No Laughing Matter -- Drama is Still King of the Small Screen

When one great series drops off the air, there's a rush of quality to fill the space

When Breaking Bad ended its spectacular fourth season recently, fans were sad to see it go. It’s arguably the best series on television (battling with Mad Men, in my book) and when the thrill ride of Walter White vs. Gus Fring came to its jaw-dropping conclusion, it was momentarily unclear on what could possibly fill that dramatic void.

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And then reality kicked in – we were still gloriously in the midst of the great drama Renaissance. So, let the stories about the sitcom’s resurgence be written (without much proof based on this fall crop, it must be said) and focus instead on just how robust top-tier dramas remain:

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Boardwalk Empire (HBO): More people should be all over this (and yes, that may have happened if HBO got the Season 1 DVD out before the start of Season 2), but it’s still incredible television. The acting is brilliant (Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, just to name three), the slow-churning, based-on-history machinations are pulling in fans like a great book, and every episode ends with you wanting more – immediately. That’s always a good sign and this nuanced series is stating its case for inclusion on any conceivable Top 5 list.

Homeland (Showtime): Just renewed for a second season, this has been one of the brightest lights in the freshman crop, as Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin and Mandy Patinkin are nailing this espionage/terrorist end-game scenario while the writers have given up just enough facts to leave it unclear what the intentions of Lewis’ character really are. And in that process, the element of the story that gets the least mention, is whether or not the rescued “hero” is just damaged, not dangerous. Great work all around on this one.

Sons Of Anarchy (FX): Yet another stellar season of motorcycles and mayhem with the Shakespearean element (Hamlet on a Harley) gaining real traction. This is show that delivers viscerally to an adoring audience. Everything is played large in SOA,but the heightened dramatic elements are rooted in smart, compelling storylines.

The Walking Dead (AMC): Just renewed for its third season after only two ratings-record performances in Season 2, it’s pretty clear that people can’t get enough of the undead. But the allure here is that The Walking Deadhas always been about far more than rotting corpses hell-bent on eating their way through what remains of civilization. It’s a Western, it’s a road movie, it’s post-apocalyptical look at whether people can keep the fabric of a supremely challenged society from fraying – it’s about survival and what costs come from that. And yes, it’s about zombies.

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Boss (Starz): Easily the biggest surprise of the bunch, this game-changer for original programming at Starz is a showcase vehicle for Kelsey Grammer’s deft dramatic turn. Dirty politics and power-making – and the costs of each – all wrapped in yet another Shakespearean conceit (King Lear, this time), have vaulted Boss into the top tier of dramas. And it gets better as the episodes go on, which is a wonderful sign.

Dexter (Showtime): The old standby is trying – so far successfully – to prove that there’s more in the tank, that America’s favorite serial killer can tackle the meaning of faith in new and interesting ways. Of all the shows on this list, Dexter could be the one that drifts sideways and drops off, but right now the show’s history allows it a little slack in that area.

These are all superb series – and all of them are currently on the air – a collective testament to the ongoing greatness of the televised drama. The feeling that this drama Renaissance is showing no signs of recession is only magnified when you realize just what isn’t currently on the air – Mad Men on AMC, Game of Thrones and Treme on HBO, Shameless and The Borgias on Showtime, and Justified on FX. That’s an embarrassment of riches which doesn’t even include the pending arrival of Luck on HBO and House of Lies on Showtime, two series with a lot of heat.

So if all of these lame new sitcoms are getting you down, don’t lose faith in the medium. There’s more brilliance on the drama side than you probably have the time to watch.


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