Has TV Just Reset The Bar?
We’ve been spoilt for incredible TV drama in recent years. The likes of Breaking Bad, The Wire and Sopranos are often talked about as amongst the best telly ever made. I have a lot of time for the six minute long tracking shot in episode 4 of the first series of True Detective – the one which really established Cary Fukunaga and can’t have hurt his chances in becoming the director of the 25th Bond film – and have loved the first seasons of both Ozarks and Big Little Lies. Which is without even getting into a discussion about the many notable episodes in Game of Thrones that were of the highest conceivable production quality, irrespective of the narrative that polarised viewers in the latter seasons.
It seems to me though that there’s recently opened up a significant gulf between TV content which is just ‘watchable’ and that which is truly deserving of the time investment required to watch a full series (or more) of a show.
Over the last few months I’ve spent some time getting stuck into the first couple of episodes of both The Witcher and The Man In The High Castle, dipped back into the latest series of Preacher and occasionally returned to Netflix’s Sex Education. If I’m honest though, all of these feel a little too much like hard work when compared to three incredible shows that I’ve fallen in love with, namely: Succession, Watchmen and The Morning Show.
Interestingly, each of these three have something in common – they are superb storytelling but are each rooted in a highly topical, extremely charged and challenging theme, specifically: gender, race and the abuse of power. Normally I would say that drama which is so rooted in the zeitgeist might tend towards the sensationalist and/or be a little worthy – but I have adored all three of these shows, each of which have sparked discussion and debate with friends, whilst also being terrific entertainment.
Watchmen managed to pull off what I had previously thought was impossible – to improve on the source material. This show deconstructs the original story, keeping the comic’s soul, the built-world and many of the ingredients, whilst managing to build a story that’s relevant for contemporary times and being an amazingly compelling work in its own right. Like the comic, there’s a bunch of fictional supplementary materials and a superb supporting podcast with showrunner Damon Lindelhof. The original centred around global tensions relating to the cold war, whilst this fundamentally addresses issues around the racial – and to a lesser extent gender – tensions that exist today, not least in the US. It’s stunning and sets a new benchmark, to the extent that it has really cast a long shadow over other TV series – hence this post.
Secondly, Succession is an incredible show. It’s been much written about yet a surprisingly large number of people that I speak to have neither seen nor heard of it. Perhaps that may change as we approach awards season (Brian Cox just won a Golden Globe for his central role). It dissects a powerful family built around a patriarchal media tycoon (Cox) and the story focusses on the dealings of his friends and family as they vie for position around him. The story is brilliantly written, the characters horribly compelling and, as a viewer, you can’t look away as the leads all find new ways to abuse their position and those around them. Admittedly, this feels the least noble of the three, but given the context of all that’s out there, this is well worthy of the time investment.
Finally, The Morning Show stars Jennifer Anniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carrell (amongst others) and tells of a senior media figure’s fall from grace as the result of his philandering over his years in the media industry, along with the actions and attitudes of his colleagues. The #MeToo movement is referenced constantly but the narrative flip flops back and forth, ambiguously highlighting multiple aspects of the argument – which is seen by some commentators as a detriment – rather than condemning or supporting Carrell’s character either way. This is one of those rare shows where the creators have managed to capture the moment without being clumsy regarding the subject matter – and the leads are incredible.
An honourable mention must also go to Atypical, a relatively little-known show on Netflix centring around a family with an autistic teenage son, which has become a family favourite at home. I’ve also enjoyed both The Boys and Chernobyl, although I have been warned off series three of The Handmaid’s Tale and wish that I hadn’t bothered with the latest Killing Eve.
In any case, next up (eventually!): Don’t F**k with Cats and The Crown are both waiting in the wings and I shall decide whether to persevere with some of those listed above, or to wait for the next stellar show to turn out.
Whatever happens, I just hope that something lives up to the newly established, super high bar and hope that shows continue this trend of considered challenge and analysis whilst continuing to entertain…