Cinematic Television – The Dramas

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.

Next: Science Fiction & Fantasy

Cinematic Television – The Comedies

In the last decade the ante has been upped on both network and cable television. While channels go the cheap route of “reality” tv, they have also worked to develop higher quality scripted series. These higher quality series have a lot more in common with film, than previous television programs. They employ complex cinematography, a higher caliber of acting, and a devotion on the part of viewers to following longform story arcs, not “done in one” stand alone episodes. We’ll be looking at some of these series that have really stood out for me, starting with

The Comedies


Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000, created by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig)
Starring Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Busy Phillips, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, Martin Starr, Joe Flaherty, Becky Ann Baker

This can be marked as the beginning of the Apatow movement in contemporary comedy. The series was broadcast by a less than enthused NBC, who seemed to go out of their way to air episodes out of order and move the series around the schedule without letting viewers know. The series gained a following when it was reran on Fox Family and then when it was released on DVD in the last few years. The premise follows the Weir sibling, Lindsay (the Freak) and Sam (the Geek) as they go through a year of changes in 1980. Lindsay, a straight-A student and member of the Math-letes, starts hanging out with a group of classic rock loving stoners, and Sam deals with his desire to lose his childish geek image and win the heart of his long time crush. Unlike other nostalgia based programming, there is no maudlin sentiment here. The emotions and resolutions to stories feel honest and real. Characters have parents who are incredibly flawed, and those flaws don’t go away at the end of the episode. One episode in particular deals with a cheating parent, the episode ends on a very ambiguous note. If you haven’t discovered this gem, I highly recommend you hunt it down.


Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 – present, created by Larry David)
Starring Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman
Featuring Richard Lewis, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Einstein, Shelly Berman, Vivica A. Fox, Wanda Sykes, J.B. Smoove, Paul Dooley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Kaitlin Olsen, Paul Mazursky, Richard Kind, Ben Stiller, Mel Brooks

If you enjoyed Seinfeld, then Curb Your Enthusiasm will blow your mind. The neurotic basis of George Costanza, Larry David, has created a series in which he plays himself as a buffoon constantly getting into awkward situations based on the misunderstanding of other or, more often than not, David’s own hang ups about minutiae. The series is one of the few to really capture improv comedy working right. A lot of comedies have followed since and don’t seem to have actors of the high level working in them that Curb does. A typical episode of Curb might involve Larry getting into an argument with a wheelchair bound man about using the handicapped toilet stall, followed by him inadvertently insulting a lesbian receptionist about she and her partner’s desire to adopt a Chinese baby. The jokes are never played as mocking these people, but rather comes from David’s desire to see all characters, regardless of their specificities, shown as jerks. He sees that people are more or less jerks when it comes down to it, and how he plays this out is hilarious.


Arrested Development (2003-2006, created by Mitchell Hurwitz)
Starring Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross, Ron Howard
Featuring Liza Minelli, Ed Begley, Jr., Henry Winkler, Mae Whitman, Judy Greer

There has never been a more complex, layered, and enjoyable comedy on network television than Arrested Development. From the moment it debuted, Fox seemed to have little interest in it, while viewers and critics loved the hell out of this show. The premise is that George Bluth, owner of the Bluth Corporation is arrested for violating trading laws and his son, Michael finds he’s now in charge of the company and the self-absorbed and moronic family around him. Every actor is bringing their A game here, and the casting is spot on. There are no other actors who could play this character so over the top and still be endearing. The series also incorporates a large number of cameos and employs many of the players from HBO’s Mr. Show (Cross was one of the creators of that skit comedy series). Since the cancellation of series, network television comedy has never seemed as promising to me. A featuring film continuing the adventures of the Bluth family is in the works and set to be released next year, here’s hoping it can live up to the series.


Eastbound and Down (2009 – present, created by Jody Hill)
Starring Danny McBride, Andrew Daly, John Hawkes, Katy Mixon, Ben Best, Jennifer Irwin
Featuring Will Ferrell, Craig Robinson

From the minds behind The Foot Fist Way and Observe & Report, comes this amazing HBO comedy series. Kenny Powers, a blatant parody of ignorant, racist Atlanta Brave John Rocker, is thrown out of Major League Baseball after being caught using steroids. He returns to his hometown in North Carolina where he becomes a substitute PE teacher at the same middle school his high school sweetheart works at. Kenny goes about abusing the hospitality of his brother and family, treating the middle school principal like a jerk, and ingesting an unhealthy amount of drugs. The highlight of the series comes when Kenny deals with local car dealer Ashley Schaeffer (Ferrell) which culminates in an insane pitching demonstration. The entire first season plays out like an extended movie, with a series finale that could serve as a perfect ending.


Bored to Death (2009 – present, created by Jonathan Ames)
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson
Featuring Olivia Thirlby, Oliver Platt, John Hodgman, Bebe Neuwirth, Jenny Slate

This HBO series is a sort of comedic version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass novel. Schwartzman playing a writer named Jonathan Ames (meta, eh?), loses his girlfriend and out of boredom posts a craiglist ad as an unlicensed private eye. He begins to get cases and finds himself getting caught up in the fun of it. He typically incorporates his indie comic book artist friend (Galifiankis) and pot smoking boss (Danson) on the cases as well. The series has a much more muted sense of comedy than Eastbound and Down, one of the best aspects of HBO’s comedy programming. They do a very good job of balancing multiple styles, yet never lose their quality.