David Milch (who left "Blue" to create the Shakespearean Western epic "Deadwood" and the relatively ignored but mysteriously beautiful "John From Cincinnatti") couldnít compete with the freedom allowed outside the world of network censors and FCC bluenoses.
Network dramas like "LOST" and "24" work within the constraints of network rules and succeed because of the intelligence of the production and the brilliant craftwork of the creative teams. But they canít get down and dirty like their edgier and more daring cousins over on HBO, or even the more permissive AMC and USA Network, home of the highly successful and immensely enjoyable spy show "Burn Notice".
Another significant change is the way that we watch television, which bears less and less resemblance to the viewing habits of earlier years.
Hit TV shows used to be called "appointment television" or to use NBCís phrase "must see TV". Now with VCRs, DVRs, TiVo, and new online networks sites including HULU.com, fewer and fewer people are watching TV on the day and time dictated by network executives.
There are almost no shows that donít eventually show up on DVD, which gives a second life to shows like "John From Cincinnati" (which never really recovered from debuting immediately after "The Sopranos" cut to static finale which infuriated so many fans that the audience numbers dropped from almost 12 million down to about two or three million viewers and never really recovered, aborting one of the most daring experiments ever broadcast on American television).
This allows the majority of viewers who donít have HBO or sometimes even basic cable to still enjoy their hit programs on their own schedule. HBO even found that with "In Treatment" many viewers tuned in on Sunday for a marathon of the previous weeks shows.
Now instead of shuffling your schedule to catch the next heart pounding adventure of Jack Bauer, you can simply wait until the season comes out on DVD and watch it at your own pace, even pausing and rewatching intricate scenes or to catch dialogue that might have been missed.
The bonus features such as commentary tracks are an added delight for TV junkies such as The Captain.
One of the many pleasures of access to DVD sets is the ability to go back and see how a series began after you have already seen a season or two.
Recently the Captain and one of his Lieutenants screened the pilot episode of the excellent and classy AMC series "Mad Men". (Avid readers of this publication may remember that the esteemed author and bon vivant Chris Miller wrote about this era of Madison Avenue Sixties advertising from direct experience in these very pages. A diligent search of the Review online archives will reward such readers who may have missed it the first time).
A second viewing of the pilot revealed how skillful the writing is, how lush and detailed the set and costume design, and how much more artistic the directing and editing is in a pilot. Most series are sold to a network on the basis of the pilot script and then a pilot episode. Once in production the clock is running and time is money. Lots and lots of money. But first episodes, especially those of "Deadwood" (directed by the master of the Western Walter Hill), "In Treatment", "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" are some of the finest hours of television you will ever see.
In fact, the gone and almost forgotten "John From Cincinnatti" pilot episode was so staggeringly wonderful and original, I watched it five, maybe six times before returning the disc to Netflix. If you are a fan dialogue masters like David Mamet, Milchís writing on "Deadwood" and "JFC" will amaze and delight you. Mamet himself has found success on the small screen with the immensely enjoyable military drama "The Unit" on CBS.
"Breaking Bad" and "In Treatment" have recently completed their second seasons, but the first season of each is available for sale or rent on DVD. "Mad Men" returned for itís third season in August.
On a final note, although Captain Video hasnít had a chance yet to see the new HBO drama "Hung", it has been highly promoted and was eagerly anticipated during the usual dreary days of summer when the networks fill their schedules with reality TV shows prime time game shows and talent contests. It is also noteworthy for the work of Saginaw native Kyle Peck, who works on the writing staff of the show after toiling in the trenches of Hollywood for several years. Captain Video hopes to bring Review readers an interview with Mr. Peck in an upcoming issue, as soon as his laptop and itís fried motherboard have been replaced.
Captain Video's Favorite Cable Dramas:
Mad Men: "Who is John Gault?" asked an Ayn Rand novel popular in the early Sixties. This AMC drama asks its viewers to delve into the existential mystery that is Don Draper. Draper, played by Jon Hamm in a roll that earned him a lead actor Emmy, is Creative Director at Sterling Cooper ad agency in the early 1960's. Think of Darrin Steven's if Bewitched had been written by Albert Camus and John O'Hara. Created by Matt Weiner, a former writer/producer for HBO's The Sopranos, the series is a dead on recreation of the pre-hippie Sixties, with chain-smoking and drinking at work and loads of cringe worthy casual sexism and racism. This series is one of the first times television has accurately, effectively and honestly portrayed writers and the creative process. As Don tells a future bed partner in the pilot episode "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." Impeccably cast, the show focuses both on Don's work life at the agency in Manhattan and also on his life in the suburbs (Rob and Laura Petrie in New Rochelle, if Rob cheated on Laura and sneaked off to watch Fellini and Bergman films). The first two seasons are available on DVD and the third season just premiered Sunday, August 16th on AMC.
Breaking Bad: You're a middle-aged suburban chemistry teacher with money troubles and you just found out you've got terminal lung cancer. What do you do? If you guessed "go into business with a former drug dealing student cooking crystal meth" you win a set of Captain Video Rabbit Ears! Bryan Cranston, known as the hapless father from Malcolm in the Middle copped the lead actor Emmy last year for this darkly comic drama, making it a back-to-back win in that category for AMC. Created by Vince Gilligan, a former writer/producer on X Files, the show depicts the financial and emotional chaos his diagnosis causes in his home life while also showing how this "death sentence" frees him to express his anger and rage with jaw-dropping results. The first season is available on DVD and the second season just finished running on AMC. The pilot episode, written and directed by Gilligan, is one of the finest hours of television I have ever experienced, almost as mind blowing as my all time favorite pilot from the HBO one season wonder, David Milch's John From Cincinnati.
In Treatment: HBO paved the way for original dramas on cable with such great shows as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood and The Wire, to name just a few. This offering is different because it's a half hour drama, a form unknown on broadcast networks like ABC and NBC. It start Gabriel Byrne as a Baltimore therapist who treats a variety of patients ranging from a female doctor who is in love with him to a couple who are experiencing a long list of marriage troubles including infertility, infidelity and jealousy. The show airs on HBO five days a week with each patient assigned a day of the week. Monday is Laura the doctor, his 8 a.m. session. Thursday is Jake and Amy, the married couple. On Fridays viewers get to see him with his own therapist, played by the amazing Diane Wiest. This could have been a boring predictable drama with cliche characters being healed by a wise and caring counselor. Instead this drama touches on some intense and painful issues in an honest and courageous manner. The second season just finished it's run on HBO, but the first season of 53...that's right, 53 episodes, is available on DVD.