There are those who proclaim that we are in the midst of a new 'golden age' of television. It certainly seems to me that a lot of television shows are giving cinema a run for their money in terms of almost everything--characters, storyline, visuals, effects, production value. I also think that technology, particularly things like Netflix and Hulu, as well as DVR technology and Internet availability have all lent themselves to a bit of a tv revival. One of the biggest factors, as far as I am concerned, is that I think the current appeal of television is related to its exploration of the anti-hero, in this it runs in the opposite direction to cinema which seems to trade almost exclusively in the heroic, and I think the anti-hero move is more reflective of our time and perhaps more desirous.
I have always been a big watcher of television, golden age or otherwise, but I must confess to a love-affair with the box right now. Three shows that I'm into all feature the letter 'b' in their titles. Breaking bad-The Bridge and Borgen. Two of the shows are Scandinavian in origin (Netflix will introduce you to a host of tv and film from Denmark/Norway/Sweden--but try Wallender and Headhunters).
Borgen (Government), is a Danish drama about the challenges of a coalition government run by a female Prime Minister. each episode begins with a quote-usually about power, or its folly, and the show plays out the details. There is nothing flash, it's very low-key, character-driven, but the writing and acting is really good, anticipating the questions we all might ask of the situations. The characters are not slick, they look 'normal' and that helps make the show feel real.
The sub-text is relationships; between government and the news media-tv and news print-scandals, compromise, backroom deals; between the Prime minister and her family and her co-leaders; between spin doctors and the press. What I really enjoy is the openness and honesty. The Prime Minister struggles with balancing job and family, winds up getting a divorce, and later has casual sex with a co-worker---and it is handled very openly and honestly- not in a scandalous or 'this-doesn't-matter' way, but in a mature and rational understanding of the complexities of modern life and living, about the way that life unfolds in surprising ways, and the humanity required to handle it all. That is not to say that it labours on the sexual, that is hardly a key issue, the show really deals with relationships of power, Foucault would have a field day I think.
I think that the demand of watching a show with sub-titles, helps to keep one focused and perhaps paying more attention than usual--it is hard to multi-task when you are reliant upon the subtitles for understanding what is going on.
The Bridge, is a re-make of another Danish/Swedish production about a body found on a bridge between the two countries. It has been transplanted to El Paso/Juarez, but the story is essentially the same; cops from each side of the border come together to work on a murder mystery. It could easily fall prey to stereotypes and at times runs that risk very closely, but it manages to remain on the right side of edgy for the most part. It is helped in this by two great lead characters--Diane Kruger playing a savant-like Texan cop, with a history of pain and tragedy, resulting in a deep emotional disconnect that makes her socially awkward, and Demian Bechir, who plays a Mexican cop trying hard to keep on the straight and narrow, avoiding bribes. It is a little good cop/bad cop, buddy show, but the story is complex and well told and the supporting characters are pretty rich. it's on FX, so it is grittier than network cop shows, and that helps.
I am constantly surprised at the boundary crossing that is occurring in tv these days around the portrayal of sex and violence as well as language-a whole new world of swearing seems to be dawning upon us. I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing, I realize people have different levels of acceptance and tolerance with regard to these things--of the three, personally I find the violence the most difficult to deal with, that may have something to do with growing up in England, where we are much more relaxed about nudity and swearing.
The third show is Breaking Bad. We are coming to the end of the Walter White chronicles and while there is sadness that the show is coming to an end there is also much excitement for the conclusion. Like Lost and The Sopranos, there is a growing concern over how the 'end' will be handled, which tells you how invested in both the story and the characters many are. Walter White might just be the ultimate anti-hero--passive High School Chemistry Teacher to murderous Drug Baron in a character descent that is every bit as dark as Michael Corleone's in The Godfather series. The dark threads in the story aren't unravelling and the show continues to throw curveballs into the story. That we have grown to love a man who has turned into a manipulative monster is an amazing feat, but that is why I think the audience is growing and binge-watching to catch up seems to be a summer priority for lots of people.
So there you go, three shows worth spending some time watching, and then doing an inventory on your own life.