Drama Takes the Throne

We wait impatiently.  We’ve talked about them incessantly since they’ve been gone.  We’ve tried to replace them with hobbies but to no avail.  Like a lover returning from a long trip away, we breathlessly wait to see their shining faces and to hear the exploits they have had since we last saw them.  We call them by name:Tyrion, Don Jeoffry,  Peggy, Daenerys.

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April marks the return of two of television’s finest scripted dramas, Game of Thrones and Mad Men.   There is little in common between the two, set in different eras, different worlds.  One is the story of one man, where the other holds no man sacred to the story. One broods where the other bloodies.  One covers miles of a magical land of kingdoms, while the other tours the castle inside one man’s skin.


What these shows share is wide critical appeal, legions of loyal followers,  and well deserved accolades for everything from acting to writing to costumes and sets.  Between the two, they have been nominated for well over 100 awards.  Mad Men won the Emmy for Best Drama 4 years in a row.  Game of Thrones marked its meteoric rise with  dozens of its own nominations.  All this love is not for nothing.  You are living in the New Golden Age of Television.


The New Golden Age of Television began, aptly enough, in a therapists office.  With the first session in the Sopranos, a new era in television  built on quality story telling,  A-list acting and rich, vibrant settings began.  Since then, audiences have been treated to a string of well-crafted scripted dramas, including Breaking Bad,  Mad Men, The Wire, Newsroom, The Borgias and Homeland.

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What makes TV so exciting is the very thing that makes the rest of TV seem like cold grits: a focus on superior storytelling that respects audiences rather than catering to them.   In the dry days between new episodes of your favs, you find yourself wondering, why can’t more TV shows be that good?

In the mid 19th century, changes in printing technology led to the rise of the penny press–newspapers similar to today’s New York Daily that sold for a penny.  Previously, newspapers on average cost 5 times that meaning that many working and middle class people could not afford the daily nickel for the news.  The advent of the penny press meant that the news was now available to all.


Another result of the penny press was that newspapers began to craft their news to appeal to the wide audience their penny price got them.   Mass appeal was a key strategy to grow the audience, and therefore the profit.   Sure they still reported news, but with the new competition for that penny, each paper wanted to maximize audience while minimizing costs.    Think about our own modern newscasts, stuffed with gossip, show promotions, wild viral videos and social media.  Why? To drive eyeballs–bigger audiences mean bigger profit.

John Singleton pointed out recently that getting butts in seats is what’s killing Hollywood. TV also suffers from catering to the lowest common denominator.  For more than 40 years, Americans had only three television networks to choose from–CBS, NBC, and ABC.  This meant that each channel tried to draw in everybody.  To do this, programs reflected the dominant culture at the expense of complex stories and other voices.  It wan’t until the 80’s that cable TV came around.  Our current 1000-channel universe is less than 10 years old, lining up not-coincidentally with TV’s second golden age.

Niche programming is not designed to appeal to everyone at once, like a variety show meant to appeal to Mom, Dad, the kids and Grandma too.  Instead, niche programming is meant to appeal to a smaller subset of the viewing public, allowing producers to take bigger risks and–wa la–better programming.


What is so exciting about Game of Thrones and Mad Men is that–market research be damned–producers set out to to make the shows they wanted, the way they wanted, without watering the show down to appeal to this or that demographic.  Don’t underestimate how important being free of the constraints of mainstream appeal. has been for these shows.  Where other shows avoid the darker corners of human nature, and flatten out the complexity of characters, these shows charge forward and take us for a ride in the process.

In a few short weeks, Don Draper will exit the stage for good, bringing to a close another of AMC’s fine series.  To stay hot, AMC will need to wow us again with another inventive new series.  Their profit, and out pleasure depends on it.   Don’t worry AMC, I have some good news for you.


Recent TV history shows these great shows do attract  audiences.  While the audiences may not be Super Bowl-big, with binge watching and DVD sales, theses niche hits are also good for the networks’ bottom line.  So for networks with multiple series baiting audiences,  like HBO with a whole stable of shows or AMC, turns out these small shows are not so small.   Good news for networks means more of the same and that’s great news for us.

Let the Games begin!







Free to be Bad Part 2: Dear Congress, Love, Zombies

Just in time to fill the hole in our life left by the death of Walter White, AMC premieres season 4 of The Walking Dead.  If you’ve never seen it, the Walking Dead, based on the graphic novel of the same name, is an action drama set in the zombie-infested near future.  Like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead has us riding shotgun next to an antihero navigating a world made of bad choices and worse situations.

Rick, former cop, zombie killer extraordinaire, wears the badge of the classic western sheriff when we first meet him.  He takes on the noble task of shepherding a group of people, a newly formed family collected on the road, through an America destroyed by a zombie virus.  Where once the hero in the white hat stood, The Walking Dead  places a man, fallible and frightened.  Rick does his best, and then decides there is no best in a world where right and wrong have been devoured.

What is most fascinating about Rick, Walter, and AMC’s other bad boy Don Draper is that these men are complex and flawed, even as they put a brave face to dealing with a new reality.  What is not new is that each of them is all too willing to throw everyone around them under the bus as they search for the new world.

Whether it is Peggy toiling under Don Draper’s tutelage on Mad Men or Glenn running interference for Rick in the Walking Dead, our new anti heroes have fresh faced side kicks.  Diversity is blooming across some of televisions great scripted dramas.  While it’s great to see new kinds of characters representing the struggles of women and people of color too often absent from the scene, the characters too often end up as chattel, red-shirt wearing secondary character who are ground up to serve in our antiheroes wild plans.

The challenge facing the group in the Walking Dead is the same challenge we face in a world of increasing diversity–how can we all live together and share this fragile planet?  The Walking Dead shows us the problems of hammering out new leadership.  In order to avoid the pitfalls of the past, leaders have to run on something other than ego and hubris.  Leaders need to embrace diversity not just for show but for the valuable ideas and important vision diverse voices can bring to the table.


So some advice for Rick in this season’s Walking Dead?  Take some time to listen to the people you are working to lead– their voice matters.  Surviving in any crisis takes teamwork, collaborative problem solving and critical thinking.  Even in a world of bad choices, people together can make the world a livable place whether that’s a prison surrounded by zombies, or, say…..congress.

Free to Be Bad, Part 1

Tonight we mark the finale of one of televisions great characters:  Walter White, chemistry teacher, cancer patient, meth kingpin.  For five seasons fans have watched the slow demonic slide into the heart of evil that is Breaking Bad.  One of AMC’s breakout hits, Breaking Bad is driven by its central character. He is neither a hero, nor a protagonist.  His fantastic character arc points sharply down.  Fans come back week after week not to watch him triumph over evil, but to watch him descend into it.

Different from many crime dramas, the show doesn’t exploit the drug trade, wrap it up in cool and try to convince us of its wonderful music video like world, but it also doesn’t serve as a simple cautionary tale.  There are moments, especially early on in the show’s seasons that you root for Walt and Jesse to win, no matter how dirty a game they are playing.  What is genius about Breaking Bad is the way it takes the drug trade trope and allows us to look with fresh eyes at the complex moral choices involved.

The hood homies that typically sling on the TV block tend to be flat characters.  Full of machismo, these new-school scarface-wanna-be’s aren’t deep.  Born and bred in the hood, there is no reason given–or needed–for their behavior.  Instead, movies and TV rely on audiences being familiar with the stereotype that all black men are criminals to fill in the blanks. But not so with Walter White.

Free from the stereotypical characteristics that limit the way black and brown drug dealers are portrayed, Walter White swings from sympathetic to satanic, often within the same episode.  Now in his death throes, have no doubt that Walter White is a study in evil.  From the very first episodes to his ill-fated return to the world in tonight‘s last episode, Walt is motivated by nothing more than his ego at every step.  While he works to hide it from him family, from us–and of course himself–his selfishness and manipulative nature drive him at every turn.


His story provides an important outlet in the culture to talk more deeply about the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men.  In the rapids of TV news, crimes and the people that commit them are often defined by their race or their neighborhood.  Gang involved shooters, mass murders, even convenience store robbers lack back story.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Homeland and the Sopranos give us the opportunity to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of immorality.  They provide us a chance to meet the monstrous in therapy, at home, in the classroom or over dinner, to consider their charming and warm sides.

Hopefully you are less evil than meth maven Walter White, but like him, we all struggle with our lesser angels.  In our 140 character world, we need more time and space to think about who we are, and who we do and don’t want to be.