Monday, August 27, 2012

"Must-See TV" is now Sunday Nights

Tinkerbell and Cinderella's castle
When I was a young lad, Sunday nights were "family nights" on television. Wholesome, uplifting or educational fare was to be found for the most part, with shows such as The Wonderful World of Disney, assorted National Geographic specials, The Ed Sullivan Show and other family-oriented programs airing on the Sundays of my youth. As a result, it seemed to me that Sunday night was where a television series -- whether it was drama, comedy or any other kind of "serial" show -- went to die. If I had a favourite show in the '70s or '80s and it was moved to Sunday night, I began to prepare myself for its inevitable cancellation. You may have had a different experience but that is how it was for me: the sight of a show I was fond of suddenly appearing on Sundays was an "oh no" moment every time.

Well, that was then. Things are radically different now.

Jesse and Walt from Breaking Bad
Now, it seems, every single show that I have any kind of affection for airs on Sunday nights. Not only that, but all of them are now on cable as the "big networks" continue to spit out the bit and fight for the dollars of the lowest common denominator demographic, which makes great sense for the profit margin but creates some egregiously crappy television shows. For six days every week Sarah and I struggle to find something to watch before inevitably giving up in the middle of the umpteenth rerun of Third Rock from the Sun. I guess we should be thankful for all of the horrible "reality" shows of the world as they have freed us from the nightly ensnarement of our television. But on that seventh night...oh, on that seventh night, what amazing and varied entertainment is offered up by the creative geniuses at AMC, HBO and Showtime. The best of these, by far, is the show Breaking Bad, which I think may well be the greatest show ever to air on television. Now, I know it has some pretty stiff competition over the nearly seventy years t.v. has been a part of our lives in North America -- most recently, that competition has come from The Wire -- and there is no way to quantify my statement. But to me, Breaking Bad is at least as good as any other show that came before it and it goes one step further: it is blazing a new path with each and every episode, breaking all of the "rules" of television with every twist and turn of the ever-warping plot line. Bryan Cranston, whom I never really took much notice of in any previous role, has become simply the finest actor in his medium today, hands down. His character's transformation over the four-and-a-half seasons of the show has been absolutely breathtaking to watch and it is still evolving even as recently as last night's powerhouse episode. I could spend the rest of this piece just raving about Breaking Bad but there are so many other sites that do that very, very well. I wish to discuss all of the amazing shows which currently air on Sunday nights.

Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy
Shows such as the newest Aaron Sorkin vehicle, The Newsroom. The first season wrapped up last night with another stellar episode (there were ten in all) in which Will McAvoy (played brilliantly by Jeff Daniels) stops dancing around the issue of the Tea Party and says what Sorkin has wanted to say all along, calling them the "American Taliban". This is "The News" the way it should always have been, the way most intelligent, thoughtful people would like it delivered. They can get away with it here because it's just a "dramatic reimagining" of how major events of the past three years should have been handled. It's news for news' sake and not for ratings, which is something you can only really be allowed to do in the context of a greater show which is, very likely, all about the ratings. Because it's an Aaron Sorkin show, there are difficulties and missteps; however, because it's an HBO-produced Aaron Sorkin show, there are far fewer of them than you might expect. Ultimately, the message of the show has moved me more than once during every one of the ten episodes of Season One (it has been renewed) and I plan on purchasing the DVDs when they are released and devouring them all over again. It's a fantasy world but it sure eases some of the pain of the real one.

Boardwalk Empire: Gritty, gory, glossy and glitzy
With the season finale of The Newsroom last night and Breaking Bad going into a mid-season "hiatus" after next Sunday's episode, it's time for the other fantastic shows to make their reappearances. Boardwalk Empire, another HBO triumph, stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a character based on Nucky Johnson, Atlantic City kingpin of the Prohibition era and beyond. This is a gritty, violent show (as might be expected with Martin Scorsese at the helm) but one of the most visually stunning dramas I have ever seen on t.v. HBO recreated the entire Atlantic City Boardwalk of 1920 for this show and everything rings absolutely true. Buscemi is as fantastic as ever but the cast around him are up to the challenge. Season Three begins on September 16, which means there will *gasp* be a Sunday with not one of our favourite shows airing. I don't know what we'll do with ourselves.

New Orleans is the star of this show
The week after Boardwalk Empire returns, Season Three of Treme begins, also on HBO. This series, created and produced by the same people who brought you The Wire, many viewers' choice as the best series of all time, takes place in New Orleans and focuses on the reconstruction, post-Katrina. I came upon this show midway through the second season and loved it; I immediately borrowed the first season on DVD so I could catch up. The acting is top-notch, the storyline is every bit as gripping as The Wire (and almost as gritty), but it's the music that is the star of this show, for me at least. Authentic, live, N'awlins-style music that is found at every turn in this show and sticks with me long after the episode is over. I cannot get enough of Treme and I can't wait for its return.

A hero who is a serial killer/police force employee
And then the week after that brings us the premiere of the seventh season of the only show on this list that isn't produced by HBO or AMC: Showtime's Dexter (which, nevertheless, airs here on HBO Canada). We didn't subscribe to HBO for the first few seasons of Dexter, so we had to wait until mid-summer each year for the DVDs to come out. Once we had bought them we usually locked ourselves in our apartment and had a marathon until we made it through the season. This is a very quirky show and it has some major weaknesses in the form of plot holes and continuity, but because there's nothing like it on television -- and because we are hopelessly hooked on it at this point -- we never miss an episode. It's at least as gory as Boardwalk Empire but the gore in this case is a plot device; actually, it may even be a role unto itself. If you haven't seen Dexter, you can probably pick it up from the middle because each season is self-contained for the most part. There are references to previous plot lines but you can catch up pretty quickly, unlike really any of the shows I've mentioned already.

The Walking Dead: don't call them "zombies"
Which brings us to the last show on this particular list. Two weeks after the premiere of Dexter, Tim, Sarah and I will be glued to the television, eagerly awaiting the new season of The Walking Dead on AMC. This is a deeply-disturbed show, based on the graphic comic of the same name. The characters are essentially the same as in the comic, but the plot doesn't quite follow the exact same path; however, this does not seem to be an issue for fans of both the series and the books, judging from the internet chatter of the past two seasons. This is a show that is not afraid of advancing the plot through...well, let's just say "unconventional" methods, so if you decide to watch it, don't get too attached to any one of the main characters. Fair warning. This is far and away the goriest of the shows I've mentioned here in this post, but as the main subject matter is a Zombie Apocalypse (they call them "Walkers" in this show), I don't see how it could have been done any other way. The show is deliciously creepy and tense, with the true shock value coming from the mood rather than purposely-designed scare tactics, such as having things jump out at you from behind a door. It's heart-poundingly good, and I don't often go in for this genre of material (and neither does Sarah), so this is anything but faint praise.

So, there you have it. By October 14 of this year, and for a few weeks thereafter, we won't be watching any new episodes of my favourite show on television, but we will be watching or taping four different shows each and every Sunday. I imagine the only way to deal with this will be to space them out over several days, which we can definitely do because, as I've mentioned, there is nothing else whatsoever worth watching during the week, other than Community (which doesn't air until Thursday night).

And we've come to this: Sunday is now the place where terrific, absolutely not "family-friendly" shows go to shine. And the rest of the week? Why, it's for catching up on the Sunday shows I missed live.

So very different from thirty-five years ago.


  1. I think the trend towards "gritty" adult-oriented shows is a backlash against the mindless fantasy of reality T.V. Our entertainment preferences are also being influenced by living through the global economic recession.

    Just as the oil crisis in the '70s spawned disaster movies, the current economic meltdown is making us nostalgic for the past(Boardwalk Empire) and creating interest in anti-heroes (Rick in the Walking Dead, Walt in Breaking Bad and clearly Dexter the serial killer is an anti-hero).

    The subject matter of Breaking Bad seems particularly geared towards a public that is suffering through economic hardship, just as Walt himself and his family are at the beginning of the series. I'm sure many viewers have also felt a kind of desperation to get by, and to wonder what moral or legal boundaries they would push to survive.

    The "survival" on The Walking Dead is more literal, but still reflects fear of a government that has lost control, exploring what exactly it would mean to fend for yourself and your family in desperate times.

    Even "Treme" examines a fictionalized account of people who have lived through a real disaster in which government utterly failed to protect them.

    A little light entertainment, anyone?

    1. No thanks. I'm happy with our choices. :)

      Thanks for the great comment, Sar!

  2. I looooooooove Dexter!! We belong to and I am waiting to get Walking Dead. I am going to check out some of the others, too. Thanks!

    1. That's a new one for me!

      I think Breaking Bad is the best show I've ever seen. I can't recommend it highly enough. :)


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