While I have not yet seen The Wire, I know that so many people view it as the epitome of great television drama. I plan on watching it one day, and I see it as one of those great works of literature that I want to find the perfect time for fully absorbing it. That said, these are some other great dramas on the tube right now.
Mad Men (2007 – present, created by Matthew Weiner)
Starring Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Mitchell, January Jones, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser, Bryan Batt, Aaron Staton, Michael Gladis, Rich Sommer, Robert Morse, Kiernan Shipka
Mad Men is a series that hinges completely on a contemporary audiences knowledge of their society, so that they may contrast it with irony of early 1960s American culture. The focal point of the show is Madison Avenue ad exec Don Draper, played with calm and cool ease by Jon Hamm. Draper is man with a very distinct set of personal moral beliefs. Sleeping around on his wife isn’t a huge deal, and when she seeks psychiatric help, making regular calls to the shrink for a report on what his wife has said is never a violation of her privacy, its his right as a husband. The male-dominated culture around him doesn’t work to convince him otherwise though. But Draper is an imposter in this world, through out all of the three seasons which have aired he comes up against a fear of his past being exposed.
As foils to Don, we’re given three other characters: Peggy Olson, Betty Draper, and Pete Campbell. Each is in a place where they are unsure of their identity. Peggy is girl from Brooklyn who starts out as Don’s secretary, but finds herself moving up the ladder of power in the office incredibly quickly. Betty, Don’s wife, is not content at playing house after living as a model in Europe before she met Don. Her transformation over the three season has been the most dramatic and it is hard to predict where her character will go.
Pete is the most direct parallel to Don, a salesman at the Sterling/Cooper ad agency, he is from a family that expected more “respectable” work out of him and are completely opposed to supporting his life. Pete is newly married and seems at times disinterested in his bride, and other completely devoted to her. While Don seems representative of the Old Way, Pete is our manifestation of new ideas coming into society. Pete is confused when, after crunching the numbers and discovering the black community is buying a client’s brand of television more than the white, the client rejects his ideas to directly market to that minority. He sees it as both socially and economically ignorant.
The series is respectful of its adult audience. There’s little chance adolescents will enjoy the series, and the writers believe that the grown ups watching don’t need every emotion and thought telegraphed through blunt dialogue. There are long moments of silence in the series, where the only information we receive is through a simple look of Don’s, or the frustrated body language of Betty. This complete rejection of dumbed down television is an oasis in the desert. It makes each and every episode come across as highly cinematic and important.
Breaking Bad (2007 – present, created by Vince Gilligan)
Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk
If you are only familiar with Bryan Cranston through his work as the befuddled father on Malcolm in the Middle you will be in for a shock. The same frenetic energy that informed Hal on the Fox sitcom, if filtered through a simmering boil in Breaking Bad. Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who works part-time at a car wash to pay the bills. He has a teenaged son with cerebral palsy and a baby daughter on the way. One day, he collapses at work and learns he has terminal lung cancer. Walter keeps this a secret from his family and decides on a whim to join his DEA brother in law as a ride along on a meth lab raid. One of his students ends up being the meth cook who escapes from the raid and Walter tracks him down with a proposition: they work together to make and sell as much meth as possible. Walter reasons this will get him enough money for some experimental cancer treatment and, if he does die, provide his wife with a major financial cushion. Thus begins Walter White’s descent into Hell.
For the first half of the first season, Walter is unsure of himself. He is confident in the lab and he knows how to cook meth of a quality his partner, Jesse, and the DEA have never seen before. It’s not till the second half of the first season that Walter explodes. A mix of chemo therapy and the impending concept of his own death pounding in his skull forces the meek man to become a force of violence. This doesn’t come without a cost though, as strong as his newly found fury may be, he is also ignorant of the inner workings of the big money trade. Walter inevitably draws the attention of the wrong people and ends up in multiple circumstances where he is close to being murdered.
While Walter is descending, his young partner, Jesse is trying to emerge from the drug fueled mire he has sunken into. At one point, he tries to reconnect with his family, whom roundly reject him. Jesse has a brief foray into a rehabilitated life, but is pulled back down by Walter. A palpable sense of tragedy surrounds the young man and its becoming apparent the weight that won’t let him live his life is our protagonist. The place the second season ends leaves both characters in an unknown place. They are burdened by a massive loss of life that is the result of their actions; Walter has come out on top though, and Jesse, once again is left with the bloodied hands. Where these characters go to next is going to be a fascinating journey.
Damages (2007 – present, created by Daniel Zelman, Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler)
Starring Rose Byrne, Glenn Close, Tate Donovan
Featuring Ted Danson, Zeljko Ivanek, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Timothy Olyphant, Campbell Scott, Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine
Damages starts with the typical prime time drama setting, a law office. But that is where the similarities with your typical law drama end. Borrowing a device from Lost, flash-forwards, Damages allows us to glimpse pieces of the end of season while going back to the beginning and moving forward from there. The series follows law school graduate Ellen Parsons, who is hired at Hewes & Associates, to work underneath infamous lawyer Patty Hewes. Hewes’ focus is primarily in cases against large corporations, on the part of citizens harmed by them. While her goals are admirable, Patty has a “by any means necessary” approaching to getting her way. She lies, cheats, steals, and even hires people to kill those who are getting in her way.
Each season focuses on a single case, allowing it to be played out in great detail and devoting an equal amount of time to the defense. Much like Law & Order, the cases draw on real life events, but because they are for such larger stakes it only makes sense that it take 13 episodes for them to play out. Season One featured an Enron type case, wherein billionaire Arthur Frobisher convinced his employees to invest in company stock, only to defraud them and abscond with their life savings. Season Two is a more generic environmental case, where an energy company is knowingly withholding data that proves their practices have caused harm to the population. And in the current season, the series is tackling a Bernie Madoff parallel with an incredibly stellar guest cast. If you enjoy typical law dramas, but want something with more continuity and depth then definitely give Damages a shot.
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