How to Lose or Gain Greatness in 16 Weeks or Less: The Toil and Toll of Television
Is "The Walking Dead" eating "Homeland" for lunch? Did "Boardwalk Empire" wander off the pier, or was it killed by "Sons of Anarchy" bikers? Also, "Dexter" is back? Who would have guessed?
If it feels like the ground is shifting under the best dramas on television – reordering some of them in the pecking order of greatness – that’s because it is.
Homeland, The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Dexter – hell, we could go back a bit and include Breaking Bad and Mad Men, if you’d like – have recently, at one time or another, hit a point where elements surrounding them became worrisome.
That’s the nature of television, and what makes it so difficult to sustain greatness: The characters and storylines never stop, like a movie does, and are thus more likely to trip up. Pick your favorite movie of the past six months and then imagine it as a weekly series that had to stretch on for three, four or five seasons. Many of them would be terrible immediately, while others would stumble and ruin the joy or entertainment you found in them while sitting in that theater. So few could rise up and be exceptional for weeks and years on end.
But that’s also the beauty of television, isn’t it? When your show is elite and stays that way, you’ve accomplished a Herculean creative achievement.
OK, back to the worries. In some ways this column started out weeks ago as a notion that rattled around my cynical critical brain. I had to realize (again and again, as it turned out) that Boardwalk Empire was maybe the best drama on television that also was the least compelling. It didn’t quite achieve the greatness it desired (and in some ways seemed destined to attain) in season one but got there in season two.
And yet, there was no urgency to it. The show seemed more mannered than alive, more meandering than exciting. Beautifully shot, superbly acted and wonderfully written, it nevertheless failed to fully enthrall. Every episode of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and The Walking Dead is must-watch-right-now television. I found myself getting around to Boardwalk Empire when I could -- what I've called TiNo-ing in the past. And in this season, I fell behind -- an exclamation point on my personal, pet theory.
Guess what? I’m still behind. I understand that the past few episodes really ratcheted up the action and the stakes and that Sunday’s season finale was enthrallingly insane. That’s great to hear. I guess I can look forward now to watching the unwatched episodes. But the show lost me because I wasn’t compelled to keep up.
The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is like dramatic crack. I can’t get enough of it. Episodes end, and I’m annoyed they weren’t 90 minutes long. The series learned from the pacing mistakes of season two (the love triangle, etc.) and is legitimately in the handful of top-tier dramas on television -- a small group that shares regal company. The series has multiple arcs that are intriguing, well-conceived and add value to the overall story. Characters are getting richer and more complex. Right now there isn’t a more riveting series on TV. Having to wait until February to see the second half of the season is agonizing, especially after Sunday's cliffhanger.
As for Homeland, I wrote about my very serious concerns more than three weeks ago and, despite a few steadying episodes, is right back in the worrisome category after Sunday’s episode. Yes, it was edgy and nerve-wracking and made me eager for more, but part of that is to find out if the writers can save the series from becoming, as I said in that article, another 24. That, by the way, is not a compliment. Listen, if Saul becomes the mole -- the worst recurring creative crutch in 24’s pathetic history -- I’m done. As it stands already, the troika of Estes, Quinn and Dar Adul is very mole-like, but at least they’re on “our side.” Unless they’re not, which would also be reason enough to delete the season pass from the DVR. Also, raise your hand if you want Homeland to be a love story. Yeah, didn’t think so. (There are two more episodes this season.)
Sons of Anarchy has always been a melodramatic series with larger-than-life characters and motives. Some seasons have been stronger than others, and fans are either all in or float in and out, but the tail end of season four quickened the pace, and this season has homed in fiercely on the Hamlet elements the show has at its core. Because of that, Sons of Anarchy has impressively pushed through some of the issues that haunt long-running series and is enjoying a superb season. (Tuesday's 90-episode is the season finale.)
Look, the two best shows on television – Breaking Bad and Mad Men – have their issues as well. Less so for Breaking Bad, which is unlikely to unravel or do damage to its reputation no matter what happens in the final eight episodes. Sure, the risk is there for a controversial Sopranos-like ending, but I’d argue that at this minute, no series has ever had fewer missteps than Breaking Bad, which makes it the rarest of the rare. (I touched on this and other issues in my talk with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, live onstage at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.) Mad Men overcame an uneven season five and didn’t bobble its greatness too much. Season 5 for any series is a punishing test. No, the worry with Mad Men is that it likely has two more seasons to go. Godspeed with that, as the ultimate verdict hangs in the balance.
Fittingly, let’s end with Dexter, a series that adds hope and redemption to the theme of series trying to stay both relevant and creatively excellent. There’s no getting around the fact that last season -- its sixth -- was terrible. So bad, in fact, that not only did I continuously hammer it but vowed never to watch again. Part of that stemmed from the fact that the series had started to repeat itself and the implausible aspects had spun out of control. Season 4 with John Lithgow was the best, and Dexter could have ended there, but it absolutely should have used that avenue of newly opened storylines to end itself in season five, which it didn’t.
Of course, season five wasn’t terrible, but it already was past its sell-by date, which was confirmed weekly by season six. However -- miracle of miracles -- this current season has been excellent. It’s one of those rare creative comebacks that’s worth setting aside rage and abandonment issues to enjoy. Well done. (There are two episodes remaining.)
Then again, there also will be a season eight. Please don’t go sideways again, Dexter. End it with style. Everybody else, stay focused. Nobody said this was going to be easy. True television greatness is earned, week by week.