The latest incarnation can be pinpointed to the debut of “The Sopranos” in 1999. The late James Gandolfini’s ferocious portrayal of Tony Soprano, an unrepentant Mafioso who was alternately ruthless and angst-ridden, was like nothing ever seen. Soprano’s mix of vulnerability and power resulted in the unlikeliest of sex symbols, one that most women would have run from in real life.
“The Sopranos,” in turn, opened the door for a new generation of programs in which the characters’ growth and introspection were more important than the plot.
BREAKING BAD … AND AWAY
It also marked the first significant shot over the bow in the cable-vs.-networks battle over viewership. The shift away from traditional TV has entered its second generation, with help from new media, which have unplugged viewers from cable, too, enabling them to watch programs anytime, anywhere. Taking advantage are upstarts such as Netflix, whose first original programs resulted in the award-winning “Orange is the New Black” and the Shakespearean “House of Cards,” whose most-ardent fan base is among operatives in Washington, who apparently don’t realize that it’s an indictment.
It was impossible to look away from “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White’s devolution from put-upon, middle-class schlub to a murderous drug kingpin who did what he did because he could—and was proud that he was good at it.
“Breaking Bad” tapped into the vein of an American demographic that is losing ground, but still is too God-fearing to plunge headlong into the fantasy life of untold riches and power to be had through crime.
It has no compunction, however, about cheering on a character who does.
MIRRORS & MAD MEN
The notion that TV eventually becomes a mirror is manifested in “Mad Men,” which resurrected the 1960s in exquisite detail, the decade in all of its Eisenhower-to-Kennedy, misogynistic glory.
What no one saw coming was “Mad Men’s” peeling away the sheen from a decade often looked upon with a certain shiny nostalgia. Its cynical portrayal of Madison Avenue and the men who created it shows us how we’re often willing accomplices in our own manipulation.
Smartly, the series is ending its run just as its timeline brushes against the 1970s, thus sparing us a rehash of the “Me Decade,” resplendent in polyester and plaid.
In 2010, “Downton Abbey” became a surprise hit for PBS, but it shouldn’t have been—a surprise, that is. In a country that has tired itself out from constantly trying to level the playing field, Americans still harbor a romantic fascination for anything that smacks of Anglophile culture, royalty and class distinction.
This time around, this Golden Age has made room for women, particularly Shonda Rhimes, a Columbus native and producer/creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” three night soaps that showcase tough and powerful women in power. Yet Rhimes is smart enough not to discard the fundamental formula that remains impervious to progress: Even the most accomplished women are incomplete without love.
Yet, even in this current slipstream of quality television, there remains the death-defying weed of reality TV. Never have people had to exhibit so little talent to become so famous.
But let’s not kid ourselves. It exists because it is our guilty pleasure, the dirty little secret that both entertains us and enables us to feel superior to those foolish enough to open their lives to us.
The smart ones, the Kardashians and the NeNes of Realityville, make the most of it. Others don’t see the end coming until it does, not realizing that mama gets thrown from the train the moment we get bored.