At no time in entertainment history have there been so many good TV series. From Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad to Westworld to House of Cards, TV fans are in a good place. Producers are bringing more sophisticated stories across more genres in recent years than has ever been viewed before. And exactly why is that? Well, my young friends, the reasons are many so join me as we look back at the lineage of prestige television to find our ‘ground zero’ or ‘patient zero’ as it were.
First, we need to understand the traditional structure of television programming in the US which was three major networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) who essentially ran an oligopoly on what audiences could view. The format was essentially in place and unchallenged from post-World War II until 1986 when the Fox network made it a group of four.
Fourteen years previous, in 1972, the Home Box Office (HBO) had started but for numerous reasons had a very difficult time finding success. The ball started rolling for them with the Larry Sanders Show (1992) by the late comedic great, Garry Shandling. This gave them more market exposure and, along with some other solid comedy offerings, stimulated subscriptions.
In 1997, HBO rolled out its first drama series, Oz. A gritty prison vehicle, Oz immediately gripped audiences and didn’t let go for six seasons. Creator and showrunner Tom Fontana stocked the ensemble cast with outstanding players – many previously unknown and many who would go on to stardom. The narrative format was a departure from the dominant episodic formula of the time and the realism of life behind bars both shocked and impressed critics and audiences alike. Fans used to J.K. Simmons (above) in charismatic roles in films like Juno and I Love You, Man will be stunned to see his amazing portrayal as a sadistic Aryan Brotherhood member. Some other notable cast members include David Ayala and Luna Lauren Velez who would both go on to star in Dexter, B.D. Wong (Gotham, Mr Robot), Edie Falco (The Sopranos) and approximately a dozen actors that would find roles on The Wire. More on those last two series to come. The series was also aided by talented directors like Adam Bernstein (Californication, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), Alan Taylor (Deadwood, Mad Men, Game of Thrones) and Steve Buscemi (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie).
While Oz was riveting, it’s worth noting that the show was as intelligent as it was brutal. Tip top writing gave the characters depth and emotion and highlighted many issues of the American justice system and race relations both inside and in the general society.
In 1999, HBO released The Sopranos, a complex mafia narrative which, like Oz, was far more sophisticated and nuanced than it appeared at face value. Creator, head writer and executive producer David Chase centres the series on high ranking mobster Tony Soprano – played by the late James Gandolfini – and his balancing of work and family lives while seeing a psychiatrist for therapy. We see him interact with his wife and two kids while at the same time navigating the dangerous New York/New Jersey underworld. We get great insights into their world when they are doing mundane things like playing cards. If the series was made today, the characters would probably be playing online casino games, trying to calculate the best strategies and making optimal use of the many casino bonuses available online, but the series was made before the proliferation of smartphones.
The Soprano crime family is loosely based on real-life New Jersey syndicates and starred, over six seasons, 27 actors who were in epic mafia movie, Goodfellas. At the start, however, the cast was largely unknown with a few exceptions like Lorraine Bracco (Oscar nominee for Goodfellas) who plays Dr. Melfi. As the critical acclaim poured in and the fan base exploded, bigger names would come in for extended character arcs. Notable names from this list include Steve Buscemi, Joe Pantoliano, and Frank Vincent. Some lesser known names at the time had smaller roles like Will Arnett (Arrested Development), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep) and Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show).
The list of awards the show was nominated for and won is too extensive to review here and critics and audiences alike place The Sopranos at or near the top of numerous lists of the best TV series of all time. Critics hail the show as influential in bringing more serious subject matter to the fore and its success, along with that of Oz is credited with raising the bar and assured HBO’s position as a cutting-edge producer of dramatic series. Of interest, the FBI told producers that real-life mobsters were saying on wiretaps that they thought there was a mafioso helping with the show because it was so believable. Also, see if you can find 15-year old Lady Gaga.
Another HBO show that frequently does well in all-time lists is The Wire. Created by David Simon, who was involved in crime episodic Homicide: Life on the Street, and released in 2002, The Wire continued the momentum of the previous series. The show takes a deep dive into the seedy side of Baltimore during the early naughts. We see the hard life of African-Americans in run-down ghettos and many of whom turn to drug-using and/or dealing to deal with their circumstances. We also see the difficulties and hard work of law enforcement to try and reduce a soaring crime rate. And then we also see the corruption and political machinations that soar above it all.
The cast kind of represents a ‘first wave’ of great English actors to play American roles and these three play some of the series most memorable characters. Dominic West stars as the flawed detective Jimmy McNulty, Aiden Gillen (pre-Game of Thrones) plays politician Tommy Garcetti and a young Idris Elba plays street hood Stringer Bell. An interesting aspect of the show is that each season has a theme that permeates while the regular characters continue worth their lives and struggles.
The trail blazed by HBO and these inspired the proliferation of independent networks and higher quality TV shows. AMC, Starz, Showtime and FX, to name a few, are attracting better talent and taking more risks which results in some of our favourite shows.
Oz, The Sopranos, and The Wire are great shows that deserve a lot of credit for the great state of television viewing today. It’s time to watch them if you haven’t yet; if you have seen them, it’s time for a re-watch!